Victor E. Chavez Remembered As Outstanding Jurist, Who Led the Superior Court During Consolidation
He Is Praised As Having Been a Consummate Gentleman, ‘Universally Loved,’ Who Was Outgoing and Caring
Chavez Brought People Together for Lunches, Was A Founder of the Cowboy Lawyers
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victor E. Chavez is remembered as a much-loved jurist, a gentleman, and a cowboy.
He died on Friday at the age of 90 after 30 years on the bench, two of those years—in 1999 and 2000—as presiding judge. In that role, he deftly guided the consolidation of the county’s municipal courts with Superior Court, minimizing bumps and tangles.
Among the numerous tributes to Chavez from members of the bench and bar are those of Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert of this district’s Div. Six and retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Isabel Cohen, each of whom referred to him as “universally loved.” Several of those paying homage to Chavez noted that he was a “gentleman.”
He was known as a man devoid of prejudices. A devout Catholic, he was married to a Jewish woman, a cousin of the late comic Shelley Berman; his closest friends included African Americans.
A long-time friend of his, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Arnold Gold, now a mediator/arbitrator, said he agrees with a comment to him, in an email over the weekend from Gilbert, who termed Chavez a “mensch,” a Yiddish term meaning a good person. Gold observed:
“The Catholic Church can be proud of him. His religious upbringing certainly formed him. He was one of the most moral and honorable people I have ever met.”
Gold added that Chavez “was a loving and close family man, but his circle of friends went far, far beyond his family.”
His family included his wife, psychologist Marlene Chavez, four children (having been predeceased by a son in 2008 and a daughter in 2018), four stepchildren, and 16 grandchildren.
A daughter, Court of Appeal Justice Victoria Chavez of this district’s Div. Two, declared:
“I will say only that my father was so proud to be a lawyer and then a judge—positions that he believed were so important. My entire family and I are so very proud of him. He set the standard that we all strive to achieve.”
In light of the pandemic, there will be no public celebration of his life.
“Victor was caring, kind and just. He was incredibly inclusive and gracious.
“He tried his darndest in the late ’90s, as PJ to get us judges interested in participatory joint social activities. But the proof was in the pudding that as a group, we were social duds!!
“He was always the youngest at heart of any of us. I think he was universally loved.”
“Intelligence, integrity, humanity, humor, sensitivity, were the traits that everyone recognized in Victor. Pardon the cliché, but that is why Victor was universally loved and admired.”
Gilbert’s full remarks appear in a commentary by him at http://metnews.com/articles/2020/reminiscences11032020.htm.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Steven Czuleger, a past presiding judge, provided these thoughts:
“ ‘Anyone can be heroic from time to time, but a gentleman is something you have to be all the time.’ (Luigi Pirandello).
“A gentleman all of the time. That was Judge Victor Chavez. Beyond being a great judge, Vic was truly a gentleman first.
“Meeting that definition meant that he was a polite, gracious and considerate man with high standards of propriety and correct behavior. Those that had the high honor to know him know him meant being provided an opportunity to emulate his conduct in life. Few could reach the illustrious status he lived. However, being around him meant that you had an example of good behavior to strive for daily.
“I will miss his example of proper conduct. I will miss my friend, the judge, the family man, the gentleman.”
‘Kind and Caring’
Among those hailing Chavez as a “gentleman” was Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge-Elect Eric C. Taylor, the current assistant presiding judge, who said:
“Victor was an unwavering and dedicated servant to the people of Los Angeles County, a legend in our legal community, and a kind and caring gentleman.”
He that recounted as presiding judge, Chavez was “always generous with his time and his advice” and that in 1999, he “even came out at 6:00 on a Saturday morning to join me on a community public address radio program on JKL,” a station serving the African American community. Taylor remembers that Chavez told him “there was no better reason to get up early” than to communicate with the public.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney said of his relationship with Chavez:
“I had the pleasure of working on cases when he was the opposing counsel. I had the honor of working with him as a college colleague, and under him when he was presiding judge. In every capacity, under any circumstance, he was always the consummate gentleman.”
