Judge Victor E. Chavez—a Biography
By John Shepard Wiley Jr.
(The writer is a Court of Appeal justice, serving on this district’s Div. Eight. The following article appeared on Nov. 19, 2018 in “Gavel to Gavel,” a magazine circulated among bench officers of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Wiley then sat as a judge of that court. The article is reprinted with permission.)
In a publication Judge Victor Chavez spearheaded for 17 years, the one thing readers have never seen is content about Judge Victor Chavez. That is characteristic of the man. As Presiding Judge Daniel Buckley notes nearby, you speak with Judge Chavez and he turns questions about him into questions about you: your interests, your family, what have you read that you recommend. So his co-editors have conspired to sneak this text past his censorious eye to write a bit about the man who has made this rag work for so long.
Judge Chavez is not retiring as a judge—far from it—but his marathon turn at the helm of Gavel To Gavel concludes with this issue.
Judge Chavez typifies one thread of Los Angeles history and of the American Dream, which he says is less about melting pots and more our American tossed salad.
udge Chavez is a Los Angeles native with southwestern roots predating the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. For generations before they became a conquered people, his ancestors inhabited what is now New Mexico. Judge Chavez’s father left for Los Angeles in the 1920s to search for opportunity and to start working on the railroad. He rose to boilermaker, which was the highest the Santa Fe line would permit Mexican-Americans to rise. In those days the conductors and the brakemen were always white Anglo Saxon males.
Judge Chavez was born at home, about three miles from the Mosk Courthouse, in the Rampart area. At age seven his family moved to a Los Angeles area where restrictive covenants and hostile realtors did not block the family’s home purchase. In that home, Judge Chavez recounts, “your table manners had to be appropriate, your vocabulary had to be appropriate, and your use of words had to be accurate.”
The Chavez family traveled on trains for some vacations. The family would read, often aloud. Young Victor read to his family and his mother read aloud to him as well. Today, Judge Chavez remains constantly on the hunt for a good new title. If you have one, he would enjoy it.
udge Chavez attended local schools with no thought of law and no lawyer role model in his family. He guessed perhaps he would become a teacher. He sang in glee club and played trumpet. Then a friend told Judge Chavez he was going to Loyola Law School to take the entrance test. He invited Judge Chavez along. The test was the “Donovan exam,” one that Father Donovan devised for the school’s private use. This 1953 examination, now lost in time, was fiendishly difficult. The friend flunked. Judge Chavez did not.
So law school it was, but in the middle the Korean War intervened. Judge Chavez joined Air Force ROTC and became a Cold War intelligence officer, trained in Russian, maps, and prisoner interrogation.
After the war, Judge Chavez returned to law school, where he worked a multitude of jobs for support. He was voted president of the student bar association and graduated with a degree, a wife, and four children. “The proudest day of my life was the day I took the oath as a lawyer.”
Judge Chavez began his legal career with a classical apprenticeship in trial by jury. He immediately began trying cases for Farmers Insurance Company, sometimes two a day and five or six a week. At the same time, and in his free time, with his own hands, he added rooms to his family’s small home in Playa Del Rey.
Judge Chavez’s legal assignments progressed from small property damage cases to personal injury matters and on to sizable medical malpractice cases.
The judge recalls writing his first settlement check for $1000.00, marveling at the incredible number of zeroes.
s prep for one trial, Judge Chavez brought a Farmers client to an accident site to review the event. The judge happened to ask his mother if, for her interest, she would like to come along. By coincidence, opposing counsel and his client were across the street, at the same time, for the same purpose. Thereafter Judge Chavez got a message: “We didn’t realize you had a witness. Would you consider settlement?” Fortunately Judge Chavez was not ethically required to respond, “That was no witness. That was my mother.”
There were characters on the bench in those days. One opened every court day with a prayer. Another wore a velvet robe and kept a live dog on the bench.
