Friday, October 27, 2006
Everything I Needed to Know to Be the Presiding Judge of the L.A. Superior Court I Learned From the Teamster’s Union
By STEPHEN CZULEGER
(The following is from remarks by Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge-Elect J. Stephen Czuleger before the Italian American Lawyers Assn. on Wednesday. The start of it, of particular pertinence to the IALA audience, is lopped off, and it has been otherwise butchered.)
When pressed by [IALA President] Alfred Coletta for the title of my talk about two months ago, I told him of the one which is contained on your flyer: “Everything I needed to know to be the Presiding Judge of the L.A. Superior Court, I Learned from the Teamster’s Union.” Alfred said that was great — he never asked what it was about. He just said it was great! That was fine. I’m not sure that I know exactly what the title meant either.
Okay, so what does it mean? Is this about what happens when you make a deal with the mob? No, the L.A. Superior Court could not be equated with organized crime. It’s too disorganized. Is it about Jimmy Hoffa’s management style? No, Rick Torres is no longer the P.J. Is it about shutting down the docks through the power of labor actions? No, Long Beach Courthouse is not that close to the water, and, in any case, our judges are just not that tough—except for [Court of Appeal] Justice Robert Mallano.
Let me explain what I meant.
Years ago, after I had been on the bench for a while, a friend asked what is the best background a judge can have to be a good trial judge. I thought about it and told her that the answer is simple: being a parent. Dealing with competing feuds with one’s own children really best prepares a judge for attempting to control a courtroom with bickering lawyers. You separate them and then yell at them. Any judge here will tell you that there are days in court which feel more like a family dinner gone bad. If any of you can make it through parenthood without doing bodily harm to your children, then you have all the skills to be a great judge.
But being the Presiding judge of the largest trial court in the county is a different skill set. Like most folks I looked at some point in my life for guidance. Parenthood was already taken. So earlier this year, I hit on it: It was the years in college and early law school when I worked for Bekins Moving and Storage and as such was a Teamster. And some of you wondered how I was going to complete the circle.
Now my time with Bekins was both an interesting and educational one. Parenthetically, I must say I was also in the best shape of my life. I am not talking tonight about how to move a grand piano—and I moved many—you need something called a piano board. Neither am I talking about hoisting a nine foot couch to the second story when it won’t fit up the staircase. Best advice, tell the lady it is an ugly piece of furniture and she should get a new one. The worst customers were teachers; they have tons of books and never tip.
What am I talking about then? What does being a Teamster and working with Bekins have to do with running the largest trial court in the country? Well, everything, I think. Let me try and explain.
As presiding judge you must deal with difficult people, challenging administrative issues, inadequate facilities, unions, fellow judges, budgets and the list goes on and on. But having worked for Bekins, I am now ready—well ready to dive in.
Let me give a few examples starting with the unions. I have respect for the unions that represent the court’s employees. After all, I remember coming home from school and going by the Bekins warehouse to find out when I’d be starting work for the summer. There was a strike underway however. I explained to my fellow Teamsters on the line that I was just there to start my summer job so I could make enough money to go back to school. “Kid” — they always called me “kid” — “you don’t get it. We don’t work. You don’t work.” I didn’t work. But I did learn the importance of labor rights and about pulling together for better pay and benefits. During that strike, labor and management gained new respect for each other and I gained real respect for my union. Of course, the alternative was not pretty from my point of view. Being backed over by a 40 foot trailer is something to be avoided during summer vacation from college.
Now, the strike soon settled and we all went back to work. But I also learned the importance of good employees. Nothing gets done without them. The Los Angeles Superior Court is blessed with some of the finest public employees in the state. 6,000 employees keep your court operating. They are a wonderful group of people — dedicated and professional — and like Bekin’s movers, used to heavy lifting. They are truly the heart and soul of our court, and I can assure you, that I appreciate them every day. I know that I cannot do my job as P.J. without acknowledging them and their fine work. I need them and I appreciate them.
But did my education stop with union issues? Of course not. In any educational environment, whether it is work or school, it is those around you that teach you the most. And Bekins had a very interesting and diverse group of men — each more fascinating than the other. Let me tell you about a few of the people that I learned the most from:
I never knew how old Burturco was. In fact, I never knew Burturco’s first name. Built short and squat, he was an Italian American with black curly hair and a rugged, wrinkled face. He could lift anything — and did. I remember one day, with only a strap he hoisted a six foot couch on to his back and walked away with it. He said he didn’t need help from a “kid” — he had a job to do and would be responsible for getting that couch to the truck.
Burturco taught me that while there may be a lot of help around, in the end the P.J. has the ultimate responsibility to navigate the court through whatever difficulty it has to face. And while there may be many offers of help, sometimes you just need to do it yourself. Further the P. J. is going to be responsible in the end so I need to make sure that I get the job done right.
Quinones was Puerto Rican. He was strong as a bull and was a black belt in karate. But Quinones was a little on the lazy side. Whenever there was a big task to do, he was pretty good at finding someone else to do it. So the key was to put him in a situation where he could prove how strong he was. “Quinones, I’m not able to move the freezer — can you help.’ “Get out of the way kid and let me show ya how to do it.” And he would muscle that freezer out the door. I knew how to get Quinones to do his fair share.
