Thursday, January 14, 2010
Michael Judge. Public Defender Increases Diversity, Implements Technology, Maintains Sense of Humor
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
LONG BEFORE LOS ANGELES COUNTY Public Defender Michael Judge was defending indigent residents unable to retain private counsel against criminal charges, he was the one getting into trouble.
In elementary school and junior high, he admits he was frequently “swatted” for disruptive classroom antics like making faces or funny sounds, or telling jokes.
“I was funny,” he says. “Teachers used to tell my parents they had to walk out of the classroom to get control of themselves sometimes, but of course I still got in trouble.”
One time, Judge recalls, “I got a clipboard broken over my rear end.”
The only child of Blanche and Thomas Judge, he was born at the Mare Island Naval Center in San Francisco on March 1, 1944.
His father had served in the U.S. Army during World War I under then-Captain George S. Patton, Judge says. When World War II broke out, he says Patton told his former troops they were all “too old” to serve with him again and to enlist in the Navy, and that is what Thomas Judge did.
Six months after the arrival of his son, Thomas Judge “mustered out” of the Navy and moved back to Los Angeles with his wife.
Growing up in “the easternmost part of West L.A.,” Michael Judge remembers doing “very poorly academically” at his junior high school, then enrolling at Chaminade College Preparatory, which was then located in Los Angeles.
“There I excelled,” Judge says, explaining that the school’s strict behavior code and rigorous academic standards “provided the environment I needed at that point.”
But after his sophomore year, Judge fell while doing a floor exercise at a gymnastics practice and broke his neck.
“Fortunately there was no paralysis, just a slight movement of cervical vertebrae,” he says. Although he was immobilized for several months, he recovered in time to return to school that fall.
“I got a real good education there,” Judge says of the school, which was razed shortly after his graduation and has since relocated to Chatsworth.
Judge moved on to UCLA, where he “had a terrible first semester.” With a rueful shake of his head, he comments: “I should have gone to a counselor.”
Foremost among his problems, he discloses, was that he “did a very poor job of taking into consideration the logistics” of the sprawling campus.
As a pre-med major, Judge enrolled in a chemistry class which had a four-hour lab component beginning at 8 a.m. on the opposite end of campus from the athletic field where he was due at 11 a.m.
“I had to leave no later than 10:45 on the fly,” he explains, and “didn’t complete a single experiment” that entire semester. As the lab component comprised 75 percent of his final grade, he says that it was “the first time in my life I experienced the grade of ‘F.’ ”
The experience however, was a wake-up call, Judge says. “I told myself, ‘You’d better start focusing because this ain’t no joke.’ ” From that point on, he “did well academically,” he says.
Judge also changed his major to political science and set his sights on attending law school.
“My aim was to be a lawyer, to gain some leverage on the system, the power structure, to try and achieve some good,” he says.
But it was not as altruistic as it sounds, Judge confesses. “I was looking at it as what would fulfill me, and it would fulfill me to accomplish something like that, to help people in need.”
He graduated from UCLA’s law school in 1968 and began looking for a job. Judge recalls interviewing for a position with a mid-sized civil law firm and, “I thought, ‘God, what have I done? I wasted three years of my life,’ ” because the people he saw there “didn’t appear to be animated about what they were doing,” and the environment “was one of drudge and grind.”
Judge says he decided to open his own criminal defense practice, but on the advice of his former summer employers became a deputy city attorney in order to get some jury trial experience first.
He spent about a year with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, but “had to put my ambition of opening my own firm on hold” indefinitely after a serious car accident which broke both of his legs and crushed his right knee, he recounts.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to be running from court to court,” he says with a sigh, explaining that all the other private defense attorneys he knew had to do that. So when he was back on his feet, he joined the Public Defender’s Office in 1969.
Did he make the right choice?
“Definitely,” he says with an emphatic nod. “I’m totally satisfied.”
Longtime friend Lee Silver, now a real estate partner with Irvin, Cohen & Jessup, says that he realized Judge, his college and law school classmate, had “really found his niche” in the Public Defender’s Office right away.
