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David Eagleson, 78; Justice Brought Practical, Professional Approach to State High Court

May 24, 2003|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

David N. Eagleson, one of three justices named to the California Supreme Court after Chief Justice Rose Bird and two others were ousted by voters in 1986, died Friday. He was 78.

Eagleson died in Long Beach after a short illness, according to a statement released by the high court.

Eagleson, who served on the Supreme Court until 1991, filled one of the vacancies created when Bird, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin lost the bitterly contested election. The campaign was organized by conservatives who were unhappy with the court's handling of death penalty and other criminal cases.

Previously a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who also served as presiding judge, Eagleson had been named to the 2nd District Court of Appeal by Gov. George Deukmejian. It was while Eagleson was serving on the appeals court that Deukmejian nominated him for the Supreme Court.

During his three-year tenure on the high court, Eagleson wrote 19 capital decisions, upholding death sentences in 15.

At the time of Eagleson's retirement, Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas said his "practical and professional approach to the bench have been the hallmarks of his distinguished judicial career."

In a 1990 article in the publication USC Law, he described his approach as "bread and butter."

"I do believe that time can be misspent in the pursuit of theoretical elegance," he said. "Certain esoteric concepts that the courts sometimes put out -- ideas that, in an abstract sense, are logical and cohesive -- at the level of application, just don't work."

He once playfully taped a small sign to the corner of his desk that read, "No sniveling."

Philosophically a conservative, he tended to interpret the law narrowly.

Eagleson wrote high court majority opinions that limited racial challenges to jury selection, that held that growers must provide workers' compensation coverage and other protections to laborers who work for a share of a crop rather than an hourly wage, and that made it easier for prosecutors to show that a defendant's confession was voluntary and thus should be admitted as evidence.

He also wrote opinions that upheld the power of local air pollution districts to control toxic emissions from factories and other stationary sources of contamination and that stated that only a close relative who is present at the scene of an accident may sue for emotional distress suffered from witnessing injuries to a victim.

Before his service on the bench, Eagleson, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Long Beach, practiced law as a senior partner in two law firms and as a sole practitioner. He graduated from USC School of Law in 1950 after serving in the Navy during World War II, being discharged because of an injury from flight training.

After leaving the Supreme Court, Eagleson worked as an arbitrator through the American Arbitration Assn. As presiding judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court, he supported use of arbitration and other reforms to reduce the backlog of civil cases that held up trials for as long as five years.

Eagleson once said of mediation, "One thing that all mediators agree on is that you can't rush closure.... It's almost like a woman giving birth to a baby. You know the baby is going to come somewhere along the line, but you can't predict the moment."

He is survived by his wife, Lillian; and two daughters, Elizabeth Eagleson of San Diego and Victoria Arndt of Thousand Oaks.

Funeral services are pending.

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