Thursday, January 4, 2007
As a Jurist, He Says He Is Fulfilling His Lifelong Calling to the Bench
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
When asked once by his seventh-grade teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up, George Schiavelli’s answer was “Supreme Court judge.”
Now in his second year as a U.S. district judge for the Central District of California, the 58-year-old jurist chuckles that “the odds are getting slim” on a Supreme Court seat, but he is “very happy” with the way things have turned out.
To date, his judicial resume includes six years on the Los Angeles Superior Court with two spent as the presiding judge of its appellate division, an assignment to this district’s Court of Appeal, and now a federal judgeship with opportunities to sit in the Ninth Circuit—his second assignment is set for Jan. 8-11 in San Francisco.
Schiavelli describes being a judge as a lifelong calling. It may have come in part from growing up on “Perry Mason,” he suggests, but somehow he always knew he wanted to be on the bench.
“I like taking both sides of a problem, delving into it, and being the one who has to make the decision,” he says as he recalls the experience of peer-judging high school debate contests.
As a judicial officer, Schiavelli is a thoughtful and fair decisionmaker, lawyers and judges say.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Riordan, of the Central District of California, a 15-year veteran of the office who has appeared before Schiavelli many times, calls him a “model federal judge.” With him, Riordan says, all parties know they will get fair rulings from a judge who will take his time to make the best decision he can.
Supervisory Deputy Public Defender Alicia Blanco-Hesselrode says even though she disagreed with some of Schiavelli’s rulings in a trial two years ago, he gave her client a fair run and was “extremely decisive.”
Both attorneys use the word “fabulous” in describing his courtroom presence.
Lawyers credit Schiavelli with maintaining his composure on the bench in recent months despite serious injuries that have caused him to be in constant physical pain. An escalator accident at an outdoor mall in 2005 savagely battered his knees and right shoulder, but the only visible evidence of that are a slightly lopsided gait, a cane he uses to help support his 6’5” frame while walking, and an occasional soft grunt between a smile and a cordial word.
The truth is, on most work days, he is in excruciating pain because he refuses to take much-needed pain medication while on the job.
“I can’t imagine any judge going out on the bench feeling for whatever reason, whether it’s pain meds or anything else, that they’re not in an appropriate state of mind to do the work that’s out there,” Schiavelli explains.
Though his current 320-case workload makes it hard to take time out, he notes, he hopes to schedule long-overdue surgery for February. Until then, “you kind of push the pain to the back of your mind and do what you have to do,” the judge says.
Enduring through hardship is nothing new to Schiavelli.
Born in Florida on June 15, 1948, he spent his early childhood in New York and essentially became fatherless after his parents divorced around 1954. He and his younger brother Douglas were raised by their 6-foot-tall, “very beautiful” mother, Johanna, who supported them by working as a show girl and model—her image appears in many 1940s and ’50s-era Coca-Cola advertisements—until the three relocated to Southern California in 1955.
After the move, Schiavelli’s mother learned to work in doctors’ offices in order to provide for her sons.
“We were very poor,” Schiavelli recalls, quick to add that he and his brother, who passed away in 1992, “didn’t know it” because their mother always showered them with birthday and Christmas presents.
They lived in apartments and moved around frequently, from Arcadia to West Los Angeles, to Venice, to several locations in the San Fernando Valley. In days when single-mother families were not a readily accepted social unit, prospective landlords often were unwelcoming.
“I can remember being told when we tried to move into certain apartments that we couldn’t do it because we weren’t a family, because we didn’t have a father,” Schiavelli recalls.
Despite the hardship of being a latchkey kid in a single-parent home, he says, he grew up learning the importance of focus, education, and discipline from his mother. He was a studious child and a voracious reader, especially of science fiction—a genre that reads “pretty much like my opinions now,” he jests in a comfortably self-deprecating style.
In his early teen years, perhaps reflective of his intellectual bent, he began a lifelong hobby of collecting fountain pens, which now number close to 800 and include instruments dating back to the 1880s. It is rivaled only by his assortment of tobacco pipes, now about 300 strong, which he started amassing in college.
Schiavelli graduated a National Merit Scholar from Grant High School, where he exhibited his discipline as a distance runner, then attended Stanford University on an academic scholarship. For some reason unknown to him, he says, he decided to try playing college football despite his lanky runner’s physique and the fact that he had never even put on athletic pads before.