“It was something that he was passionate for,” Silver reflects. “He started identifying, not just with the clients, but with the mission….It became obvious that he was interested in the whole process and it was clear that the [office] would become his career and his passion.”
Judge rose quickly through the ranks; he became a temporary supervisor of the Inglewood office in 1975 and head deputy of the Torrance office in 1983. One year later, Judge transferred to the Pasadena office, which was then the largest of the branch offices.
Meeting in Elevator
Riding in the Pasadena courthouse elevator one day, Judge struck up a conversation with a bailiff named Dee. “She said, ‘I had to wrestle two people down in court and I got all banged up and I’m not happy,’ ” Judge recalls.
After exiting the elevator, he says he remembered feeling like he wanted to talk to her more and began asking around to find out who she was. But there were two women named Dee who matched the description of the bailiff, so he was pointed in the wrong direction by well-meaning colleagues several times before finding the woman again.
“We had lunch and we just clicked,” Judge says. They dated for two years and were married in 1987.
“We used to kid we were the opposite of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ ” he says, referring to the serial police drama in which the husband was a police officer and the wife was a defense attorney.
Delores Judge, or “Dee” to her husband of 22 years, is now a court appointed special advocate/guardian ad litem.
“Words cannot tell you how proud I am of him,” she says of Judge. “He’s just the bees knees, if the bees have any knees.”
She recalls seeing Judge around the courthouse. “My mom would always tell me you can tell a man’s character by his shoes, and his shoes were always polished, so I was like, yeah, he won in that category.”
However, had she met Judge a few years earlier, her assessment of the “astute looking guy” may have been quite a bit different.
“When I met my wife, I was just transitioning out of my pimp era.”
He says he had purple platform shoes with a pink diamond pattern, a pair with black and red stripes, and another which were bright yellow.
“And I had suits to match,” he says, as well as faux fur coats and crushed velvet jackets “with the broad lapels.”
He says he drove a white Cadillac Coup de Ville “with the gangsta walls, wire wheels, a leather chest on the back…a Rolls Royce grill and a white leather roof.”
He also sported a collar-brushing hair-do for his first few years in the office, “then I started wearing an afro,” he says. Then, wanting a “tighter afro,” he got a perm and would “fork it out.”
With time, the hair got shorter, and his wife “threw [the suits] all out,” he says. The car was passed on to his eldest son and “met an early demise” off the side of the 110 freeway, Judge adds with a slight shake of his head.
Delores Judge calls her husband “a rebel.” But “that’s what I like about him,” she says. “I got the whole package ’cause he’s not like, straight-laced, you know?”
When the couple married, Judge had three children from a prior marriage and Dee Judge had one. But he says “we don’t use the word ‘step,’ ” and the children “all relate to us as their parents.”
Of the children—46-year-old Lamond Williams, 38-year-old Monique Judge, 35-year-old Michael Judge Jr. and 32-year-old Jennifer Judge—only the youngest has pursued a career in law, working as a paralegal.
While Judge was stationed in the Pasadena branch office, he oversaw the implementation of a pilot program for video arraignments in Glendale and the effort to get video-teleconferencing started in Los Angeles.
“That was 15 years ago,” he reflects, “but it’s still highly relevant today.”
Both programs offer a “tremendous productivity boost,” Judge opines, predicting that the next step will be letting families visit their loved ones by video as well.
After two years in Pasadena, Judge transferred back to the Torrance office and in 1988 became the division chief of central felony trials.
In May 1994, Judge was appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as public defender.
His wife, he says, had left for a vacation in Hong Kong with a girlfriend before the appointment was made. So when she called home at 3 a.m. a few days later, he picked up the phone and said, “Public Defender’s Office,” and “oh how she screamed,” Judge says.
She came back from that trip with three very full suitcases and a well-worn platinum card, he adds. “I guess she figured if I got a raise she might as well get her fair share of it,” he quips.
As public defender, Judge has responsibility for 40 offices with more than 700 lawyers. In his 15-year tenure, he says one of the things of which he is most proud is the “high quality staff” he has been able to recruit and retain.
Over half of the attorneys he has hired are women, he says, and about the same percentage are racial minorities.
