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Justice runs in the family

A judge in Compton learned from his father how to nurture a dream.

August 29, 2011|Kurt Streeter
  • Judge Kelvin Filer oversees South Bay criminal cases in the Compton Courthouse. Ill never give up on this town, he says.
Judge Kelvin Filer oversees South Bay criminal cases in the Compton Courthouse.… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

Standing near his chambers on the ninth floor of the courthouse, a judge peers out a window and scans the geography that maps much of his life.

"There's my high school," he says, nodding at a cluster of buildings below. There, too, is the block where the church of his baptism stood. In the distance is the ballpark where he pitched as a kid and, a bit closer, the tree-lined neighborhood that still contains the humble home where he was raised.

From this view, the community where Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kelvin D. Filer works, the one that he still calls home, has a postcard charm. Zoom closer, though, and you'll see that butting beside the school, the ballpark and the neighborhood are sharp-edged streets weighed heavy by low-slung blight: Compton and its confounding contradictions.

But this is not another story about Compton's woes. You've read that before. This is different. This a story of perseverance and belief, of a determined father, a loyal son and an unbreakable bond with a city.

"I'll never give up on this town," says the judge, 55, who from the Compton Courthouse oversees criminal cases from a hard swath of South Bay cities. "I'm well aware of the problems, of course, but giving up, leaving? That would be giving up on my father's dream."

::

The father was born in the summer of 1930 and raised in the South during the period when a kid like him, black and poor, could be lynched for uttering the wrong word to the wrong man.

Maxcy Filer left rural Arkansas as soon as he could, joining the Army and marrying a preacher's daughter named Blondell Burson. They came west to start their family, which ended up including seven kids, settling in Compton because it was known in the early 1950s to have good schools, quiet streets and plenty of jobs. Early on, Maxcy was a milkman, a repairman, a parking lot attendant, and an assembly line worker building airplanes on the night shift.

The civil rights movement was in its infancy, and he was in awe of the attorneys who took to courtrooms and chipped away at racist laws. He was sharp and idealistic, believing the true measure of a man was how hard he fought for justice, but because of where and when he'd grown up, he also had "pretty significant gaps in his general education," Blondell says. Too stubborn to let this stop him, he came home one day and made an announcement: He was going to become a lawyer.

There would be no looking back. By the time he started putting himself through night classes at a little-known law school, straight-laced Kelvin was 9 years old, and carefully studying his father. Maxcy had become prominent in Compton for his vocal activism. He was the president of the city's NAACP branch and a flag-bearer at Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. Kelvin would sit in his room and listen as his father and others discussed voting rights, pickets and boycotts.

"I remember hearing them say: 'Did you run this by the attorney? What does the attorney think?' " Kelvin says. "I came away thinking whoever this attorney person is, that person sure has a lot of respect. I told my father I was going to be one and he said, 'We'll both be lawyers one day — why not?' "

The father first took the bar exam in 1967. He failed. The next year, he took the test again — and failed again. A rhythm formed: Maxcy Filer trying and failing, trying and failing, Kelvin watching, hoping, always more impressed by his father's guts and love of the law than embarrassed by his father's shortcomings.

By the 1970s, as he began to work as a law clerk, Maxcy — ever the character with his booming voice, his white tube socks, dark suit, and a tie that clung to his chest with the aid of a paper clip — could have left Compton, fleeing like so many others. When he looked at the city, he saw its fast-growing troubles, sure enough. But just as much he felt the sense of community and saw the neighborhoods like the one where his family lived, full of happy kids, hard-working parents and well-kept homes.

"You love Compton more than you love me," Blondell once told him.

"Honey," said her smiling husband, always as quick to joke as he was to hammer at a point, "you're right."

::

Kelvin would end up at UC Santa Cruz and then Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. Nothing came easy, but he kept at it, vowing that once he was done, he was heading straight back to Compton to start his own firm.

In 1982, he did, opening up a little office within walking distance of his boyhood home. His first hire was a law clerk: his father, who still hadn't passed the bar. Try as he might, nothing had helped, not special prayers, not extra studying, not driving to San Diego or Oakland to take the test somewhere new. Attempt No. 30 was a failure, as were attempts 31 through 47.

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