Monday, January 14, 2013
Former Prosecutor, Jurist Spearheaded Movement for Judicial Branch Reform
T WAS A SORT OF JUDICIAL PERFECT STORM.
It started with discontent with trial court unification in the 1990s, then with the continuing centralization of the judicial branch under the Administrative Office of the Courts. Then the ever-increasing cost of the AOC’s proposed Central Case Management System, before the plug was finally pulled. And all of this played out against the background of the worst budget crisis in the memory of most Californians.
Net result—a lot of very upset California judges. Some of them were determined to do something besides complain, and one was particularly outspoken.
When statewide court closures were announced more than three years ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan sprung into action. Willingly embracing labels like “dissident” and “outspoken critic,” and willing to attack what he called the “triumvirate”—the AOC, the Judicial Council, and the then-chief justice, Ronald George—with pejoratives like “reckless” and “irresponsible”—he and others formed an organization.
They searched for a name that would convey who they were, without being confused with the older, established—some would say establishment—California Judges Association. They became the Alliance of California Judges.
Horan, 61, was officially one of seven founding directors of the group. But his role in its creation was special, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Lopez-Giss—a current director—says.
“Chuck was incredibly adamant in his concerns about the AOC and the seeming abdication of [judicial] power to the AOC,” and about the amount of money being spent on CCMS, long before the alliance was formed, Lopez-Giss says.
That Horan is a MetNews Person of the Year proves “there is some fairness,” she says.
“He is so deserving of being recognized and yet he’s the last person who would seek it,” she says. “He would put forward 15 names of other people before himself, but he’s the one who deserves it.”
Horan comes across as an unlikely flame-thrower. A friendly man with the unmistakable twang of his native North Carolina, an avid fisherman and astronomy buff, and now retired from the court, he remains fully committed to the alliance, and is in touch with other members about every day, he says, although he gave up his board seat when he retired.
Hearing the accent, one might be surprised to learn that Horan actually has lived in Southern California for more than a half-century, having come to Santa Monica with his parents and sister in 1959.
It’s a familiar story of that era. His father, Edward Frederick Horan, a native of South Carolina, was drafted into the Navy during World War II, served in the Pacific, stopped over on the West Coast, returned home, and when the opportunity arose, came to Southern California to live.
Charles Horan laughs about it now, but there was a bit of culture shock involved in the move. As an 8-year-old coming from the south, with parents who were both southerners, he says, he was forced to take a speech class because nobody could understand a word he said.
Eventually, though, he assimilated into the local lifestyle, he says, and his teachers realized he spoke English just fine. But more tribulations lay ahead.
He lost his father when he was in junior high school, and his 44-year-old mother had to enter the workforce for the first time in 20 years. She made $1.35 an hour—the minimum wage back then—at a telephone answering service in West Los Angeles, working from midnight to 8 a.m.
Things weren’t easy, but his mother, who lived to age 90, “got us all through,” the judge recalls. She went to school, acquired some secretarial skills, and left the answering service for a better-paying job at RCA. “She was pretty determined,” he says.
Santa Monica College
He got to college, first attending Santa Monica College right near home and then going a few miles east to UCLA. He studied math and psychology, he explains, but it “became obvious to me very quickly that I was never going to get a job” in either field.
He took the Law School Admission Test, did well, and decided to go to law school. “It was a leap of faith, truthfully,” he says, because he didn’t know any lawyers and wasn’t certain he had the aptitude for law practice.
Happy to get into a school just 10 miles from home, he enrolled at USC.
Many judges and lawyers who went to the local law schools and stayed in the area formed strong bonds with classmates who later helped them in their careers. Horan says he wasn’t one of them.
“I wasn’t terribly close to anybody,” he explains. “I just did my work and got through it.”
Law school “was something I couldn’t wait to finish,” he says, explaining:
“I really didn’t have any money. I had to borrow [so much] I finished on the top of my class in money owed to the school…that was the literal truth.” He graduated in 1976. He had taken an interest in criminal law, but the District Attorney’s Office, where he wanted to work, had a hiring freeze in effect at the time.
Fortunately, Horan’s hometown of Santa Monica was one of the cities that provided its own prosecutors for misdemeanors alleged to be committed within city limits, and he was able to land a position with the city attorney. And within a couple of years, he secured the deputy district attorney’s job that he initially wanted.