“The result of all of this,” Judge continues, is the elimination of “all glass ceilings,” emphasizing that over 40 percent of management promotions within the office have been received by racial minorities, and an even larger percentage by women.
He notes that the “trajectory continues upward in that regard.”
Assistant Public Defender Laura Green says that the office has “really made great strides” under Judge toward “better reflect[ing] the community that we serve,” with increased diversity in terms of not only race, but socio-economic background and gender, “and I think our office is much better for that.”
Fellow Assistant Public Defender Ronald Brown praised Judge as “a champion of diversity,” noting that when he joined the office in 1981, he was one of maybe 10 African American lawyers in the office. But the number of minority attorneys “just exploded” under Judge.
Judge says he was surprised at how rapidly such diversity was achieved, calling it “marvelous,” but he insists that “it’s not about political correctness,” but “about being fully equipped to accomplish the tasks that public defenders are charged with successfully.”
Deputy public defenders, he says, “have to have both sharp intellects and the ability to speak and write precisely, but also need the ability to successfully balance relationships with people of all cultures, religions, ethnicities and origins in order to accomplish the job that we need them to do.”
A diverse staff will have the “wealth of experience, broad experience, collective wisdom and the ability to discern and explain the internal logic that drives the conduct of people who are witnesses, alleged victims, and accused of crimes, and able to understand better those people that serve on juries,” Judge says.
In order to ensure that the office has a broad talent pool from which to draw, Judge says he recruits nationwide and has been active in trying to secure student loan repayment assistance and forgiveness for new attorneys.
Michael Cantrall, executive director of the California Public Defenders Association—a 4,000-member association that provides continuing legal education and resources for practicing criminal defense attorneys—says Judge was “really the point person” in securing passage of the John R. Justice Prosecutor and Defender Incentive Act, which provides up to $10,000 per year in student loan relief for new attorneys entering public service.
The measure was signed into law in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush, and the appropriation was signed by President Obama on Dec. 16, 2009.
Cantrall says that the passage of the act alone was “a very big project that some of us thought was impossible, but [Judge] showed us that it could be done.”
He calls Judge, chairman of the association’s legislative committee, “a powerhouse,” with “endless ideas on how to make our criminal justice system better.”
Judge has also filled every other board position within the group, including a term as president.
The legislative committee has become “a proactive operation” thanks to Judge’s leadership, Cantrall says, explaining that “it used to spend its time blocking or amending bills,” until Judge took the helm, and then it began proposing bills and marshalling them through the Legislature.
Cantrall calls Judge “an inspiration to work with,” since “it’s hard to find a person who can actually come up with concrete proposals that implement great goals and hopes for individuals.”
Other initiatives Judge has pushed through the organization include a legislative effort to secure training and assistance programs for individuals returning from incarceration, and gang prevention and intervention services, Cantrall says.
“He’s very dedicated to areas beyond the legal representation of individuals: their well-being and their ability to stay out of prison, out of jail, and become productive members of our society,” Cantrall opines.
Cantrall jokes that after three decades with the organization, he is slowing down with age. But “Mike Judge just seems like he’s just warming up,” he says.
Judge has also been active with several other organizations, as a former trustee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association and an executive board member of the Criminal Courts Bar Association.
He was appointed by the chief justice in 2000 to the Judicial Council of California’s Collaborative Justice Courts Advisory Committee, and he has served on the executive board of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
In June 2004, Judge commenced service as the chairperson of a 10-person committee of the State Bar to establish guidelines for indigent criminal defense providers in California. The guidelines generated were approved by the State Bar and promulgated in January 2006.
The state Senate appointed him to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice—which investigated and made recommendations in cases involving wrongful convictions—in 2005, and he served until 2008.
State Bar Past President Sheldon H. Sloan, a former Los Angeles Municipal Court judge says back “in the old days” when he was on the bench, “the attitude of the Public Defender’s Office was a lot different.”
He explains that the deputy public defenders back then were “very contentious,” which “created a difficult working environment, oftentimes.”
Brown, an assistant public defender, also acknowledges that “in the past there was this trench mentality that cops are evil, that D.A.’s are evil, and that was just counter-productive.”
