Tuesday, August 9, 2005
Judge Alston, Who Opened Courts to TV, Dies at 74
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gilbert Alston, an outspoken jurist who began California’s experience with televised courtroom proceedings, has died at age 74.
Alston, who had heart problems that contributed to his retirement from the bench in 1991 and battled leukemia in recent months, died Sunday. A friend of the family said there would be no services, as per his request.
A native of Philadelphia, he served in the Air Force and became one of the first African American fighter pilots, serving from 1952 to 1957. The experience, he said, helped shape what became a legal and judicial career.
Commenting years later on controversies with prosecutors and others, leading to occasional scrutiny by the Commission on Judicial Performance, he told a reporter:
“I’m kind of used to firing back when I’m shot at—and winning.”
Alston “was as independent as a hog on ice,” retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Nancy Brown said yesterday. She recalled her friend as “the one person who stood up” after she was charged with misconduct by the CJP for squabbling with a court administrator.
“These people don’t know the difference between trash and substance,” Alston said of the commission on that occasion, suggesting that “their judgment [was] either colored or impaired or both.”
Alston had his own brushes with the commission, Brown recalled. One came after someone boxed in his car in the parking lot of the Pasadena courthouse.
Alston rammed the offending vehicle with his own car and drove off at a high rate of speed, Brown remembered, saying that was the only time she ever saw him truly angry.
The jurist also drew attention from the press and the CJP after a 1986 case in which he granted an acquittal to a man accused of raping a prostitute in a car.
The courts, he said, had no business interfering in what was essentially “a business transaction between a trick and a whore.”
Alston reacted strongly after prosecutors accused him of bias following his dismissal of charges against four people—including Fred Gabourie, who resigned as a judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court while the case was pending—accused of conspiracy to obstruct justice.
It was, Alston asserted, unethical for prosecutors to attack him personally after they challenged his rulings in the appellate court and lost. The issue was not one of free speech, he explained at the time, because an attorney is bound by the canons to respect the courts and is “a lawyer first and citizen second.”
Alston was hailed as a defender of the First Amendment, though, when he ruled in 1978 that the state court rule banning broadcast coverage of court proceedings was unconstitutional.
That ruling came in response to a motion made on behalf of the Radio and Television News Assn. of Southern California.
Alston allowed a civil trial to be taped by KABC-TV, with a reporter for KGIL-radio plugging his tape recorder into the TV camera. Portions of the proceedings were shown on television that same day.
Two years later, after the state Supreme Court adopted an experimental rule on television coverage, Alston presided over the first televised proceeding.
The jurist was also remembered yesterday for his friendship and willingness to mentor younger lawyers.
“I first met Gil Alston in 1966, when we were both deputy district attorneys assigned to the Pasadena Office,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Rubin recalled. “I had just been hired. Gil immediately showed me the ropes and we became instant friends. That was his way.”
Alston graduated from UCLA and USC Law School, which attended he while working as a district attorney investigator. Admitted to practice in 1965, he was a deputy district attorney for two years, then spent four years in private practice before being named a Pasadena Municipal Court commissioner in 1971. He was later appointed a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, and then a Pasadena Municipal Court judge, before his elevation to the Superior Court in 1980.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company