He didn’t have to go far, because he started in the Santa Monica office, although his assigned court was in West Los Angeles, where he worked with another young prosecutor, Marcia Clark, who went on to fame as the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case and later as a television commentator, author, and motivational speaker.
After several years in Santa Monica, he moved on to the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Central Los Angeles, and then to Glendale, before getting what he calls “a real break.” He was assigned to the recently formed Major Narcotics Unit, working with future District Attorney Steve Cooley. Horan stayed in the unit until 1988, when he was appointed to the Glendale Municipal Court by then-Gov. George Deukmejian.
He chalks the appointment up to the “fortuity” of living in Glendale when one of its judges was elevated to the Superior Court.
“They were looking for a replacement,” Horan explains. “Steve Cooley called and suggested I apply, and about five months later I was appointed.”
Cooley recalls that “they were having trouble locating someone for Glendale,” and said he encouraged Horan to apply because “I knew he had the capabilities.” Horan “sailed through the appointments process and did a very good job.”
Use a Guitar, Go to Prison
One of the most amazing things about Horan, though, is that he had another, nearly fulltime, pursuit while prosecuting, and during much of his judicial career—playing the guitar in a rock band called “Use a Guitar, Go to Prison.”
The band, which also included criminal defense attorneys Don Randolph and Mike—now Mia—Yamomoto, was together for about 25 years before breaking up due to what Yamomoto describes as “creative differences.”
Horan was an “amazing” musician, Yamomoto says, one who applied hours and hours to honing his craft before and after the hours he worked at his day job.
“One of the things about that man,” Yamamoto explains, “is that what might have taken the rest of the rest of us 10 or 20 years to accomplish, he did in five years.” Horan “could play with anybody in L.A.,” his former bandmate says.
“For an artist to get that good, that quickly, is astonishing,” Yamomoto adds. “He’d play every morning and every night. It was more than just practice. He had a very good ear, and he played the sweetest blues licks ever.”
Given Yamamoto’s defense orientation, and Horan’s background as a prosecutor and a “law and order” judge, they’ve had their differences over the years, Yamomoto says. “But as my friend and my collaborator…I could not have loved him more. I was very sad when he left the band.”
Yamomoto—who says “I never sounded better” than when paired with Horan—expresses disappointment, but not surprise, over the fact that Horan has given up playing in public.
“It’s always been all or nothing with Chuck,” Yamomoto says. “He’s like a great painter who refuses to paint,” because he doesn’t think he has another masterpiece left in him.
Personality and Drive
Horan’s sister, who is four years older than he is but became a lawyer later in life, has a similar view. She says her brother inherited their father’s personality and drive.
“Whatever Chuck decides to do, he does to the nth degree,” Donna DuBeth Gardiner, a New Jersey lawyer, says. “He just works on a different level than the rest of the world.”
Edward Horan, she comments, “was a Navy frogman who learned electronics…and worked on radar systems, with only a high school education, and I think that explains Chuck’s mind more than anything.”
As for his passion for music, Horan credits that to his mother.
“I loved music more than anything when I was a kid,” he recounts. “My mom loved Elvis and I knew the words of every song.”
He listened to all types of music, he says—“Motown, the Beach Boys, country, soul, rock, blues.”
The music of that era was so good, he recalls, “I don’t know how anyone could not get hooked on that stuff.”
But he didn’t get serious about playing himself, he notes, before he went to law school. And it was a shared love of music that brought him and his wife Debbie together, he says.
The couple met, he recites, at Ledbetter’s, a bar near USC that allowed admission to “21-year-old guys and 18-year-old girls” and had live music six nights a week. He wasn’t quite 21, and his future wife, who had just moved west from Illinois with aspirations of becoming an airline flight attendant—a stewardess in the parlance of the time—was just 18.
It was a long courtship, he recounts. “I was going to wait until I could feed myself” before getting married, he explains with a laugh.
Debbie Horan, now a travel agent specializing in moving art and artifacts, also played the guitar, and wound up joining the band, although she left in the late 1980s after becoming pregnant with the second of the couple’s two children.
“There’s no chance I could have made any of my little accomplishments” without his wife’s support, he says. “She’s 100 percent as good as they come. [Marrying her was] the best thing I every did in my life, and I used to tell my juries that.”
Their children are grown now. Their son, who married not long ago, is in the Navy and their daughter is living in Nevada and working in advertising.