The words “consummate gentleman” were used, too, by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis, who said:
“He knew so much history and was so kind and patient sharing all his stories about ‘his Los Angeles.’
“Rest in Peace dear friend. You are really not gone, as you left a wonderful legacy in your lovely family.”
Another judge of that court, Kelvin D. Filer, offered these thoughts:
“Judge Chavez was a dynamic and influential member of our court! He was truly a gentleman, a scholar and a trailblazer. He will be missed but his influence will always be present through the colleagues and lawyers that he impacted.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler described Chavez as a “true gentleman” who was one of the “nicest people I ever met.”
Sherman Oaks attorney William Daniels—known to members of the Cowboy Lawyers, of which Chavez was a founder, as “Wild Bill”—reflected:
“I got to know Victor Chavez during long horseback rides with the Cowboy Lawyers.
“In those sorts of settings, you learn a good deal about a person that you won’t when they’re wearing a black robe.
“Vic was a true gentleman who worked his way up to the highest legal heights, but never forgot how he began.”
In an article at http://metnews.com/articles/2020/reminiscences11032020.htm, Elizabeth R. Feffer—who retired as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Aug. 31, 13 years and one day after she was appointed to the bench, and is now an arbitrator/mediator/referee—says she “would describe Victor by saying that if you look up ‘gentleman’ in the dictionary, you would see Victor’s picture.” She also tells of his efforts to boost comradery on the court which included his frequent lunches with colleagues.
Lunch With Chavez
Duffy-Lewis commented that Chavez’s “open invitation to go to lunch was legendary.”
He had lunch with colleagues, with long-time chums, with others.
Gold noted that Chavez was “a very social person,” and related:
“He loved lunching with friends—so much, in fact, that if you wanted to have lunch with him, you had to get in line. His lunch schedule was always booked three or more weeks in advance.
He said he “had the good fortune to be part of Victor’s ‘Old-Timers Lunch’ group,” comprised, for years, of Chavez, himself, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Malcolm Mackey and retired members of the court Dion Morrow and Henry Patrick Nelson.
In the months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the group was joined, he said, by retired Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Norman Epstein and retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Mining—and, back a few years, before their deaths, had included Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon and retired Pasadena Municipal Court Judge Warren Ettinger.
“Someone would ask the rhetorical question, ‘Where shall we dine?’ and Victor would always steer us toward the Plum Tree in Chinatown,” Gold recalled.
“I will miss our monthly luncheon with him at a Chinese restaurant,” Mackey said.
He credited Chavez as having been “an outstanding jurist who was knowledgeable, kind, supportive and one of our distinguished judges in the State of California,” adding:
“He had our biggest courtroom where he rendered justice to litigants.”
More Chinatown Meals
Also having lunch with Chavez in Chinatown, with frequency, was Patricia Phillips, a partner in Phillips Jessner LLP, and a former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. That group, she said, was comprised of Chavez, herself, former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien, retired Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Elva Soper, and attorney Pat Lobello.
Phillips explained that they were all “holdovers” from the State Bar Committee of Bar Examiners, on which they had served at varying times.
“Vic was a fair and hard worker and always kept in mind the important interests of his special community,” the bar leader said, adding: Like many others, I had the privilege of being part of Vic Chavez’ circle of lunch companions. Those lunches are among my fondest memories. Vic was a kind and wonderful man. As he got older, his mind stayed just as sharp as ever. Although he was such an interesting person, he was always more interested in what you had to say. I will miss him.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr had his memories of lunches with Chavez, saying:
“Periodically, Vic would round up some of his colleagues for lunch. I was fortunate to belong to one of his many circles. Vic was delightful to break bread with.”
“His wonderful qualities can be gathered into one word: simpatico. He loved the Superior Court, and we loved him. We knew he’d never leave. More than once I heard people say he’d die in office. But not so soon.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Steven J. Kleifield said:
“Like many others, I had the privilege of being part of Vic Chavez’ circle of lunch companions. Those lunches are among my fondest memories. Vic was a kind and wonderful man. As he got older, his mind stayed just as sharp as ever. Although he was such an interesting person, he was always more interested in what you had to say.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patricia Nieto had this to say”
“After several years on the bench I was assigned to Civil at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, a personal goal and accomplishment. I soon realized, however, that another high point existed: being invited to participate in Victor Chavez’ rotating lunch caravan. Months into my assignment, I was honored to be included on his list of lunch companions.
