Monday, January 13, 2014
DAVID S. WESLEY
Fairfax Butcher’s Son Heads Nation’s Largest Trial Court
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
hose who know Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David S. Wesley describe him as a natural leader, a hard worker, a take-charge guy who steps forward in the manner expected of an ex-Marine.
They say they are not surprised that he came to head the nation’s largest trial court or that he has won a number of judicial leadership awards.
Or that his aptitude for hard work almost led him to become a butcher.
That’s what his father did. He had a kosher-style—“which means no hind cuts,” the now-jurist explains—butcher shop in the Fairfax district.
Living in Detroit, he married a naturalized citizen whose family had come from Toronto. They moved to California around 1946, and their son was born here and attended Hamilton High School.
David S. Wesley as a student at Hamilton High School.
He also worked in the shop, right up until he graduated law school. He learned a little Yiddish—“you had to” if you worked in Fairfax in the 1950s and ’60s, he comments.
“My mother spoke Yiddish, but with a Southern accent,” he says. “They lived in Texas for four years during the war.”
But his father was determined to be the last butcher in the family, the son recites.
“He didn’t want me to” follow in his footsteps, Wesley explains. “Both my parents pushed me” towards academics, he says, but he “had no idea” what he wanted to do with his life. So he attended San Fernando Valley State College—now California State University, Northridge—before joining the Vietnam-era military.
“The draft was on,” he recounts, so he expected to serve one way or another.
“I couldn’t get into the Coast Guard,” in which his father had served, he says, “and I wanted to be with my buddies,” three of whom had decided they wanted to be Marines.
He trained at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, where, he says, he did his “time on the grinder”—the Parade Deck, where young Marines drill for hours at a time—and at Camp Pendleton, before seeing action as a machine gunner.
He was discharged, he notes, after cracking his back in a landing craft accident that he “can’t talk about” because the details were, and still might be, classified.
Still uncertain about his direction in life, he finished his undergraduate degree and tried out the financial industry, working as a floor reporter at the Pacific Stock Exchange before joining a brokerage firm in Beverly Hills.
“I didn’t like it,” he calls to mind, and since he had friends who were lawyers and seemed to enjoy what they were doing, he decided to go to law school.
He entered the first school that accepted him, Southwestern Law School, graduating in 1972 as a member of the first class after the school won American Bar Association accreditation. It was also the first class to include full-time day students.
“We were a close class,” he says, and he became friends with several other future judges, including Court of Appeal Justice Gary Hastings and Superior Court Judges John Reid and Richard Nidorf, all now retired.
“I liked the school,” he says. “I really enjoyed it.”
Personality Profile: DAVID S. WESLEY
Fairfax Butcher’s Son Heads Nation’s Largest Trial Court
Hastings remembers him as “a good tennis player,” as well as “a good student, a friendly person, and a good classmate.” The retired justice has remained connected to the school as an adjunct faculty member, and has recruited Wesley as a guest speaker at seminars.
Daisy Wesley, mother of David Wesley; David Wesley; Sam Wesley, his father, at Wesley’s law school graduation.
Wesley recounts that he decided he wanted to do criminal trial work because he had seen different kinds of cases while working as a law clerk, and criminal seemed the most interesting field. He interviewed for positions with the District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office, but the latter was his first choice, he says, and that’s where he started his career.
“The PD had less rules than the DA’s office,” he explains. “And having been in the Marine Corps, it was more attractive to me.”
There was “a magnificent camaraderie” among the lawyers, he says, many of whom remain his friends. He spent more than eight years in the office, doing “about everything that the Public Defender’s Office does,” including juvenile court matters, extraditions, and trials for crimes ranging from misdemeanors to capital murder.
The job also made him a good living, he says, and he was conflicted when some of his friends in the office asked him to join them in private practice. Wesley said he talked it over with his wife, Nadine Wesley—who had been a secretary at a large law firm—and decided to make the change.
Law Firm Formed
Thus was born the law firm that later became Overland, Berke, Wesley, Gits, Randolph & Levanas. The firm did a lot of criminal work, but also “a lot of different things,” including civil litigation, Wesley says.
Michael Levanas, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, evinces enthusiasm when describing his former partner, who recently named him supervising probate judge.
“He was always the managing partner,” Levanas says. “There was no doubt” who was in charge, he says, because Wesley is “one of those guys that just likes taking on every responsibility and never complains.”
It has never been otherwise, Levanas comments. Wesley was a “totally dedicated” deputy public defender who “worked long, hard hours on big cases” and “loved the work.”