Two years after joining the municipal court, he was elevated to the Superior Court. In that pre-unification era, he says, it was not that unusual for a municipal court judge to be elevated after just a few years.
“They were moving judges through pretty quickly,” he explains. “They would see how you did and if you were able to pull your weight.”
Horan is a registered Republican, and while he had “zero” political experience, he acknowledges that he fit the profile of a Deukmejian appointee.
“They were looking for people who were for victims’ rights and wanted to protect the public,” he says. “The day I was sworn in [after his elevation] they gave me a murder case to try downtown.”
After the trial, he went to Lancaster for 16 months, and then downtown, where in 1995 he was assigned the biggest trial of his still-young career.
The so-called Bryant Family was a Pacoima-based drug gang with a reported multimillion dollar business. The case took six years to get to trial, cost taxpayers a reported $3 million, and ended with Horan sentencing three of the gang’s members to death for the murders from ambush of two men who had allegedly threatened to steal business from the gang, along with a woman and her 2-year-old child, who were waiting for the two men in a parked car outside the house where they were killed.
Horan’s “reward for getting through that in one piece,” as he puts it, was a transfer to a long-cause, high-security courtroom on the ninth floor of what is now the Foltz Criminal Justice Center. He subsequently was transferred to Pomona, where he continued hearing criminal cases until he retired.
Cooley describes Horan as “one of the best judges ever to sit on the ninth floor.” His determination that things be done right, the immediate past district attorney says, explains his career as a prosecutor, as a jurist, and now as a judicial reform activist.
“People should listen to him,” when it comes to judicial independence, Cooley says.
Over the years, Horan tried about 30 capital cases, handing down about a dozen death sentences, a number of which are still on appeal. The cases, both downtown and in the East District, often involved sadistic and terrifying behavior, including one in which the defendant literally pulled the victim’s eye from its socket, but Horan says the stress never got to him.
“It didn’t wear on me any more than any other job,” he says. “The facts of the cases were horrible, but you just have to approach it in a professional manner. It’s much harder on the jurors, and certainly the victims.”
He is perfectly happy, he says, to have spent his entire career in the criminal courts. While some judges yearn for civil cases and the opportunity to make contacts that will lead to private judging work, Horan makes it clear he was never in those ranks.
He’s had a lot of conversations about civil law with friends like Lopez-Giss, who hears domestic relations cases in Pomona and succeeded him on the alliance board.
“The more I hear about family law, the more I’m glad I was trying murder cases,” he quips. “I enjoyed [trying criminal cases] and I was pretty good at it. I didn’t want to get into civil law, and I didn’t care about the private judging.”
It was a wise choice, says his sister—who handles toxic tort and other complex civil litigation.
“With his personality, [spending an entire career in criminal law] made perfect sense,” she says. “I cannot imagine him sitting down and parsing out a contract and trying to mediate between two opposing parties.”
But when he retired not long after becoming eligible, Horan says, he felt he’d “had enough.” While lung disease hastened the decision, he would likely have stayed on for no more than a few more months in any event, he says.
He says he now walks about five miles per day, accompanied by one or more of his three dogs, and otherwise occupies his time with his telescopes, his collection of intricately hand-decorated fishing rods—“it’s amazing what you can do when you’re not working all day long”—and, of course, the alliance.
In the view of Horan and the alliance, the collapse of CCMS brought out into plain view the problems that that been simmering for a long time.
“They put the frog in the water,” he says in his Southern manner, “and they slowly turned the heat up, and eventually it got too hot and the frog jumped out.”
The result, he says, is that a lot of judges who had previously voiced similar thoughts, but didn’t actually know each other or only knew each other slightly, were able to come together under the banner of the alliance.
The current president of the group, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steven White, describes Horan as “one of the most significant leaders in both the creation of…and in the arc and trajectory of the alliance.” He brings to the group the benefit of “a lot of thinking about how the judiciary got to where it is,” White says.
He notes that while he and Horan didn’t know each other before they came together, they come from similar backgrounds, as the Sacramento jurist was also a career prosecutor, having been district attorney for Sacramento County and chief deputy state attorney general.
Horan’s “impressive attributes,” he says, include the fact that he has been “in the public sector…trying cases and doing hard thinking on how to change things.” He is also, White says, “very good at field marshalling” the membership and “an excellent writer and synthesizer of ideas central to our successes.”
