Monday, January 14, 2008
PERSONS OF THE YEAR: Robert Philibosian
Ex-District Attorney Earns Respect as Advocate, Advisor, and Activist
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
When 43-year-old Robert Philibosian was defeated for a full term as Los Angeles County district attorney in 1984, he did not “go gentle into that good night.”
At a young age to be an ex-D.A., he built a new career. He is a private attorney, a “go-to guy” for people wanting action from local government, a conservative activist who continues to voice great pride in his role in the only successful effort to unseat sitting California Supreme Court justices in the 75-year history of retention elections, and a man whose advice and endorsement are sought by candidates for every office including the presidency.
He has been asked again and again to run for public office—for the Legislature, for judge, for state attorney general—and continues to declare absolute disinterest. At age 67, he is now of counsel to the firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton—having passed the maximum retirement age for partners—but remains busy as ever, representing clients and taking on assignments large and small, from serving on state and county boards and commissions to emceeing the annual MetNews Person of the Year dinner for the past 12 years.
This year, however, that chore falls to someone else because Philibosian is a MetNews Person of the Year.
Philibosian is a native of San Diego, where he attended public schools before his family moved to Selma, in rural Fresno County. He knew two things at an early age, he says: that he wanted to be a lawyer and that his politics were Republican.
His role model as a lawyer, he explains, was a maternal uncle, Everett H. Berberian, who grew up around Fresno but practiced in the Bay Area for many years. And as far as his party affiliation is concerned, he says, he knew that by “the time I was old enough to know the difference between an elephant and a donkey.”
His family was so conservative, he explains, that when they moved north, they continued to read the San Diego Union—now the Union-Tribune—a daily newspaper that is editorially conservative now and was even more so then, he recalls. His father retained business interests in San Diego, he notes, and preferred to have the conservative San Diego paper mailed to him rather than read the liberal Fresno Bee.
Philibosian was a mere youngster, he remembers, when he visited the Stanford University campus to attend his uncle’s law school graduation. He was admitted to the school himself a few years later, joining the Republican Caucus and earning his undergraduate degree with a major in political science.
It was a practical consideration, not a political one, that brought him to Los Angeles in 1962.
He had to work his way through law school, he explains, and by attending Southwestern Law School, he could study part-time and take evening classes. (He retains his affinity for the school and has served on its board since 1984.)
He got a job as a corporate “headhunter.” It wasn’t bad work, he says, but it didn’t have much to do with the career path he had decided on—that of a practicing lawyer, and preferably a prosecutor.
He had an offer from a civil firm, to do insurance defense work, but had neither accepted it nor turned it down at the time he showed up for his civil service interview at the Hall of Administration.
Back in the 1960s, he explains, the county’s three civil service legal offices—those of the district attorney, public defender, and county counsel—would jointly interview prospective hires.
He’d been given no advance preparation for the session, he recalls, and did not realize that he was going to be given a composite score by the three examiners, so he turned to the other two panelists and said, “Sorry, I don’t want to take your time, but I’m only interested in the D.A.’s office.”
Fortunately, he recalls, the district attorney representative on the panel—Deputy District Attorney Jack Cravens, now deceased—“perked up” and, as soon as the interview was over, sent him over to the Hall of Justice, where the district attorney was then-headquartered, and told him to see “Mr. Ritzi.”
The eager prospective prosecutor ran out, having no idea where the Hall of Justice was or who Mr. Ritzi, was, but figuring someone would be able to direct him. Soon enough, he saw a uniformed sheriff’s deputy who directed him to the right place, and discovered that fortune was on his side that day.
Evelle Younger was the district attorney back then, and William Ritzi (later a Los Angeles Superior Court judge) was the assistant district attorney, the No. 3 person in the office. He was ushered into Ritzi’s office, where the assistant district attorney asked him, “When can you start?”
He took the job, even though it paid less than his civil offer—and even less than he was making in his corporate job.
He began with the office in 1968, back in the days when newly minted deputy district attorneys and deputy public defenders honed their craft by making “the county run”—floating from one office to another for a week at a time.
“You’d go from El Monte to Compton to Torrance to East L.A.—all over the place,” he explains. The system may not have been terribly efficient, but enabled the office to cover all of the courts, and also gave supervisors an opportunity to “size up” the young lawyers.
East Los Angeles
Philibosian eventually settled into an assignment in East Los Angeles, which was considered a great slot for a young lawyer because the courthouse was known for its “tough judges and tough defense attorneys,” he recalls. The head deputy district attorney was Robert Devich, later a justice of the Court of Appeal, and one of the judges, John Arguelles, went on to become a California Supreme Court justice.