He recalls enjoying his freshman football experience on a talented team that included future NFL players Bob Moore and Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, but did not pursue a varsity spot, partly because athletics conflicted with the nighttime library job required by his scholarship. Instead, Schiavelli focused on becoming a lawyer, graduating in 1970 with a degree in English and enrolling in the UCLA School of Law.
Shortly after he started law school, his family’s financial difficulties pushed him to take a year off, during which time he helped make ends meet by working at a newsstand and playing semi-professional football with a team in the San Fernando Valley.
The idea of a football career crossed his mind only briefly, he says, when a professional scout attended one of his semi-pro team’s games in Barstow.
“I had a particularly good game and he kind of talked to me for a few minutes,” Schiavelli recalls. “But that was about it—I knew I was going to go to law school.”
As a law student, he says he always knew he wanted to do appellate work, a desire that led him to pass up invitations to work on the law review to participate in the moot court honors program. After graduating first in his class in 1974, he worked as a litigation associate at O’Melveny & Myers until 1976, then spent a decade at Ervin, Cohen & Jessup, where he litigated primarily unfair competition and trade secrets cases.
Schiavelli realized his dream of appellate practice in 1986 when he joined the Encino-based appellate law firm of Horvitz & Levy as a partner. But even then, he notes, “the judicial calling was still there.”
Name partner Ellis Horvitz, who first met Schiavelli around 1979, praises him as a “brilliant lawyer” whose departure from the firm to join the Superior Court in 1994 was a difficult but not entirely unexpected event.
“He’d always wanted to be a judge,” Horvitz recalls. “When he first came over as a partner, he said, ‘The only reason I’ll leave is to be a judge.’”
Even though Schiavelli now wears a robe, Horvitz asserts that attorneys going before him can expect him to be the smartest lawyer in the courtroom.
State Court Experience
Schiavelli’s 1994 appointment to the state bench by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who named him to succeed now-Second District Court of Appeal Justice Nora M. Manella, initially landed him in the role of felony trial court judge.
Schiavelli recalls the experience of having to learn a lot very quickly.
“I hadn’t looked at criminal law since law school,” he points out. “There’s nothing more terrifying than walking into a courtroom, and there’s maybe 20 lawyers and everybody, including the defendant, knows more than you do, and you’re the judge!”
The key to doing his job right, he explains, was—and is—taking the time to learn whatever information is necessary to make the right decision. Do the reading and let the lawyers, especially the good ones, educate you on the law, he says.
By the time he came to the federal bench, he had years of state court experience and yet, he recalls the initial challenge of learning how to handle federal matters like patents and trademarks, as well as federal criminal law. His time on the Superior Court had allowed him to develop his persona on the bench, he says, but he had to gain proficiency in new areas of substance and procedure.
“I think most of the judges who are really doing their job are working very long hours,” he notes, adding that he has little spare time to spend with his wife Holli, 20-year-old son Peter, who is a sophomore at Stanford, and daughter Olivia, who attends Harvard-Westlake School.
Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger remembers Schiavelli as being a “quick learner” during his initiation to the state bench, and calls him a “student and a lover of the law,” adding:
“I think George is a cut above even some of our best bench officers. He is one of the hardest working judges I know. He takes issues, whether they be large or small, seriously, and deals with them as best he can. Because of his intellect and his hard work, that means they’re going to come out right just about all the time.”
If he has succeeded as a jurist, Schiavelli is quick to ascribe credit to colleagues, saying:
“I remember when I was in criminal, in my first assignment, we had a judges’ lunchroom and I learned more in there than anywhere else. Just sitting there and listening as colleagues talked about their cases, I found out how to handle things so that way, I went back to my court and almost looked smart.”
He also recounts how Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, then his colleague in the Criminal Courts Building, helped him get up to speed on criminal law by letting him download his comprehensive personal index of criminal cases.
According to Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr, who has been Schiavelli’s friend and colleague since 1982, Schiavelli is now the one whom other jurists often turn to for assistance.
“He’s someone that people call up when we have a problem,” Mohr says. “He’s one person I would call if I had an issue, and invariably, he’ll just ask the question I didn’t think about, he’ll spot the issue I didn’t see. He’s astute. He knows how to analyze an issue, and I think that is essential for a good judge.”
Not to mention, Mohr adds, that he is “generous almost to a fault” and a “superb human being.”