The prosecutor’s mindset comes across as Horan lays out his case for change, methodically, and pulling no punches:
“I don’t know when exactly [I started to feel this way] but over the years it just seemed to me fairly obvious that there were more and more and more and more problems [in the trial courts] and more and more encroachments onto local matters by a San Francisco bureaucracy, the AOC. They were small when I came into the branch, and under [Chief Justice Ronald] George they doubled, tripled, quadrupled their staff from when I came in….
“And they became involved in every issue facing judges and I hold very firm to the idea that judges are independent elected officials with a public constituency and that the public’s interests are not served by unelected bureaucrats. The judges have to bear the accountability for the office. It’s a situation where when the bureaucracy is unresponsive, judges are blamed…and so logically it seems to me that judges ought to be the ones making the decisions that affect the public and affect judges and that’s just not happening and has not been happening for over a decade now.
“We have ceded our authority to bureaucrats and they have not served the public well, in my humble opinion….You talk about the chickens coming home to roost, they are home. And they are home in the form of gigantic budget cuts to the branch, that in my firm belief are occasioned, at least in part, by over a decade of disastrous spending decisions, proven incompetence and a lack of credibility by our supposed leaders. And we’re paying the price [in terms of] massive service cuts, courtroom closures, layoffs, all against the backdrop of half a billion dollars flushed down the toilet [on CCMS] by Ron George and Tani Cantil and the council members. You know the public isn’t blind, deaf and dumb, and neither is the Legislature. And I think that again we’re paying the price.”
The events that enrage him, he acknowledges, began long before January 2011, when the current chief justice took office. But his expression of empathy only goes so far.
“I would never try to lay at the feet of the current chief justice all of the problems,” he explains. “But I will say this....I understand that prior to her becoming the chief justice, she was a member of the council...at the time the alliance was literally begging them to stop spending money on a project that could never finish, that anyone in their right mind knew would never be funded to fruition. She nonetheless voted to continue that project and she did so right up to the time it became obvious the Legislature was poised to and did order them to stop, and that’s when she finally saw the light. So, it’s not all the chief’s fault but the chief had a chance early in her administration and before to lead us out of that problem and wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t see what was coming, apparently, and that is troubling, to say the least.”
Cantil-Sakauye did not respond to a request to comment on Horan.
Horan acknowledges the worry of some judges, particularly in the smaller counties, that with a weakened AOC would come a loss of services that local courts cannot afford or cannot efficiently provide themselves.
But noting that the alliance has members in counties of all sizes, he says the benefits of scale can be realized in a way that does not impact local autonomy.
“The answer,” he explains, “seems to be that the AOC should become a paid provider.”
He envisions a public contracting process in which the Legislature would fund the courts directly, “and any court that wants the services of the AOC could hire them,” while others could contract with other entities.
“The AOC has not been efficient,” he argues. “Not in construction, not in computers, not in anything else.”
He acknowledges his own lack of technical expertise, describing himself as “roadkill on the information highway.” But apart from the technical difficulties, it was the very concept of CCMS—a central linkage of justice system partners throughout the state—that was flawed, he says.
“A judge in L.A. doesn’t need to know what’s going on in Yolo,” he says. “The truth is the AOC wanted to know what was going on in Yolo and L.A. and Sierra and San Francisco. Judges need a system to know what is going on in their own [counties].”
“CCMS was rooted in the AOC’s needs, not the courts’,” he says. “But if you need a centralized system, you could buy one for less than $2 billion.”
What lies ahead, he says, is “a long-term battle,” whose outcome he declines to predict. He expresses confidence in the leadership of the alliance, and acknowledges expressions of greater openness by the branch leadership, but says “there has been little movement…on the issue of real reform.”
He says he’s seen little evidence that the new administrative director of the courts, former Shasta Superior Court Judge Stephen Jahr, is interested in the kinds of changes he and the alliance support and says there likely “never will be a discussion of substance” with the current chief justice. “It’s just not in the cards.”
But the “merry band of warriors” who have coalesced as the alliance will persevere, he says. “You can continue your movement or walk away, and we just can’t walk away.”
While over a quarter of the judiciary has joined up, he says, “and a lot that are dissatisfied will not join because they’re afraid, a lot needs to be done by somebody.”
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company