And as a managing partner, Levanas adds, Wesley was effective because if there were a problem, “he would pick it up and handle it” rather than “shuffle it off to somebody else.”
Levanas relates that he recently agreed to replace Judge Mitchell Beckloff—whom Wesley says was “fantastic” in the probate assignment but wanted to switch to general civil work—because Wesley insisted. He did, however, secure promises from both Wesley and Assistant Presiding Judge Carolyn Kuhl—Wesley’s presumed successor—that he can leave the post if he chooses, Levanas says with a bit of a laugh.
“He’s totally energetic about everything,” he says of his friend and ex-partner. “It affects everyone around him.”
That’s the kind of person you want in a complex position like assistant presiding judge or presiding judge, Levanas says, particularly in an era when the bulk of the administration’s responsibility has been to restructure the court to operate with limited resources.
“When he got involved as APJ, it was a bleak picture,” the judge observes. “Morale was going downhill. I’m not sure that there were a lot of people who wanted to step in.”
Leaves Private Practice
Wesley remained with the Overland firm for 11 years before accepting appointment as a State Bar Court judge.
He sought the appointment, he explains, after “trying death cases back-to-back for a number of years.” Wesley says he was “really tired” and felt he had “tried everything I was going to try” as a lawyer.
Then he saw a newspaper ad soliciting applications for the bar court, which had been established a few years earlier as the nation’s first fulltime disciplinary court for the legal profession.
He already had some, albeit part-time, judicial experience, having served as an “as-needed” juvenile court referee, a position he says he “absolutely loved” and that his firm tolerated, although his partners would rather he had spent more time on his legal work.
He also applied for appointment as a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner, prior to seeking the State Bar Court slot.
Having no prior experience with the discipline system, he says, “I never thought I’d get the job.” But the state Supreme Court appointed him in 1993.
“It was a very interesting job,” he says, but was very demanding. His predecessor, he notes, left the court and “thought it was too much work.”
He says he would have made a career out of it, but a practical consideration got in the way.
While he had received positive marks for his work—veteran legal malpractice and professional responsibility attorney Diane Karpman says he was “one of the best discipline adjudicators ever”—there was no formal evaluation process for determining whether a judge would be reappointed.
Several of the court’s former judges had been replaced by the high court when their initial terms expired. So when his name came to the top of the list that the Superior Court’s judges use to elect commissioners, he accepted the position and was assigned to juvenile court.
Former classmate Hastings says he was glad Wesley made the change, because it put him in line for a Superior Court judgeship.
“He said he was going to be a State Bar judge, and I said, ‘You should be a real judge.’” When Wesley later applied for a judgeship, Hastings says, he wrote a letter of recommendation.
“I thought he’d do well,” Hastings says. “He’s decisive, he’s serious, he likes to get all the information, and he doesn’t make rushes to judgment.”
Wesley’s first assignment as a commissioner was to Long Beach, which would have been fine if not for the traffic between there and his West Los Angeles home. He then went to Los Padrinos juvenile court and “absolutely loved it.”
Wesley was in no rush to apply for a judgeship, he says, but went to a meeting of prospective candidates with a member of Gov. Pete Wilson’s staff because another commissioner had applied and invited him along.
He was in “a nice place to be,” Wesley says, remarking:
“I had liked everything I had done in the law. I chose the right profession. When I…became a commissioner…it was fine with me. There wasn’t this driving ambition to move up.”
His application to Wilson seemed like a long shot, he acknowledges.
“I was a Democrat and a public defender,” Wesley points out, while the then-chief executive was a law-and-order conservative prone to appointing Republicans and prosecutors.
But he got the appointment in 1997, and has been a judge ever since. Wilson, he says, apparently looked kindly on a fellow ex-Marine.
“That was the key, I think,” he says. “I would like to think it was my talent, but it was likely a combination of things,” including a letter of recommendation from former Gov. George Deukmejian, to whom he had been introduced by a mutual friend.
Vast Criminal Experience
He says he asked to stay in juvenile court, but with his vast experience in criminal law, including having tried many capital cases, he was soon told he was needed in a felony trial court. He spent his remaining years, prior to entering the fulltime administrative ranks, in criminal court.
Wesley and his wife, Nadine, on their wedding day.
He subsequently served as assistant supervising judge, and later supervising judge, of the criminal courts.
It was as assistant supervising judge that he underwent an experience which he says “changed me a lot,” and almost caused him to leave the bench.
On May 28, 2003, following a holiday weekend, it became clear that a number of arrested suspects were not going to be arraigned in Commissioner Jeffrey Harkavy’s courtroom if arraignments ended at the normal time, 4:30 pm.
