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James R. Ross, 80; O.C. judge wrote book on ancestor, outlaw Jesse James

March 09, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James Randal Ross, the great-grandson of Western outlaw Jesse James who was once criticized for selling copies of a book he wrote about his notorious ancestor from his chambers, has died. He was 80.

Ross, a Fullerton resident, died of a heart attack Monday at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, said his daughter, Liza Ross-Suwczinsky.

Ross, who spent 29 years as an attorney in Los Angeles, served as a Superior Court judge from 1983 until his retirement in 1995.

During that time, he gained notice for his 1984 ruling that Disneyland had violated the civil rights of two gay teenagers when security guards removed them from the Anaheim amusement park for dancing together. In the next year, Disneyland ended its longtime policy prohibiting partners of the same sex from dancing together.

In 1997, Ross also made headlines when he was accused of four counts of misconduct during court proceedings that took place before his retirement. They included accusations that he dozed off on the bench on several occasions during two trials, told an off-color joke during a sexual abuse case with the victim present, used the court to sell copies of his book and humiliated and intimidated attorneys.

In a letter to Ross, the state Commission on Judicial Performance offered to drop three of the charges if Ross pleaded guilty to the one accusing him of exhibiting an angry demeanor to attorneys in a personal injury case.

But in his written reply, Ross refused to concede to any of the accusations.

"I will not back down," he wrote. "As a direct descendant of Jesse James, no one in our family backs down."

At the conclusion of the hearings, during which the 71-year-old Ross represented himself, a panel of three judges upheld all the allegations except for falling asleep during trial. In 1998, the panel censured Ross -- who had continued to hear cases part time in retirement -- prohibiting him from receiving assignments, appointments or references of work from any state court.

Ross was born July 6, 1926, in Independence, Mo., and moved with his family to Long Beach when he was 10 months old. He went to Wilson High School and graduated from UCLA in 1949 and from what is now Southwestern Law School in 1953.

Ross' grandfather -- Jesse James' son, Jesse E. James -- had accompanied the family to California, and as a boy Ross used to listen to his grandfather tell stories about the outlaw, who, along with his brother Frank, fought with Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War and then launched the string of robberies that made them famous.

Ross tapped those stories in writing "I, Jesse James," his 1988 book published by Dragon Publishing Corp.

"He did a lot of research of facts, and then he filled in the facts with what his grandfather had told him, a lot of family history," Ross' daughter said.

In a 1995 interview with The Times, Ross said the experience of writing the book, which is narrated in the first-person voice of Jesse James, strengthened his bond with his family heritage.

"I don't know what he actually said or thought, of course, but I feel I know so much about him that I can capture the way it might have been," Ross said.

In writing the book, his daughter said, "he wanted the accurate story of Jesse James told, both the good and the bad, and let people decide for themselves."

The book and Ross' relationship to Jesse James gave the judge a degree of courtroom celebrity.

During the Commission on Judicial Performance hearings, Ross said he "never instigated or announced the book from the bench." People, he said, had approached him to ask where they could buy the book and request his autograph. And to avoid disruptions, he said, he told the bailiff that he would have copies available in his office.

Ross-Suwczinsky said her father, who once appeared on a History Channel segment on his ancestor, had a collection of Jesse James memorabilia, including a gun and holster, a rifle, boots and other family heirlooms, which he donated to the Jesse James Farm & Museum in Kearney, Mo., about 15 years ago.

Besides his daughter, Ross is survived by his wife, Rosemary; another daughter, Bonnie Jo Barnes; two sons, Randal and David; and five grandchildren.

Services will be private.


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