What did I learn? You’d love to have a whole bunch of Burturco’s, but sometimes you have a few Quinones. So occasionally with certain judges, you need to give them challenges. When challenged even our less energetic judges will use the occasion and perform in wonderful ways. My job as P. J. will be to find those challenging assignments and then get out of their way and let them perform. I know we have wonderful judicial talent on our court. The best in the state. I know that given the right opportunity everyone of them will have the chance to excel.
Now Johnny was in many ways the opposite of Burturco. I never knew Johnny’s last name. I did know he was in his 60’s, thin and had white hair. He looked like an old man, who had no business moving furniture - so he didn’t. He was a packer. He went into a house and put the owner’s belongings into cardboard boxes. But even then, a great deal of strength was necessary. How did Johnny do it? Organization. Johnny got his work accomplished by making sure everything was organized and in place before packing began.
Well as presiding judge, I too have to rely on organization. Luckily, our court is well organized and I follow the administration of Judge Bill MacLaughlin, who has done an excellent job. From the Executive Officer of our Court, Jack Clarke, down to the secretaries and support staff, there is in place a vehicle that I am able to rely upon in working the day-to-day operations.
Johnny always got his job done because he thought ahead about the problem and organized his work to be as efficient as possible. I look to organize myself in the same way so that surprises are avoided and the work the court does get done in the best way possible. I’m hoping to avoid Johnny’s white hair during my term of office.
Carlos and Phil Lopez were two brothers that I worked with on the trucks. Both were excellent drivers and hard-working movers. Both moved into management during my time with Bekins. However, while Carlos was a great manager, Phil could never really handle it and come back to work the trucks. It wasn’t that he was a bad guy, he just wasn’t a good manager. He acknowledged that and was happy to return as a line driver while his brother remained in management.
What did I learn? Well, I have to select several dozen supervising judges to help run our court. I just made my announcements of appointments last week. I have a pool of fabulous judges to pick from. But being a great judge does not necessarily mean that a particular judge would be a great supervising judge. I hope to try a number of judges out as supervising judges so that we will have a large pool of qualified judges in the future to help supervise the court. I know that not everyone wants to be a supervising judge or is capable of being a supervising judge. I view a big part of my job as identifying and encouraging judges to take an interest in supervision. If it doesn’t work out, they can always go back to the trucks — I mean the bench.
I don’t know if “Butcher” was his first name, last name or just a descriptive noun. Butcher was an African American gentleman who stood 5’ 10” by 5’ 10”. He was a solid block of a man. Not only was he tough, he was incredibly scary to be around. When he came in the break room, the room became quiet. No one wanted to work with him because he was so taciturn and I worked with some very large men at Bekins. He only spoke by grumbling and when he did speak up, it sounded like someone with a mouthful of gravel. He was a very intimidating man.
So who did they assign to work with Butcher? You got it — the kid. The first time I climbed into the cab of his truck, I moved his jacket and a 8 inch razor fell out. Well, that might have been wise to have (albeit illegal), since they always sent Butcher to the moves in the worse parts of the city. That may have been why he was irritable. And who did they send with him? The kid.
So what did I learn from Butcher that might assist me now? Well, every organization can have difficult and challenging people. Butcher was all of that — and more. But Butcher and I hit it off. How you wonder? One day we were on the road and he said that he heard I was going to law school. This surprised me since when he did talk, school would be the last thing I thought he’d talk about. I told him yes. He then began to tell me the story of how the previous weekend he had been arrested because he was just helping a friend move a large color TV from some unknown person’s home when the police busted him for no good reason. It seems the neighbors didn’t understand why they entered through a window but exited through the front door with the TV.
Butcher and I became friends and I spent the whole summer giving him legal advice. Of course, I agreed that the police were just messing with him. The bad thing about our new found relationship was, he always asked to work with me after that. I only stopped working with him when he stopped coming to work. I don’t think my legal advice was helpful. He went on to wear a different uniform.
Well, like Butcher, there are a few difficult people in our court. My view is that if I can spend the whole summer with Butcher and survive, I can deal with anyone in a positive manner. By the end of summer I came to really like Butcher — especially when he scared a bunch of gang members off from robbing our truck — with just his grin! I may not be able to be friends with everyone on our court, I can surely treat them with the respect that they deserve.
But seriously, as presiding judge it is important to be open to all sorts of people with varied personalities. With 600 bench officers, there will be a few that are more challenging than others. I think that I am up to it now after those few years as a teamster.
Each of the folks which I worked with at Bekins had a lot to offer. Each were good people in their own way — well maybe with the exception of Butcher. The diversity of that group was an asset. Everyone worked more or less together everyday to perform what is a very tough job. Nobody cared about race or age or education or background. The work was hard and because of that, we all pulled together. These were good, hard-working people — just like everyone at the L.A. Superior Court.
I am grateful for all I learned as a Teamster. I will call upon those memories and many more in helping me to chart the course that needs to be set for our court. But most importantly, I understand that you can’t do a job like moving furniture or presiding over the Los Angeles Superior Court without a lot of help. I hope some of you will be there when I need help. If not, Butcher will find out where you live.