Supervising Judge Dan Oki, made aware of the situation, designated Wesley—who later succeeded Oki as supervising judge—to deliver the message to Harkavy that the court day could not be extended because the court’s budget problems precluded keeping the court open and paying overtime.
After speaking with Harkavy, Wesley relates, he left the building to preside over a session of Teen Court at Dorsey High School, a program that he has overseen for years. It allows juveniles accused of certain offenses to be judged by a jury of their peers, rather than go through formal judicial process.
The expectation, Oki and Wesley later explained, was that if any suspects who were in custody had to be released, they would be immediately re-arrested—but the Los Angeles Police Department, on advice from the Office of City Attorney, declined to effect the re-arrests.
More than two dozen suspects were freed late that night, and one of them, Jerrell Patrick, was subsequently convicted of murdering barber Lawrence Middleton, a crime that occurred a month after the release.
That led the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, with allies that included the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, to support challenges to Wesley and Oki at the 2014 elections.
The union adopted an unusual strategy. Saying he wanted to keep the focus on the incumbents and not on any one individual challenger, union president Steven Ipsen ran a newspaper ad seeking challengers.
In Wesley’s case, there were three challengers—Deputy District Attorney Daniel Bershin, retired Deputy District Attorney Herb Lapin, and Kevin Burke, a former prosecutor who was a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department.
The criticism of both judges was vitriolic. They had placed bureaucracy above public safety, their critics charged.
Lapin said Wesley was invoking the “Nuremberg defense” of “I was only following orders,” while Wesley called the effort “an attempt to intimidate judges.”
Wesley says he gave serious thought to not running.
‘Most Difficult Year’
“It was the most difficult year of my life,” he says. “…I had to make a decision, do I want to go through with this, or do I want to chuck it and go into private practice?”
Wesley explains that he had been making as much money in private practice as the judgeship was paying, and he “knew I could go back and try cases again.”
“So, I had to make a decision? Do I want to be a judge for the rest of my life, or do I want to go back to private practice. And I made a decision. I said, ‘I want to be a judge.’”
Buoyed by the support of his wife and colleagues, he says, he declined offers to meet with lawyers interested in having him join their firms, and began talking to campaign consultants. He settled on Joe Cerrell and Cerrell Associates, Inc., the most experienced judicial campaign firm in town.
He had never been very interested in politics, he says, but Cerrell gave him quite an education.
“I did a lot of speeches, which I had never done before,” he explains. “...I didn’t know that you need to raise money for slates and that sort of thing…. When they talked about amounts of money, I was scared to death. I thought I’d take some of my savings and take a second mortgage on my house and get through this.”
The Cerrell firm was “just wonderful,” he says, and he won a huge victory on Election Day, taking 60 percent of the vote and winning without a runoff.
Joe Cerrell died in 2010, but Hal Dash, then the president and now chairman of Cerrell Associates, remains a good friend, both men say.
Most judicial campaigns are sedate affairs, but this one was anything but, Dash says.
“It was kind of nasty,” he recalls. “People were outside the court picketing, and he was being challenged by the [deputy district attorneys] and the [deputy] sheriffs.”
Wesley, he recalls, “felt…offended because he was trying to do the right thing and do what was best for the court, and the challengers were irrational.”
However, the campaign got a lot of support from the bench and bar, garnered a near-sweep of newspaper endorsements, and bought space on enough slates to turn the contest into a rout, Dash says.
Wesley gave “150 percent” to the campaign because “he knew he needed to fight back,” Dash explains. “He was carrying the flag for the judiciary.”
The result was among the most satisfying in the more than three decades that he and Cerrell handled judicial campaign together, Dash says.
“Lawyers and judges and friends of the candidate kept calling up asking what they could do to help,” he says, declaring that the win was “a tribute to the love and respect that people have for Dave Wesley.”
The most “life-changing” thing about the campaign, Wesley says, was seeing how willing his friends and fellow judges were to help out with the campaign, financially and otherwise. “It’s one of the reasons I have such great love for this court,” he relates.
Among those who rallied to his side were District Attorney Steve Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca, and then-Los Angeles Chief of Police Bill Bratton. Cooley, he explains, is an old friend, going back to their days as young adversaries in juvenile court.
Cooley says there was always “mutual respect” between them when they were on opposite sides. But his support of Wesley’s reelection was “totally on the merits,” he says.