Devich, who retired from the bench in 1992, says he was not surprised that Philibosian rose to great heights.
“He was a leadership-type guy” who could handle a calendar of up to 120 cases a day, Devich recalls. “He was tough, but I found him to be fair, and he knew the value of cases. He got along with the public defenders and handled the calendar very well.”
The assignment also helped form relationships that remained strong through his tenure as district attorney.
Among those he worked with were Deputy District Attorneys James Bascue and Reuben Ortega, who became his top two aides as district attorney. (Both later were appointed to the bench and are now retired, Bascue from the Superior Court and Ortega from the Court of Appeal.)
Ortega, who had left the office to go into private practice and later became a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner, says he was “very reluctant” to give up that job for what might be a short stint as a top administrator, but that Philibosian was “very persuasive.”
Ortega explains that he “loved the commissioner’s job” and “loved juvenile court,” but that he made the right decision:
“It was a fascinating and educational two years. I’ll tell you, I never worked so hard in my life. I learned a lot from the experience and from him and I got to see how he took command of that office.”
He added that he is “forever grateful” to Philibosian for helping launch his judicial career by recommending him to Deukmejian for appointment as a Superior Court judge. He was sworn in the day Philibosian left office and was elevated to the Court of Appeal two years later.
After East Los Angeles, Philibosian went to Norwalk and Santa Monica, where he says he gained tremendous experience trying cases before a pair of veteran judges, both now deceased. One was Laurence Rittenband—who is remembered primarily for having sentenced film director Roman Polanski to 50 years in prison for having sex with underaged girls, turning him into an exile—and the other was Edward Brand, “a very tough guy” who carried a .38 snub-nosed revolver under his robes, Philibosian remembers.
He eventually was promoted to head deputy in the Van Nuys office. He also stepped up his political involvement, volunteering for two statewide campaigns in 1978.
One was that of Younger, who had been promoted from district attorney to state attorney general eight years earlier and was trying to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown. The other candidate was a state senator from Long Beach named George Deukmejian, who wanted to succeed Younger as attorney general.
Much has been made of the fact that Philibosian and Deukmejian share an Armenian heritage, but that was a “totally minor” factor in their relationship, Philibosian explains. They did not live in the same community—Philibosian lived in Westwood for a while and settled in the San Fernando Valley in 1969—and the younger man had played only a small role in Deukmejian’s winning campaign because he was spending more of his time on Younger’s losing one.
Deukmejian nonetheless gave him an important assignment, naming him chief assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal side of the office. The new attorney general—who had authored a good deal of criminal justice legislation, including an initiative to restore the death penalty in the state—wanted the office to have “a more prosecutorial attitude” toward criminal cases, Philibosian explains, and picked him because of his experience as a prosecutor who had tried a lot of cases and also had administrative experience.
Deukmejian agrees, saying Philibosian did a “tremendous” job in heading up the division. Philibosian has accomplished much, he said, because he is “very bright, collegial, and resourceful.”
After Brown launched an ill-fated U.S. Senate run in 1982 rather than seeking a third term as governor, Deukmejian ran to succeed him. It was a difficult decision for him, Philibosian says, because the Attorney General’s Office “had accomplished a lot” and because he was concerned about what would happen to his staff if he lost.
Philibosian says he had no doubt which way his boss should go.
“I said ‘Duke, you’ve got to run for governor,’ ” assuring him that if need be, “we’ll all go out and find jobs.” The strongest argument, he comments, was that as governor, he could reverse the trend of liberal judicial appointments under Brown.
Deukmejian won a narrow victory over then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and became governor. That meant a short-term promotion for Philibosian, who was named to replace the chief deputy, Michael Franchetti, who left the office right after the election to work on the governor-elect’s transition team and went on to become the new governor’s finance director.
Philibosian, meanwhile, was working on his next job.
Van de Kamp Moves On
District Attorney John Van de Kamp, a Democrat, had won election as attorney general, defeating Republican George Nicholson, then a colleague of Philibosian’s in the Attorney General’s Office and now a Third District Court of Appeal justice. The result was widely expected, and there was much speculation as to whom the Board of Supervisors might select to serve the last two years of Van de Kamp’s term as district attorney.
Philibosian wanted the job, but hadn’t let his interest become known publicly, out of loyalty to Nicholson.
“I didn’t want to give signals that I didn’t expect him to win,” Philibosian explains. But once the election results were in, he told a television reporter at Deukmejian’s victory party that he was going to seek the appointment.