After his initial work in the criminal court, Schiavelli sat by assignment in this district’s Court of Appeal from April through September 1995, then handled civil matters in the Superior Court until Chief Justice Ronald M. George assigned him to the Superior Court’s Appellate Division in 1997.
He served as presiding judge of the Appellate Division from 1999 until July 2000, when his mother’s advanced-stage Parkinson’s disease and need for 24-hour care compelled him to retire from the bench and return to the higher paying pursuit of law practice. In addition to doing alternate dispute resolution, Schiavelli worked as of counsel to the appellate group of Crosby Heafy Roach & May, which later merged into Reed Smith.
Shortly after his mother passed away in 2003, he learned that a vacancy was opening up on the federal bench for the Central District of California.
“Someone mentioned to me that Lourdes Baird was stepping down from this court and was I interested in possibly resurrecting my judicial career, and I said yes,” he recalls.
Anticipating Baird’s move, which occurred May 12, President George Bush tapped longtime Republican Schiavelli in January 2004. The U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination without opposition in June, and on Aug. 16 Schiavelli was sworn in to the federal bench.
The judge comments he was “lucky” to receive the support of Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and credits fellow 2006 Person of the Year honoree and political consultant Joe Cerrell with helping him get to know the lawmakers.
“Nobody gets to this position or any other judicial position solely on their own,” Schiavelli says. “You get through other people who are willing to help you.”
Cerrell counters that Schiavelli is “very competent and very fair,” and that he became a federal judge “because of himself, not because of anybody else.”
But the judge—whom Horvitz calls a “big personality” with no self-aggrandizement in his makeup—says he was gratified by the number of people whose intellect and professional ability he respected tremendously who were willing to “go to bat” for him.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it onto the federal bench or not, but whether you do or not, when you have those people that you really respect that say, ‘This is somebody who should be there,’ that’s a very meaningful thing,” the jurist says.
He expresses a genuine appreciation of people, whether colleagues, attorneys, or students he has helped coach for the last 14 years on Monroe High School law magnet’s mock trial teams.
Italian American Lawyers
For example, he says, the best part about being roasted two years ago by the Italian American Lawyers Association was that the group felt it worthwhile to put on an event in his honor and that people showed up to it. A past president of the organization, he recalls joining it during his days at Ervin Cohen & Jessup because it was a nice group of professionals who made him feel extremely welcome.
Schiavelli, whose father was Italian and mother was Scotch, Irish, French and German, adds that although he grew up disconnected from his Italian heritage, he holds dear the support and recognition he has received from the Italian-American community.
Treatment of Counsel
In court, Schiavelli says he values counsel and seeks to treat them with courtesy and respect.
“I think sometimes as judges, we forget or can forget how hard it is for the lawyers to get ready for the trials we have before us,” he says. “You have to keep control of the courtroom, you have to control your docket, calendar control is essential, but you also have to remember what it was like to be a lawyer and react that way.”
Returning to private practice between the state and federal bench helped him to remember what it was like to be a lawyer, the jurist explains:
“In the interim, when I was at Reed Smith, I was in the appellate group but I used to watch the litigation group gearing up for trial. People had to move away to be near the court for long periods of time, they were putting in around-the-clock hours, getting witnesses ready, getting exhibits ready, trying to make sure that everything was set to go. ...I hope I never get to the point where I’ve lost all empathy with the trial lawyers and the people that appear before me.”
Based on the observations of Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Crowfoot, who has appeared before Schiavelli several times on different matters including a recent trial, the jurist consistently exhibits graciousness from the bench.
“He is universally very nice to the lawyers who appear before him,” the lawyer says. “He’s very polite, he listens to people, he’s very cordial. And he’s always extremely fair to the defendant.”
Where he expresses irritation with counsel, Crowfoot adds, it is always within a parameter one would expect among reasonable people. Schiavelli comments that he prefers to keep proceedings pleasant and to use sanctions sparingly, though he will demand professionalism from attorneys who abuse his protocol.
Summing himself up as a judge, he says:
“I would hope that people would view [me] as somebody who tried to the job as best as I can.”
He aims to make the best call he can based on all the law and facts, he says, believing that what he is doing is the right thing and, most importantly, not done for any agenda.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously,” Schiavelli adds. “When you start believing all of that, that’s when you get in trouble.”
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company