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Albert Stephens Jr., 88; Federal Judge, Courtroom Innovator

September 19, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albert Lee Stephens Jr., a U.S. District Court judge who was President John F. Kennedy's first appointee to the federal court and who supervised the large number of cases that arose from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, has died. He was 88.

Stephens, a lifelong Los Angeles resident, died of heart failure Sept. 6 while on an annual fishing trip to the Mammoth Lakes area with a group of his former law clerks and other friends.

Stephens was appointed to the Superior Court in Los Angeles by Democratic Gov. Pat Brown in 1959; two years later, Kennedy appointed him to the federal bench. As a judge for the federal Central District of California in Los Angeles, he served as chief judge from 1970 to 1979.

"He was a fine judge who was greatly admired by both his colleagues on the bench and by members of the bar," said U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. "He provided great leadership to the court during his tenure as chief judge."

Said Virginia Newton, Stephens' daughter: "He told me once he had a choice of taking on cases that would allow him to make an outstanding mark on the legal system or he could try to improve the administration of the court, and he decided to go with the administration [as chief judge]."

In that regard, she said, her father urged the use of audio recording in the courtroom to supplement the written record. Today, about a third of district judges in Los Angeles use audio-recording equipment.

One of the most complicated issues Stephens faced as a district judge was dealing with the mountain of cases that grew out of the disastrous oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel.

In every case, Stephens later recalled for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, "there were different classes of people. They were class actions, so [the parties] had to be divided up into birds of a feather, you might say, so you could make a decision."

To streamline the process, Stephens devised a plan in which three retired state judges heard selected factual and legal questions and then held settlement conferences.

"I organized that and got the framework for doing it," Stephens said. "And then I became chief judge, and I asked to be relieved."

Born in Los Angeles, Stephens was the son of Albert Lee Stephens, a former U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge, and brother of the late California Court of Appeal Associate Justice Clarke E. Stephens.

A Hollywood High School graduate, Stephens attended USC and its law school before opening his law practice in 1939. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1945.

In 1975, Stephens was among those accused of permitting a Wilshire Boulevard theater that he and his two daughters owned to be used for "lewd conduct and assignation" in a complaint filed by the city attorney's office.

The theater, which had been bequeathed to Stephens and his brother, was closed after 31 audience members were arrested.

Stephens explained at the time that his family had been leasing the theater to United Artists Theaters of California since 1931. Once he learned that United Artists had subleased the theater to the Mitchell Bros. group, he said, he tried to persuade United Artists to cancel the sublease, but failed.

"My father [later] sold the theater because he didn't want to be associated with objectionable films," Newton said.

Stephens, who stopped taking cases in the early 1990s, had been using a wheelchair for the last three years after suffering a series of strokes.

But he didn't let his infirmities get in the way of going on the recent fishing trip to Mammoth Lakes. He first organized the annual trips in 1971 as a way of keeping in touch with the many law clerks he had worked with over the years.

Although he was no longer able to fish on his final trip, his daughter said, "he was attending for the stories and the companionship of all these men he had known for so long."

Stephens is survived by his wife, Barbara; two daughters; five grandchildren; and a great-grand-daughter.

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