Monday, March 31, 2014
Retired Justice William A. Masterson, 82, Dies, Memorial Tribute Slated
By a MetNews Staff Writer
WILLIAM A. MASTERSON
A memorial tribute to retired Court of Appeal Justice William A. Masterson is scheduled to be held April 12 at the California Club.
The 2 p.m. ceremony will be a “celebration of the life” of Masterson, whose March 11 death, following a yearlong bout with cancer, was announced Friday. He was 82.
The jurist, known for his warmth and collegiality, served on Div. One of this district’s appeals court from 1993-2000.
Vaino Spencer, who was presiding justice during his tenure on the court, said Friday:
“Justice Masterson was much more than a brilliant jurist and treasured colleague. He cared deeply about his court staff and all court workers, as well as his family, to whom he was devoted.”
She said they kept in touch in recent years and remarked that she treasures the memories of conversations with a “great friend.”
Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Norman Epstein, of this district’s Div. Four, noted that he and Masterson were law school classmates at UCLA. A film version of “Guys and Dolls” came out in 1955 and, he recounted, Masterson gained a nickname as a result.
“Everybody called him ‘Sky,” after the lead character, “Sky Masterson,” Epstein related, noting that the nickname did not endure.
From law school days, to the present, Epstein remarked, “I can’t recall a negative word—or even a neutral one—ever spoken of him.”
When Masterson was appointed to Div. One, he remembered, “it was a difficult assignment,” apparently alluding to acrimony generated by then-Justice Miriam Vogel who frequently belittled colleagues in her dissents and concurring opinions.
“He managed to stay on good terms with everybody on that division,” Epstein disclosed.
Except when the solemnity of the occasion dictated to the contrary, he said, Masterson “always had a smile on his face.”
Paul A. Turner, presiding justice of Div. Five, termed Masterson “a charming, amusing gentleman,” adding:
“There was this enormous grace he had.”
Turner observed that it was not generally known that Masterson was “witty” and had a robust sense of humor.
Enjoyed ‘Great Respect’
Masterson’s successor on Div. One was Robert Mallano, later the panel’s presiding judge, and now retired. He said that when he joined the court, he “heard testament from court attorneys and staff, as well as other justices, of the great respect all held for him.”
Masterson and Mallano had served together on the Los Angeles Superior Court (with Mallano serving as presiding judge in 1993 and 1994). Mallano recounted:
“I got to know him during his brief time on the Superior Court because his courtroom was across from mine, and I would attend to his deliberating juries when he was off acting as a member of the Commission on Judicial Performance. He was highly respected for his legal knowledge and the ability to grasp quickly the issues in complex cases.
“He gained the same admiration on the Court of Appeal by the attorneys who appeared before him and, as well by his colleagues, the court’s research attorneys and staff as well.”
Opinion Stands Out
In a 2006 interview, as part of the California Appellate Court Legacy Project, Masterson pointed to the case that most stood out in his memory. It was People v. Alvarado v. Superior Court, decided by Div. One in 1997.
Masterson said it concerned a jailhouse murder, allegedly committed by two gang members. It had been ordered that the identity of witnesses not be disclosed to the defendants until the time of trial.
“I had a problem with that,” he said.
This precluded the defense lawyers from discovering reasons why the purported witnesses might lie, he explained.
He wrote what was intended as the majority opinion, granting writs of mandate, overturning the order. However, no other justice would sign his opinion, which he then turned into a dissent.
The California Supreme Court granted review.
Masterson said that on the last day he was on the court—Aug. 17, 2000—at about 2:30 in the afternoon, he learned that the Supreme Court had reversed and remanded (though it did not wholly adopt Masterson’s view).
He read from the end of his dissent:
I close by referencing the majority’s statement that I have chosen by this dissent to “elevate procedure over the witnesses’ welfare.”…The statement is colorful but inaccurate. I have tried to make it clear in the foregoing that what I advocate is not a procedure but rather an adherence to a process which has served us well for generations.
Probably the greatest strength we have as a society is our ability to overcome the real or perceived threat du jour, whether it be organized crime in the ’30’s, claims of internal subversion in the ’50’s, or terrorism and militia groups in the ’90’s. We survive these by dealing with them within the framework of our democratic institutions, not the least of which are those guarantees of a fair trial that I see damaged by the majority opinion. Of course the temptation is ever present to abridge these guarantees when faced, as the majority puts it, with “forces of social disintegration and anarchy.”… The dangers to the witnesses in this case and in many other cases are real. But as a society we have survived much, and we will surely survive the threat posed by the gang activity of today. The greater danger is if we overreact and accept an abridgment of liberty foreign to our history and tradition. For if we do that, we shall harm ourselves more than any gang or group of gangs ever could.
Masterson also said in that interview, conducted by Court of Appeal Justice H. Walter Croskey of Div. Three, that as a trial judge, “I never gave lawyers a bad time—because I think practicing law is a really difficult way of making a living.”
He said of the bullying of lawyers by judges:
“I always thought that was just plain stupid.”
Admitted in 1959
Masterson went to undergraduate school at UCLA, as well as law school there. He was admitted to the State Bar in 1959, and practiced at some major Los Angeles major firms.
He was active in various bar association activities. In 1976, he was a member of a four-member Los Angeles County Bar Association commission that accused Los Angeles Municipal Court Presiding Judge Joseph Grillo (since deceased) of abusing his judicial powers, leading to LACBA’s censure of the jurist.
Masterson’s appointment to the Los Angeles Superior Court, by Gov. George Deukmejian, came in 1988.
Three years later, Pete Wilson, while a United States senator, recommended Masterson for nomination to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Though they were of the same political party—Republican—President George H. W. Bush did not oblige him.
The U.S. Justice Department reportedly regarded Masterson, at 60, to be too old.
That factor did not dissuade Wilson, as governor, from appointing a 62-year-old Masterson to the Court of Appeal, for a term that began (following confirmation by the Commission on Judicial Appointments) on Jan. 12, 1993.
An attorney who was an extern in Div. One reported that she would chat with Masterson and, from his unassuming manner, thought he was a research attorney, rather than a justice.
‘Irish, Catholic Ghetto’
Although appointed to judgeships by two Republican governors, Masterson was a Democrat. He said in his 2006 interview that the suburb of Long Island, N.Y. where he was born, in 1931, and grew up “was basically an Irish, Catholic ghetto.”
It was also a Democratic stronghold. In a 2010 interview, he told the MetNews that he had “never met a Republican” until his family moved to California in 1943. He was 12, then.
Masterson was contacted in 2010 by telephone at his home in Mendocino County, where he moved with his family in 2001. Active in community affairs, he had just filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission in connection with a race for the county Board of Supervisors.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company