“He had his favorite places: the diner on Central, the downtown fish market, the restaurant near the produce market where Maria would start preparing his special salad as soon as he arrived. Too many places to name. He would choose the spot and drive us to a richly historied eatery of old Los Angeles, never failing to acknowledge the staff by name.
“Victor entertained us with stories of his legal career and his experience on the bench. His majestic voice, his wit and charm combined with his intelligence placed him at the top of any Hollywood director’s perfect model for a judge. He was ageless and timeless. As a lawyer and a judge, he was unwavering in his values and gracious in his manner. A true gentleman, a true gentle man.”
Judge Randolph Hammock of the Los Angeles Superior Court reported that when he was assigned to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in the Los Angeles Civic Center in 2015, he was invited several times to have lunch with kilos Chavez, which he termed “an honor and privilege.”
He said he remembers with particular delight a lunch with Chavez and another former presiding judge, William A. MacLaughlin.
“Suffice it to state, it was a memorable ‘old school’ experience,” Hammock said.
As to Chavez’s death, he observed:
“This is a great loss for our court, and for the citizens of Los Angeles County.”
Michael D. Antonovich was a Los Angeles County supervisor from 1980-2016. He, Chavez, and a mutual friend, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Farrell (who died in 2016) “regularly had lunch,” Antonovich said.
“Victor was devoted to his wife, Marlene, and her work with children, his judicial responsibilities, and his love of horses,” he mentioned, adding:
“He and Marlene rode on some of my equestrian rides. He had a great sense of humor and shared this regularly with his emails.”
Chavez frequently sent friends emails with jokes or humorous videos, according to Gold.
Lawyer, ‘Model Judge,’ Court Leader
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William D. Stewart and veteran attorney John P. Nicholas of McNicholas & McNicholas, LLP were also frequent lunch companions of Chavez—meeting not in Chinatown but at Langers, a delicatessen kitty-corner to MacArthur Park.
Stewart shared these memories of Chavez as a lawyer and as the presiding judge:
“The Victor Chavez I knew for nearly fifty years spent part of his early career as a trial attorney with Early, Maslach, Foran & Williams, Farmers Insurance in-house counsel….
“I met Vic personally near the beginning of the 1970s when he was considering a career change and contacted Van Hagenbaugh, senior partner at the firm where I was a new associate. Although the association would have made a great combination, salary terms could not be agreed. Victor Chavez then entered a successful practice with Leonard Pomerantz.
“Later, Vic and I opposed each other in a medical malpractice case where my hospital’s liability was clear, but his client’s injuries and damages were disputable. Vic assembled such a strong damage case, my client basically settled on his terms.
“He of course had the remarkable achievement as Presiding Judge in overseeing consolidation of the courts.”
Chavez was widely seen as a steadying force at the time of court unification in 2000 which some saw as a forced wedding. Municipal courts were swallowed up by the Superior Court, and some veterans of the latter court viewed their new colleagues as junior judges, much to their resentment.
“Victor Chavez had a thorough and quick legal mind—he could always rapidly think out a thorny issue of fact or law. Along with his friendly demeanor and engaging smile, his rare and remarkable talents and skills, including as a zealous advocate, able negotiator and model judge, will be fondly remembered and greatly missed. As a lawyer and judge, he was truly one of the noble notables of the legal profession.”
“I met Victor in 1961 or 1962. We were claims adjusters for Farmers Insurance In Inglewood. Victor was waiting for the bar results. I was still a night student at Loyola. We maintained that friendship with monthly lunches at Langer’s Delicatessen until the pandemic brought that to a halt.
Victor was a giant among men and put a smile on the face of everyone with whom he came into contact— fellow judges, attorneys in and out of his court, jurors (many had a post verdict group photograph with Victor).
“He was a fine Christian gentleman in the Catholic tradition. He was a devout Catholic. Requiescat in pace Victor! May the angels and your son, Robert, welcome you into Paradise and everlasting peace.”