But under Judge’s leadership, Sloan opines, the deputy public defenders “don’t play games” any longer and “tend to business.”
Sloan credits the change to Judge being “a superb public defender” who “runs a very good office.” He praises Judge as “thoughtful” and “a good manager” who keeps office morale high.
Additionally, Sloan says Judge has maintained a good working relationship with District Attorney Steve Cooley and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.
“That isn’t to say that he rolls over, but I think our justice system demands that the attorneys on both sides cooperate to a certain extent in terms of courtesy and professionalism, and Mike Judge is a consummate professional,” Sloan says.
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley praised Judge as “a real gentleman,” with whom he has had a “longstanding and seamless” friendship.
In light of “our obviously limited resources” and “limited energy,” prosecutors and public defenders have to be able to work together to accomplish the objectives of the criminal justice system, he remarks.
“We can’t waste those limited resources or our limited energy on unnecessary fights or irrelevant issues,” Cooley says.
Delores Judge claims her husband has taken his office “way past just the public defender,” and has become “almost like the Grand Poobah social worker of the justice system.”
“He has such a huge heart,” she says. “He tries to address every aspect of life into his department, not just defending the accused, but a lot of aspects of rehabilitation.”
Judge has also been “instrumental in having people look at the justice system not just as a bastion for punishment, but for rehabilitation and how we need to reach out and help people in need,” his wife says, although she emphasizes that “he does not coddle the bad guys,” and “makes sure that everything they deserve is coming to them.”
He “just loves his job” and “being able to make a difference in the lives of people who are sort of underprivileged in a lot of ways,” Delores Judge says.
Brown opines that Judge is “very forward-thinking” and “wants to prevent [clients] from ever returning” to the criminal justice system, Brown explains.
And while Judge “doesn’t want to be known as a really compassionate guy, he is,” Brown says. “I think you need that tough guy image to be the public defender, but you can’t do the job without having the compassion that Mike Judge has.”
Danny Miller, an attorney turned real estate investor who was a law school classmate of Judge, praises his longtime friend as “the epitome of a dedicated public defender.”
Miller says that Judge “deeply believes in his causes and the need for what he’s trying to do,” and that he is “tireless” in working to achieve his goals.
“It’s so apparent when talking to him,” Miller says. “He doesn’t have ulterior motives or ulterior desires or any political motives. He’s just trying to bring as much parity to the justice system as he can.”
Former Los Angeles District Attorney Robert Philibosian says that he is “extremely impressed with [Judge’s] professionalism, and impressed with his leadership in that office.”
Although Judge is “totally dedicated to the work of the public defender,” Philibosian opines that he “does not just take a knee-jerk criminal defense response to issues” and is “always extremely well-informed” on topics of importance to the criminal justice system.
Judge’s work has also earned him many accolades. In addition to being one of the MetNews Persons of the Year, Judge has also been recognized by the National Legal Aid and Defense Association, last year receiving the group’s Reginald Herber Smith Award for exceptional advocacy, leadership and dedication.
He also received the State Bar’s Diversity Award in July 2008 and was presented with the Public Defender of the Year Award from the Century City Bar Association in 2001.
In 1999, Judge was honored by the Mexican-American Bar Association with the Justice Cruz Reynoso Award for Principled Leadership. That same year, the Los Angeles County Bar Criminal Justice Section presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also the 1998 John M. Langston Bar Association’s Lawyer of the Year.
‘Still a Brat’
But even with all of his accomplishments and accolades, Delores Judge says her husband is “still a brat, if you let him be.”
Miller describes Judge as “gregarious” and “fun-loving.” One day, just before a torts class was about to begin, Judge walked the length of each table spanning the stadium-style auditorium from the back of the room all the way to the front, just to get some laughs from his classmates, Miller recalls.
Silver also recalls a stunt Judge pulled after their bar exam results were posted. “He called and said he passed and that one of our mutual friends had passed, and then said, ‘Well, I gotta go,’ and hung up.” Silver says. “My wife asked ‘Who was that?’ and I said ‘That was Mike. I think he just told me I passed the bar.’ ”
Judge is “just that kind of guy,” Silver opines. “He’s really funny.”
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company