To become district attorney, somebody needed to get three votes from among the five supervisors—Republicans Michael Antonovich, Deane Dana, and Pete Schabarum, and Democrats Kenneth Hahn and Ed Edelman. (Dana and Hahn are now deceased, Schabarum and Edelman are retired from elective politics, and Antonovich remains on the board.) Dana “became my champion,” Philibosian relates.
Antonovich backed M. David Stirling, with whom he had served in the state Assembly and who later became chief deputy attorney general under Dan Lungren; Edelman supported Stephen Trott, then U.S. attorney for the Central District of California and now a senior judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Hahn supported Johnnie Cochran Jr., Van de Kamp’s assistant district attorney. Schabarum, who hadn’t made his choice known in advance, gave Philibosian his second vote.
Hahn’s backing of Cochran made perfect sense because Hahn—“one of the greatest political strategists of all time,” Philibosian says admiringly—represented the district with the largest concentration of African Americans and Cochran would have been the first black district attorney in the county’s history.
Cochran, Philibosian posits, “liked being in the mix but didn’t seriously want to be district attorney,” instead being headed toward lucrative private practice. After the first ballot, Hahn cast the decisive vote for Philibosian, even though the two really didn’t know each other.
“He just kind of adopted me,” Philibosian explains. The relationship cut both ways, as Philibosian supported the supervisor and his son James K. Hahn in their subsequent campaigns.
Current Supervisor Don Knabe, who was Dana’s chief deputy at the time, had been designated to guide Philibosian through the process and recalls “some very anxious moments” during the selection meeting.
“He was literally in my office with the door closed,” Knabe recalls, listening to the meeting over the “squawk box.” Not only was there uncertainty as to what Schabarum would do, and what Hahn would do beyond his initial vote for Cochran, it was still possible that the board would postpone a final decision, and even search for additional candidates.
Ultimately, he remembers, the vote was made unanimous. All five supervisors, he says, “were very comfortable with Bob” and had “a great working relationship” with him in the two years he served.
Philibosian, he added, “has done a great job” for the county through his service on the Economy and Efficiency Commission.
Philibosian recalls his time as district attorney fondly, although he had no illusions about the difficulty he was going to face in keeping the job, with little recognition among voters in the huge county, and a need to raise a lot of money in a short time for an election campaign.
He vowed, however, that he was “not going to worry about the politics” but was going to do the job as best he could. “I did the job, and loved every minute of it,” he says, taking credit for beefing up the office’s efforts in toxic waste disposal, environmental law, consumer law, and antitrust enforcement; centralizing narcotics prosecutions—an idea he attributes to a young deputy named Steve Cooley—and directing an active legislative program.
He accomplished much in a short time, he says, because he surrounded himself with top people.
“The secret of any executive is to have a good staff,” a lesson he says he learned under Deukmejian. He filled top positions in the office with longtime colleagues Bascue and Ortega; Billy Webb, who had been calendar deputy in Rittenband’s court while Philibosian was the trial deputy; Van de Kamp holdover Curt Livesay; and budget expert Joan Ouderkirk, whom he hired away from the county chief administrative officer and who was married at the time to John Ouderkirk, then a deputy district attorney and later a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.
Antonovich, the lone remaining board member from that time, told the MetNews that he and Philibosian became good friends, and that his performance as district attorney was “superb,” elaborating:
“He was tough on drug dealers, and strongly enforced child abuse and child predator laws….Bob is a hard-working and principled public servant who has dedicated his life to public service and the furtherance of justice.”
His tenure as district attorney, however, was a short one, as the June 1984 primary election forced him to face what he calls “a perfect political storm against me.”
He was a first-time candidate; opponent Ira Reiner had won two elections for Los Angeles city controller and two for city attorney. While the election was officially nonpartisan, he was a Republican running in a heavily Democratic county in an election in which Democrats turned out in large numbers because of a hotly contested presidential primary while Republicans largely stayed home because President Reagan’s re-nomination was certain; and those Democrats were getting mailers urging a vote for Reiner and giving both candidates’ party affiliations.
‘Very Smooth’ Transition
Reiner won by a good-sized margin and took office later that year. Philibosian made what he recalls as a “very smooth” transition to private practice, joining an old-line Los Angeles firm, MacDonald, Halstead and Laybourne—which later merged into the international mega-firm of Baker & McKenzie—and primarily practiced government and regulatory law.
He joined Sheppard Mullin in 1994, after Baker & McKenzie closed the Los Angeles office. “I wasn’t going to leave for San Francisco, or San Diego, or D.C.” in order to remain a partner at Baker & McKenzie, he explains.