“I was generally disgusted by the small cabal of deputy district attorneys with very narrow self-interest putting a good, solid judge through that ordeal,” Cooley says. “It was probably the beginning of a period of estrangement from some of the leaders of the ADDA, particularly [then-president] Steve Ipsen,”
Allison Wesley (now Davidson), daughter of David Wesley; Wesley; Tuxedo; son Gregory and wife Nadine Wesley.
Ipsen disputes that characterization, saying the union’s 21-member board voted unanimously to oppose Oki and Wesley. While some of the board members had difficulty with Cooley over various issues, the group also included senior deputies whom Cooley subsequently promoted, including Frank Tavelman, a union officer who was recently appointed to the Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Ipsen claims he attempted to broker a solution that would have avoided the election challenge. He says he met with then-Presiding Judge William MacLaughlin and told him that the union would not oppose his reelection if Wesley gave a personal apology to Jerrell Patrick’s family, but Wesley was unwilling.
He acknowledges that Wesley and the rest of the administration later implemented changes that have prevented a recurrence of the situation. In hindsight, he says, “I should have met with [Wesley] personally,” rather than go through the presiding judge.
With the election behind him, Wesley says, he threw himself back fully into judicial work. He remained supervising judge until 2007, and returned briefly to the role when Steven Van Sicklen returned to a trial court in 2008.
Wesley also took on a complex assignment in 2007-2008, co-chairing a “strike force” of more than two dozen judges appointed by then-Chief Justice Ronald George to clean up a criminal case backlog that had gridlocked the criminal courts in Riverside County.
The success of that effort resulted in Wesley and retired Placer Superior Court Judge J. Richard Couzens sharing the Judicial Council’s Jurist of the Year Award for 2008. In presenting the award, George said the strike force judges heard some 205 trials, cleared 125 long-pending cases, and sat on 289 preliminary hearings.
Working with Wesley was a “joy,” Couzens says, explaining that the two have known each other for years, primarily through their shared interest in youth court programs.
“We were quite a team,” Couzens says. “He’s more assertive, I’m more passive. We kind of Mutt and Jeffed the lawyers a bit. He has a great sense of how to get his arms around these complex situations.”
Four years ago, Wesley agreed to become a candidate for the post of assistant presiding judge for the 2011-2012 term.
In an interview during the 2004 campaign, he had disclaimed any interest in joining the top leadership of the court. That remained his position, he says, until then-Assistant Presiding Judge Lee Edmon asked him to run.
Edmon was looking for a second-in-command who could help steer the court as it navigated the continuing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. And Wesley was the obvious choice, she says.
‘Great Leadership Skills’
“He has great leadership skills,” she says, which he had exhibited while supervising the criminal courts and serving on the court’s Executive Committee.
Edmon, a former civil litigator, reports that when she received a felony trial assignment, Wesley “took me under his wing and taught me the criminal operations of the court.”
Tapping him for the No. 2 spot was “the right decision,” Edmon says. “He has really devoted himself to the court.”
Taking over as presiding judge at the beginning of last year, Wesley says he knew what he was getting into, but it has been taxing.
With the trial courts unable to coax more money out of the state, Wesley presided over the closing of 10 courthouses. It was the least objectionable of a number of alternatives, he says.
Pausing to choose his words, he voices frustration with the fact that the trial courts have felt the consequences of “the failure of the Administrative Office of the Courts to [properly] manage” the now-defunded Central Case Management System, a project championed by then-Chief Justice Ronald George to electronically link the states’ trial courts.
“It was a failure,” he declares. “I don’t care what anyone says, it was a failure.”
“The Legislature has become very suspicious of the trial courts, when it wasn’t the trial courts that did this. In fact, we opposed it from the beginning….It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because the trial courts are blamed for the ineptness of CCMS.”
He quickly clarifies that he blames the former, and not the current, leadership of the courts.
“Our current chief justice didn’t start that, and it’s not her fault.”
He and Tani Cantil-Sakauye get along “wonderfully,” he says, pointing out that they came on the Judicial Council at the same time. “She’s been supportive of the efforts of this court,” he says.
The chief justice likewise expresses admiration of Wesley.
Judge Wesley administering the oath of admission to the State Bar of California to his son Gregory.
“Judge Wesley has provided strong and thoughtful leadership to both his own court and to the entire judicial branch,” she says. “During his tenure on the Judicial Council…he was respected for his astute analysis of the issues that came before us as well as the civility with which he expressed his views.
“This past year, his robust advocacy on behalf of the entire branch—not just of his own court—was very important and well-received throughout the state.”
While the court remains an underfunded portion of an underfunded judicial branch, Wesley says, the budget situation has “stabilized,” allowing the court to look “forward rather than backwards.”
