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Harry T. Shafer, 92; L.A. County Judge Known for Unusual Sentences, Remarks

June 14, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Harry T. Shafer, a Los Angeles County judge known for his controversial sentences and irreverent remarks, has died. He was 92.

Shafer, who spent 17 years on the bench and an additional 15 years sitting by special assignment as a private judge, died Friday in his Long Beach home of cancer.

The son of an immigrant dry goods merchant and Socialist Party member, Shafer carried his liberal humanitarian views into the courtroom -- evoking criticism with his levity and empathy.

When Shafer set a trial date for an accused bookmaker, he reminded the defendant, "Post time is 9 a.m."

And when he fined a drunk $35, he quipped, "Will you drink to that?"

Shafer particularly irked law enforcement officials -- including one who described him for The Times in 1971 as "a buffoon, a disgrace to the bench" -- by releasing defendants without bail and for his leniency with drunk drivers.

To Shafer, he was simply practicing his own legal and court reforms.

"Everyone gets a fair shake with me, and they know it," he told The Times in 1971, "even if we have a little fun in the process."

Defending his bail practices, he responded: "It's ridiculous to me to make some guy without money sit in jail for 30 days waiting for a trial when the worst sentence he could possibly get, if he is guilty, is five days. I know police say they don't come back if you let them go without bail. Well, I checked on the first 320 guys I let go. Only five didn't come back. Pretty ... good record, I'd say."

He also defended his actions toward defendants accused of marijuana possession -- which he believed should be a misdemeanor rather than a felony -- and drunk driving.

"Alcoholism should be considered a disease, not a crime," he told The Times. "It's the drinking, not the driving, that's causing the trouble. Sending them to jail or taking their license away isn't always the answer."

Shafer was also an early advocate of allowing cameras and recording devices in courtrooms with the agreement of all parties.

A family law specialist who handled more than 4,000 divorces in his own law practice, Shafer was often assigned as a judge to untangle the disputes between celebrity couples waged simultaneously in courts here and abroad -- including Mick and Bianca Jagger and Saudi Arabian Sheik Mohammed and Dena Al-Fassi. Shafer also presided over what he called "a splitting headache" of a divorce case between Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors and became a consultant to film and television writer Abby Mann after handling his divorce.

In civil court, Shafer was known for his ability to "settle" cases. In his chambers, as well as in the courtroom, he used his barbed, earthy wisecracks to prod lawyers toward agreement.

The folksy judge put some of his humor on paper in the 1988 book he compiled with Angie Papadakis, "The Howls of Justice: Comedy's Day in Court."

Born Feb. 25, 1913, to Russian immigrants in New Haven, Conn., Shafer earned his bachelor's degree from Yale and a law degree from Columbia University. He practiced law in New Haven for a decade, then served as an Army technical sergeant during World War II.

Shafer moved to the Los Angeles area in 1949 and, until he passed the California bar and establish his practice in Compton, he peddled garment district seconds and household goods door to door. He served as Compton city prosecutor from 1957 to 1961.

A Democrat, Shafer was appointed to the Compton Municipal Court by Gov. Pat Brown in 1965 and elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976.

After his 1982 retirement, he spent a few years associated with the law firm of attorney Gloria Allred but returned to the courtroom in 1990 as a private judge sitting by special appointment. He continued to hear cases until shortly before his death.

A civil rights activist, Shafer was an honorary life member of the NAACP and sustaining member of the ACLU.

After the 1965 Watts riots, he volunteered his legal services to the Watts Writers Group formed by author Budd Schulberg.

In the mid-1960s, Shafer and two friends bought the financially troubled Orange University College of Law in Santa Ana and later turned it over to Malibu-based Pepperdine University.

The judge served briefly as the law school president and taught there for several years.

Shafer is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ruth; two sons, Roger and David; one daughter, Jeri Goldstein, and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for noon Wednesday at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 1500 San Antonio Drive, Long Beach.

The family has asked that, instead of flowers, memorial donations be sent to any of these three organizations: the Jewish Federation of Long Beach in care of the Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Wardlow Road, Long Beach, CA 90815; the American Cancer Society, to the attention of Nancy Loukes, Long Beach Harbor SE Unit, 936 Pine Ave., Long Beach; or Las Floristas, to the attention of Brenda Flores, 3215 Hermanos St., Pasadena, CA 91107.

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