He has no regrets, he says, because Sheppard Mullin has remained a great place to work, maintaining a friendly and collegial atmosphere even as it has opened more offices, including one in Shanghai, and grown to 500 lawyers. He continues to focus on public law, specializing in land use and state and local regulatory law, including Coastal Commission and beverage licensing issues.
He has largely stayed away from criminal law, although he has been involved in a few white-collar cases. He raised some eyebrows, though, last year when he showed up on the team of lawyers representing heiress Paris Hilton in her drunk driving/violation of probation case.
Philibosian explains that he and his firm had not otherwise represented Hilton or her business interests or those of her family, but that he was brought into the case strictly to argue the issue of the sheriff’s authority, as the public officer responsible for alleviating jail overcrowding, to release inmates early. He still believes that Sheriff Lee Baca acted appropriately, he says, but the trial judge disagreed and Hilton chose not to appeal.
While he has not run for public office since losing to Reiner—he did serve two elective terms in party office, as a member of the Los Angeles County Republican Central Committee—he certainly never left the arena. In fact, not long after completing his tenure as district attorney, he embarked on a campaign the reverberations of which are still felt today.
The California Supreme Court in 1986 had a decidedly liberal stamp. It consistently overturned death sentences, and constantly upset many in business with its rulings on labor and regulatory issues.
But that course turned after Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin were ousted by the voters in November 1986, giving Deukmejian the opportunity to appoint their successors.
Philibosian was in the forefront of the campaign, which brought together well-heeled business interests, the GOP, and victims’ rights groups, using capital punishment as a signature issue.
Of the four Democratic justices on the ballot that year, only Stanley Mosk—who went on to become the longest-serving justice in California history before his death in 2001—survived.
Squelches Mosk Challenge
As Philibosian tells it, there was a group within the anti-Bird coalition—he declines to name names—who wanted to target Mosk as well. “I and a number of other people squelched it,” he explains, believing that it was neither right nor smart to go after the court’s senior justice, a politically adroit fixture of California public life for 40 years.
While Mosk shared a party affiliation with the others, and sided with them much of the time when it came to deciding cases, he was very different, particularly from the chief justice, Philibosian explains.
Bird, who died in 1999, “was not a good lawyer, not a hard worker, and an ideologue, so she was the opposite of Stanley Mosk,” he says.
He relates a conversation he had with Richard Mosk, the justice’s son, and now a justice of this district’s Court of Appeal. The younger Mosk invited him to lunch, but Philibosian invited him to “save the time” and assured him that he was doing everything he could to keep the senior Mosk out of the opposition’s sights.
Richard Mosk confirms that Philibosian was helpful in the effort, for which he and his father were “extremely grateful.” Mosk adds that “my father admired people like Bob” who were willing to espouse differing views while maintaining a professional respect.
Philibosian accepts the conventional wisdom that had Brown elevated Mosk to chief justice, and then appointed Bird, who had no prior judicial experience, as Mosk’s successor, the liberal majority would likely have withstood the 1986 election.
Brown, he says, made a “a fatal strategic error” that “literally changed the course of history in California.” The defeat of the three, and the appointments of more conservative justices by successive governors, have produced a “great” court, he says.
Philibosian’s own role in the campaign became an issue, he relates, when Bird spread a rumor that Deukmejian planned to appoint Philibosian as chief justice.
An unnamed person who had discussed the matter with Bird, Philibosian says, attributed to her the comment that if Philibosian became the next occupant of her chambers, he planned to replace the macramé plant hangings in her office with nooses.
The claim that he was after her job for himself “had no basis whatsoever,” he says, because he was quite happy at his law firm, and because Bird had exemplified the problems of having a chief justice with no judicial experience.
In the ensuing years, he has served in a variety of part-time public and political posts, including as chairman of the county Economy and Efficiency Commission, the California Commission on Criminal Justice, and the California World Trade Commission.
And while he says he does not have the close relationship with the current governor that he had with Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, whom he advised on judicial appointments and other matters, he is one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointees to the state Republican Central Committee.
His present political project, he says, is helping reelect Cooley, “one of my oldest and dearest friends.”
His practice and his outside activities leave little time for recreation, he acknowledges, but he says he spends as much time as he can with his family. He and Nancy Philibosian have been married for nearly four decades, and have two children.
His son, also Robert Philibosian, is married to the daughter of a onetime courtroom adversary of the ex-prosecutor, the late Charles English, who was a leading criminal defense lawyer. His daughter, Janet Philibosian, is a part-time Monrovia attorney, the mother of his two grandchildren, and the wife of Craig Valenzuela, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company