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Donald E. Smallwood dies at 81; retired Orange County Superior Court presiding judge

Smallwood oversaw the courts in 1992 and '93. He was honored for his initiatives to help battered women. He also served on the Newport-Mesa school board in the 1970s.

November 20, 2009|Keith Thursby
  • Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times (ktdq1nc20091119164956 )

Donald E. Smallwood, a retired Orange County Superior Court presiding judge, died Nov. 12 at City of Hope in Duarte from complications after cancer surgery, said his son, Mark. He was 81.

"He was a lovable maverick," C. Robert Jameson, a retired former presiding Superior Court judge, told The Times this week. "He sometimes got things done in an unconventional way, but he seemed to know when something needed attention."

Smallwood was appointed to the Superior Court in 1987 by Gov. George Deukmejian. He was elected presiding judge in 1992 and '93, a job that was "analogous to herding cats," Jameson said.

Smallwood was honored for his work helping battered women with initiatives such as a rotating system for judges or commissioners to be on standby if a woman needed an emergency protective order.

"We used to treat spousal abuse as a private matter. But it really isn't because it has such an impact on the community at large," he told The Times in 1996.

Smallwood retired in 1997 but worked as a private arbitration and mediation judge until 2004, his son said.

Donald Edgar Smallwood was born July 14, 1928, in Detroit. After serving in the Army he worked as an office clerk while attending Southwestern Law School at night, his son said. He started a private practice in Newport Beach in 1962.

"He was a fearless defense lawyer, the kind of lawyer who would fight with all his heart within the rules of the system to help his client," said Tully Seymour, a retired Superior Court judge who had known Smallwood since the 1960s.

He was elected to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees from 1971 to 1979 and served two years as the board's president.

Along with his son Mark, Smallwood is survived by his wife, Susan; daughter Cheryl Cohen; sons Tom and David; sister Jeanne Nuechterlein; brother Stephen; and three grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. today at the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana. Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

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