Chavez was not only a founding member of the Cowboy Lawyers, but frequently went on the group’s “rides” on various areas of the state, with his wife Marlene, and attended its dinners. Member Donald G. Forgey, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Lewis Brisbois, advised that the group was incorporated in 1989 and “is still going strong and now has over 280 members.”
A prime mover in the formation of the group, and its first president, was James D. Nichols of Bonne, Bridges, Mueller, O’Keefe & Nichols. He offered this tribute to Chavez, a longtime friend of his:
“The Honorable Victor Chavez was just that and more. Honorable.
“I knew him when he was practicing law. I was a guest in his home. I attended his horseback wedding which could not have been more western (Charro style).
“After full disclosure, he attempted to recuse himself in a lengthy trial I was in. ‘Nichols is a social friend, but I can be fair’ he told my opponent, who accepted him to sit on the case. And he was. His rulings for and against me were solid and based on the law. The other side never complained and felt they were well-treated.
“Vic was a member of the Cowboy Lawyers Association from day one. Without his support, we may never have gotten our now thirty-plus year association off the ground. I was very honored to be one of the roasters who roasted him at a gala a few years back.
“He will truly be missed by family, friends and all those who were privileged to stand before him in Court.
“Rest in peace, Sweet Judge.”
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rita “Sunny” Miller said of the cowboy judge:
“He had a big old Mexican cowboy’s hat and a mare named Margarita and they would run and run until they ran out of road. I wish the road had been longer. But as he wished, he ran until the end.”
Santa Clarita attorney Dee Yarnall said of Chavez:
“What a great judge. I appeared before Judge Chavez early in my career. Relatively inexperienced compared to eloquent co-plaintiffs’ and defense counsel, it could have been intimidating. Judge Chavez was no-nonsense, but fair, diligent, and thoughtful. He read everything; he knew the cases. Judge Chavez was so kind, respectful, and encouraging to me, it was a pleasure to be overruled! He was everything you want a judge to be.
“Years later, through Cowboy Lawyers, I learned he was also a great horseman, father, husband, and my dear friend. I smile to think of him on those long rides, leaning in his saddle, and getting back to camp, mischievously raiding my chocolate chip cookies before lunch.
“It’s hard to accept that you are gone, judge. We will miss you much.”
Attorneys Jack and Mary Denove chimed in:
“Vic touched many lives as a son, husband, father, lawyer, judge, cowboy and friend. Every role he played was with grace, charm and goodwill. Everyone he encountered is better for it. We miss you now Vic but we’ll see you further down the trail.”
Attorney “Wild Bill” Daniels conveyed this recollection:
“I especially remember an evening at his home when he and Marlene hosted a few of us for dinner and showed off some mementos from their then recent trip to China.
“I’ll never forget how interested he was in each of his guests, even though he was quite excited to tell about his own latest adventures.
“Rest in peace, old friend. We’ll catch up with you later on up the trail.”
Here are other brief tributes supplied to the METNEWS:
•Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stuart M. Rice, a past president of the California Judges Association:
“Vic Chavez was an inspiration to all of us who sit as judicial officers in the LASC. Even after more than 30 years on the bench and well past the usual retirement age, Vic still loved everything about being a judge—dispensing justice patiently and with dignity, interacting with fine attorneys and our court users as well as the relationships he had with so many of his colleagues. I am proud to have known him.”
•Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin, a former presiding judge:
“[W]e have lost an iconic figure who is a cognizable part of the history of Los Angeles. Born and raised here, he grew up here during the depression and World War II, doing the many menial jobs that were so common during that time but also getting the education that led him to be one of the fine trial lawyers of our time and then a judge and leader if our court. He had a great sense of history, of humor and of adventure. What distinguished him most, however, was his graciousness, humility and love of his family and friends which are beyond counting. If you knew Vic for 15 minutes, you had a friend forever.”
•Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Murphy:
“Judge Victor E. Chavez was a role model for every judge and presiding judge. A man of humanity and integrity, he cared about every judge on the court and let us know it with his supportive and encouraging words and actions. It is an honor to have known him and served with him. We will miss him dearly.”
•Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy, a former presiding judge:
“Victor Chavez was among the most kind, encouraging, thoughtful persons I have known in life. He listened more than he spoke, and when he spoke, his thoughts were always well considered. He was a great leader among judges, not only as Presiding Judge, but when he held no position of authority other than that of trial judge. People, especially judges, trusted Victor’s leadership not only because his character was worthy of trust, but because he was wise both in mind and heart.”
•Mediator/arbitrator Patrick M. Kelly, a former State Bar president and former Los Angeles County Bar Association president:
“Vic was the model of an attorney, a judge and a citizen. He was always thoughtful, courteous and a true friend. Vic was PJ when I was a bar officer and I always respected his judgment and his devotion to his office. We will all miss him—including the Cowboy Lawyers.”
•Former Los Angeles County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman, a partner in Nossaman LLP:
“Victor loved working in the courthouse so much that he never wanted to retire and do private judging. In doing so he always was busy had a smile on his face; I never saw him without a smile.
“My wife, Kathleen, said he was so charming the she had a “schoolgirl crush” on Victor from the moment she met him.”
•Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Cunningham:
“Judge Victor Chavez was a real trailblazer. He was smart, kind and dedicated to the courts. Victor had a great zest for life.”
•Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mel Red Recana, who was a presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court:
“It is truly a sad day for all of us. Judge Victor Chavez, former Presiding Judge, court leader, mentor, terrific trial judge, trusted and reliable friend: a role model for all of us. He left a void in our Court that will be very hard to fill up.
“Let us just find comfort in our thoughts and prayers that Vic had a great career, wonderful family and now he dwells in the House of the Lord forever.”
•Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Philip Argento:
“I remember Victor Chavez for his gracious, steady leadership as Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court during the multifaceted transition from administrative unification toward trial court unification, a difficult challenge for those directly affected.”
•Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Huey P. Cotton:
“He was subtle but powerful in his support of human rights. For example, he recommended we read a 1933 novel he embraced, ‘The Forty Days of Musa Dagh’ by Frank Werfel.”
•Former Los Angeles County Bar Association President Edith Matthai of Robie & Matthai:
“Judge Chavez lived his belief in our system of justice. He served the legal community and the courts with dignity, grace, unwavering civility, wisdom and a marvelous sense of humor. He mentored many and reminded all of us that protection of the justice system is protection of our society. We honor his legacy by attempting to always live up to his standards.”
In Other Forums
In a brief notice to colleagues Friday night, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile said:
“Judge Chavez will be dearly missed by those of us who knew him and valued his friendship and his wonderful personality. He was a great example of humility, empathy, integrity and courage. He was a fantastic role model and a true hero to us all.”
Chavez in 1979 was president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (“ABOTA”), an elite association of litigator. Dana A. Fox of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, an advocate with ABOTA, on Friday said in an email to fellow ABOTA members, telling of Chavez’s death:
“Many of you appeared and some tried cases before Judge Chavez. I had the honor and privilege of trying the Dodgers case before Judge Chavez. He was a judge’s judge. If the lawyers knew what they were doing and followed the rules he stayed out of their way. He enjoyed good lawyering. He looked forward to interesting trials. He loved being a judge.
“Everyone who tried a case before Judge Chavez, who was on the bench for 30 years after being in private practice for 31 years, had tremendous respect for him. My career as a trial lawyer would have been more enjoyable if I could have had Judge Chavez for every one of my trials.
“A few months after the Dodgers trial, my secretary got engaged. She told me she and her husband were going to have a civil ceremony with a justice of the peace. I would not have any part of that given all of the judges we know. I asked Judge Chavez if he would marry my secretary. In true Judge Chavez fashion, his response was “I don’t know, how old is she and how does she look?”
“Judge Chavez agreed to perform the wedding ceremony provided he got to meet and got to know my secretary and her fiancé. A few weeks later, Judge Chavez performed a beautiful wedding ceremony in his enormous courtroom.
“We have lost a friend, a fellow ABOTA member, and a legend.”
Copyright 2020, Metropolitan News Company