Rattling off budget numbers off the top of his head, he says the court balanced its budget last July—after sustaining $187 million in cuts over four years—and can “start to rebuild the court.” But it has lost 25 percent of its staff in five years, he says, making it quite difficult to serve the public.
While letting go of hardworking employees “was a crying shame,” he says, “we are going to give the public the best access to justice we can, with the limited funding the Legislature is giving us.”
He pulls out a series of photos, taken at different times, of a slowly moving line at the West Covina traffic windows. He points to a man in line, visible in each photo.
The man, he explains, spent more than two hours in line because he needed to pay a ticket. Online payment wasn’t possible, he says, because the man needs to pay in installments, and the court’s “antiquated” computer system cannot take partial payments.
“We are going to fix these things,” he declares emphatically. “You are not going to see these things next year.”
Using technology to better serve the public is a priority, Wesley says. He notes that the court’s new chief executive, Sherri Carter, developed a reputation for tech-savviness in her previous post as chief administrator of the Riverside Superior Court, where traffic tickets cannot only be paid online, but at local discount stores like Target or Wal-Mart.
“We are going to do the same thing in Los Angeles,” he says.
Unlike some courts, which have stopped hearing certain types of civil cases, the Los Angeles Superior Court is “going to serve the public in every area of the law,” he vows.
He rejects criticism from advocacy groups who attack the court’s “hubbing” system, in which various types of cases—including evictions, small claims, and non-personal-injury limited jurisdiction civil matters—are concentrated in a small number of courthouses rather than heard throughout the county as before.
Daughter Allison being administered the oath of admission to the State Bar of California by her father.
The system, which has been condemned as impacting those who cannot afford to travel to distant courthouses, “is working,” Wesley insists, declaring:
“There were no good choices. This isn’t something we wanted to do. This was something we had to do.”
There was strong precedent for using hub courts, he says, citing the Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park, where the court has concentrated its dependency cases, except those arising in the Antelope Valley, for more than 20 years.
If necessary, he points out, judges assigned to hub courts can travel to other courthouses to hear cases. “Have gavel, will travel,” he calls it.
“We are doing what we can to survive,” he says, while looking for help from Sacramento, which funds the courts at only one percent of the state budget, not two or three percent as in some other states.
Former State Bar President Patrick M. Kelly, who worked with Wesley on funding issues as part of the Open Courts Coalition, calls the jurist “a tireless leader in seeking adequate funding for our courts,” citing Wesley’s constant meetings with legislators and community leaders.
One self-proclaimed ally in that effort is state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who serves on the Assembly Budget Committee and is quite familiar with the court, having practiced family law locally for 30 years.
Bloom and Wesley have met several times in the year since Bloom was elected to the Legislature, and Bloom expresses admiration for the presiding judge’s “skill in administering the court through devastating cuts,” helping “to avert an even greater tragedy.”
The problem now, Bloom explains, is that while the worst of the state fiscal crisis appears to be past, “the Legislature was willing to allocate more money to the courts than the governor was, and the governor was able to prevail last year.”
Bloom says he is still “hopeful that this year we’ll be able to restore more and more of the funding that Californians need and deserve,” but says there is no certainty that will happen.
He and Wesley, however, are “definitely on the same page in terms of the need for more resources” for the court, he says.
‘Too Many Meetings’
Wesley confirms the impression that his job has taken away what little time he had for personal pursuits, even the long walks he used to take around the courthouse. “Too many meetings, too many events,” he explains.
But he has continued his involvement in three programs he says are very important to him personally—Teen Court, which he has been in charge of since Judge Jaime Corral, who started it in Los Angeles, retired in 1999, and which now involves 21 high schools; Stop Hate and Delinquency by Empowering Students, or SHADES, which is an anti-bullying program run in partnership by the court and the Museum of Tolerance; and the California Association of Youth Courts, of which he is president and which holds a major statewide conference each year, bringing high school students—many of them in foster care—together to discuss important topics.
His passion for the law impressed his own children, both of whom he recruited as Teen Court jurors and both of whom are now lawyers.
Gregory Wesley, 32, now works in Los Angeles for Paramount Pictures’ international home media distribution arm, after spending six years in England and Australia as an international business associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. His sister, Allison Davidson, 29, is a litigation associate at Latham & Watkins in the Silicon Valley city of Menlo Park.
The siblings both describe their father as someone who inspired, rather than pressured, them into following him into the profession.
“He’s just a regular guy,” Davidson says. “My friends were always surprised. There is nothing scary and intimidating about him. He’s just a regular, fun guy.”
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