Monday, September 10, 2018
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Norman Epstein: A Brilliant, Humble, Considerate, Lover of the Law
By NORA MANELLA
(The writer is presiding justice of Div. Four of this district’s Court of Appeal. She succeeds Norman Epstein in that position. Epstein retired Aug. 22 after 45 years of judicial service, starting with a stint as a judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court. He was honored Thursday night at a reception in the Tower Room of Los Angeles City Hall by the Appellate Courts Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, a sold-out event, presided over by section chair Sarvenaz Bahar. The following is not a transcript of Manella’s remarks at the event, but a close approximation by her of what she said; she did not read aloud a script.)
When asked to direct my comments this evening to what it has been like to serve as a colleague with Presiding Justice Epstein, I wondered how I could make it interesting. It occurred to me that I could tell you about the dark underbelly of Division Four.
• I could tell you it’s a lot like working in the White House.
• I could tell you about the constant struggle Justices Willhite, Collins and I have had to prevent our presiding justice from indulging his worst impulses.
• I could tell you we’ve removed orders from his desk, shielded him from rash decisions, and walked back proposed opinions that would have precipitated the jurisprudential equivalent of World War III.
• I could tell you we’re dealing with someone with the intelligence of a fifth grader, the attention span of a gnat, no understanding of legal issues, no intellectual curiosity, and a penchant for erupting into profane temper tantrums.
Now that would be interesting. Unfortunately, it would also be fake news.
The truth is there could be no finer colleague than Norm Epstein.
First, there is his prodigious intelligence, coupled with his exhaustive knowledge of the law. But as brilliant as Norm is, his intelligence is untethered to a proportionately large ego. We all know people who are uncommonly bright; many are eager to show it. Not Norm. Norm has no need to impress others with how smart he is. He never uses his intelligence to prove his superiority or to belittle others. He doesn’t do it on the bench, and I assure you he doesn’t do it off the bench either.
Next, there is his legendary love of the law. All of us here are presumably on pretty good terms with the law. Some of us may feel we’ve been married to it for decades; others may have been co-habiting; others still may have been dating the law. Many of us have cheated on the law with other passions—like opera, or skiing, or collecting rare books.
But Norm’s love of the law is passionate and enduring. I recall the time I walked into his chambers to discuss a case in which I thought the result was pretty much determined by precedent, but was not one I particularly liked. I was also troubled by the direction the law in this area was taking. After talking for about 20 minutes, I looked down at my papers and realized that Norm was not actually on the panel assigned to the case. I said, “I’m so sorry; I’ve taken up your time and you’re not even on the case.” “There’s no need to apologize,” he said, “This is the fun part.” The law genuinely is the fun part for Norm. For the rest of us, working with Norm has been the fun part.
Norm’s love of the law does not stem from any desire to use it as a vehicle for imposing his will on the world. Rather, he loves the law for what it aspires to be—in the context of litigation, a means of resolving disputes in a way that is rational, principled, understandable and just. His approach to the law is genuinely disinterested—and there are enough appellate lawyers in this room to know the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.” He is, in short, intellectual honesty personified.
Finally, there is his temperament. As those of you who have appeared before him can attest, on the bench he is a model of judicial temperament—invariably courteous and respectful of both lawyers and self-represented litigants. He is genuinely interested in understanding your arguments and their implications.
I remember a case in which a lawyer was advocating that his client be deemed a third party beneficiary. Norm walked him through the law and then asked, “What rule are you asking us to articulate?” As the lawyer struggled to find a rule that would include his client, you could see the light bulb go off in his head, as he realized any such rule would expand the law of third party beneficiaries well beyond any recognizable limits. So he sat down. I’m quite sure that lawyer left the courtroom understanding that he was going to lose, understanding why he was going to lose, and understanding that he should lose. He also left feeling he was treated with dignity and respect.
Off the bench, Norm is no different. He is the same thoughtful, temperate, courteous, considerate, gentlemanly colleague. In fact, everyone who has worked with Norm will tell you that his intelligence and breadth of knowledge are exceeded only by his uncommon decency, his kindness, his collegiality, his sweetness, and his desire to make our court a place that brings out the best in everyone who works there.
I’m sorry if my remarks about what it’s like to be a colleague of Norm’s have not turned out to be the incendiary exposé of how a group of loyal judicial colleagues and dedicated court employees have worked tirelessly to reign in the impetuous impulses of a puerile, mercurial and tyrannical presiding justice. Those remarks will have to await my retirement.
But whatever they lack in surprise I hope they make up for in sincerity. I could easily have responded to the request to recount what it’s been like to be a colleague of Norm Epstein’s in two simple words: Sheer Heaven.
Norm, I know I speak for everyone who has ever worked with you when I say it has been the privilege of a lifetime. We are all better for your influence. We hope some of your extraordinary qualities have rubbed off on us, and we know that our court and our legal system will be the beneficiaries of your legacy for years to come..
Copyright 2018, Metropolitan News Company