Monday, October 5, 2020
Served in Assembly From 1974-80, on Superior Court From 1980-2000
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Services are pending for William J. McVittie, 81, who served as a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court from Dec. 1, 1980 to Dec. 4, 2000, and for six years before that, was a member of the Assembly.
As a judge, he was known for his calm demeanor and keen knowledge of the law.
WILLIAM J. MCVITTIE
His varied career included working as a public accountant for Price Waterhouse in Chicago, 1959-60; serving as a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service in Los Angeles, 1960-62; acting as tax accountant for Aerojet-General Corp. in Azusa, 1962-64; going into law practice after admission to the State Bar on Jan. 12, 1965; holding the post of city attorney of Chino, in San Bernardino County, 1970-74; and representing portions of San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties in the Assembly, 1974-80.
The March 5, 1980 issue of the Los Angeles Times quotes then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, Gray Davis (later governor) as saying that the rumored appointment of McVittie, then chair of the Assembly’s Criminal Justice Committee, to the bench was “not imminent.” Brown appointed him on March 7.
However, McVittie continued carrying out his legislative duties until the end of the session, assuming his judicial post six days shy of nine months after the appointment.
1980 Bar Rating
As an assemblyman, McVittie took strong stances, and, accordingly, had his detractors. Fred Kline said in his March 17, 1980 syndicated column:
“[T]he San Bernardino Bar Association rated McVittie as not qualified for a judgeship. The State Bar did not give him its top rating, but it said he is qualified.
“However, apparently to avoid bruised feelings with attorneys in that area, Brown instead named McVittie to the sprawling Los Angeles County Superior Court, which has need for 35 new judges.
“While this should cause some stir among lawyers in Los Angeles County, the impact will be minimal compared with what would have happened in San Bernardino legal circles had McVittie been appointed there.”
As it happened, there was no such “stir” among Los Angeles lawyers and, when McVittie drew an election challenge in 1982 from Citrus Municipal Court Judge Eugene Osko, the Los Angeles County Bar Association rated the incumbent “well qualified”—and labeled the challenger “not qualified.”
He was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times and numerous bar groups.
A June 2, 1982 editorial in the METNEWS endorsing McVittie observed that Osko had “portrayed McVittie, during his six years as an assemblyman, as a wheeler-dealer politico who bucked meaningful anti-crime bills.” The editorial remarked:
“But Osko is not running against Assemblyman McVittie. He’s opposing Judge McVittie, who has held his judicial post for nearly one-and-a-half years.
“Not once, to our knowledge, has Osko uttered a single word of criticism of McVittie’s performance as a judge. That strikes us as an implied admission that McVittie is doing an outstanding job as a judge.”
McVittie defeated Osko by a vote of 658,948 to 338,036.
Appellate Court Praise
A July 8, 1983 Court of Appeal opinion by Justice (later Presiding Justice) Mildred L. Lillie (now deceased) commended McVittie for his handling of a burglary trial in which the defendant became so disruptive that at times that he had to be handcuffed and gagged, and eventually removed from the courtroom, viewing proceedings via closed circuit television. She wrote:
“The record is replete with contemptuous, disrespectful, profane, obscene, abusive language directed by defendant to the judge, prosecutor, deputy sheriff, jurors and the judicial process resulting in countless disruptions of the orderly trial procedure. One cannot read the reporter’s transcript of the oral proceedings and not be impressed with the patience, courtesy and consideration shown to defendant by Judge McVittie in the face of defendant’s insulting contemptuous conduct; he bent over backwards in assuring that defendant was afforded due process and his rights were protected even permitting professional courtesies not ordinarily extended to defendants representing themselves.”
Justice L. Thaxton Hanson (also deceased), in a concurring opinion, remarked that McVittie’s “patience not only exceeded that of Job but also surpassed any ‘judicial temperament’ which might be generally considered adequate for sitting judges.”
McVittie was quoted in a Sept. 7, 1983 profile in the METNEWS as saying that he was surprised to receive such praise in that opinion, People v. Colbert. He related:
“I thought it was unusual that they were commending a judge on his performance in the courtroom.
“Judges usually receive very little recognition from any source. They mainly get criticized for doing something wrong, and criticism comes from the public.”
The profile says:
“A personable man who inspires ease in conversation, the 45-year-old McVittie appears cordial in his dealings with attorneys, jurors and litigants in the Pomona branch court.
“After a long day in court, for instance, he dismissed jurors with an apology for the malfunctioning in the building’s air conditioning system.”
McVittie, as a judge, had the uncommon distinction of having an arrest record—as Osko brought up in his campaign. Two arrests on misdemeanor charges occurred in 1974 when McVittie, a Chino private practitioner and city attorney, was running for the first of his three two-year terms in the Assembly.
The initial arrest was on charges instituted on Sept. 26 based on his campaign soliciting a county employee to accept an “emolument, gratuity or reward” and his purportedly aiding or counseling in the commission of a misdemeanor. The charges stemmed from the committee having set up a $500 fund to pay deputy registrars of voters 40 cents for every person who registered in the district as a Democrat (supplementing the 35 cents paid by the state and 10 cents provided by the county for every registration, without regard to party).
The Ontario Municipal Court ordered the charges dismissed based on a pleading defect, and they were not reinstituted by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, which had brought them.
McVittie said in 1982 that the law at the time was ambiguous, and that he had acted on legal advice that the registration effort was lawful.
He was also arrested on Oct. 18, 1974, for failing to file a form required under a new campaign disclosure law. The action against him was dismissed by the Ontario Municipal Court on Oct. 25 at the request of the District Attorney’s Office.
Then-Assembly Speaker Leo T. McCarthy (later lieutenant governor) on Oct. 31 asserted that the charges were predicated not on legitimate prosecutorial objectives, but on a politically motivated conspiratorial effort, which included the San Bernardino County district attorney, to keep McVittie from winning the election.
Presided in Pomona
Most of McVittie’s 20 years on the bench were spent in Pomona—close to his home in San Bernardino County—handling civil cases. He did preside over criminal matters in Pomona in 1985 and was a judge in the Juvenile Court from 1986-89.
After retiring from the court, he established his own private dispute resolution firm, and in 2011 joined the Inland Empire firm of Homon & Stone as a mediator.
McVittie’s law degree is from USC. Fellow students in the Class of 1964 included Gilbert Alston (now deceased), who also became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, and David Roberti, who became president pro tem of the state Senate.
He earned a master of laws degree in dispute resolution from Pepperdine University in 1980 and a master’s degree in politics from Claremont Graduate University in 2002.
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