After a decade of apprenticeship, Judge Chavez found a partner and began plaintiff’s work in a two-person firm formed on a handshake. There was no partnership contract, no quarrels over money, and indeed no arguments of any kind. Then for nine glorious years his daughter Victoria Chavez, now Justice Victoria Chavez, joined the firm and practiced law with her father and his partner.
Judge Chavez continued trying jury trials, one after another, reveling in explaining complex issues in terms every jurors understood, never talking down. Hard work, charisma, and integrity continued to build his reputation. Over the years, he tried more than 100 jury trials, against some of the finest trial counsel anywhere. He became deeply involved in bar activities and was elected president of what then was the Mexican American Lawyers Club, for instance, and of ABOTA—the American Board of Trial Advocates.
overnor Deukmejian appointed Judge Chavez to the bench in 1990, after Judge Arthur Alarcon approached Judge Chavez with the notion. Justice Victoria Chavez, then of the Municipal Court, swore in Judge Chavez—the first judge in Los Angeles County to be sworn in by his daughter. Two years later, Judge Chavez returned the favor upon his daughter’s elevation to the Superior Court.
On the bench, this seasoned trial lawyer was off to a fast start: he tried a murder case his first month on the job. And before long, in 1999, the judges elected Judge Chavez to be Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court.
The immense issue confronting Presiding Judge Chavez was unifying the Superior Court and the many Municipal Courts in Los Angele County. Judges recently to our bench might not fathom what an enormous challenge unification presented. If you are interested, take one of the more senior judges to lunch and start that conversation. Memories remain fresh and perspectives still vary, but by consensus Judge Chavez achieved what seemed impossible, and did it with characteristic grace and bonhomie.
After successfully unifying our court, Presiding Judge Chavez completed his term and took on a long-cause civil trial courtroom, where he continues to supervise some of the biggest jury trials in the nation’s largest trial court.
After concluding his service as Presiding Judge, Judge Chavez also became Chief Editor of Gavel To Gavel. For 17 years, he has defined the vision, set the tone, hustled the authors, ramrodded the schedule, and fussed over the details of getting issue after issue to press.
His co-editors have gotten to work with the soul of the ideal judge: fair, hard-working, even tempered, courtly, kind, and committed to excellence. He has a steely eye, but one rarely sees it. In private, he lets loose a joyfully wicked sense of humor and an abiding regard for delicatessens that made every staff meeting an event to be savored.
If you have not had the pleasure of Judge Chavez as a friend, call him about lunch. He may have a bit more time now, although there will be a jury waiting. He might not ask you to write an article. But be ready with a good book suggestion.
(A somewhat dated METNEWS biography of Victor Chavez, by then-staff writer Robert Greene appears at http://www.metnews.com/profiles/chavez.html. It was written in connection with Chavez being named “Person of the Year.” A Jan. 16, 1998 dinner at which the award was presented drew 444 persons.)
Three Attributes of a Colleague
By Daniel Buckley
(Below is the article alluded to by Justice Wiley. At the time, Buckley was the Los Angeles Superior Court’s presiding judge. He remains a judge of that court.)
Judge Victor Chavez has finished his work on Gavel To Gavel. He is not going anywhere. He is still trying one long cause trial after another. But his service to our court as an editor of this fine publication deserves a moment of our appreciation and applause.
There are about a million good things you can say about Judge Chavez but I’ll name the first three that come to my mind.
First, his work ethic. No one can match it. Vic starts early and is always pushing to get a new case to hear. He obviously loves it and loves getting it done. He takes trial after trial. As soon as one is to the jury he is asking for the next one. Victor has been that way for as long as I’ve known him. I once was trying to settle a case that already had been assigned to long cause and I called Vic to ask if he would give me another half day. I said with that time I thought I could close the deal. Ninety nine out of 100 trial judges would say, “yes, do keep trying to settle it. Take the half day.” Not Vic. He said, “No, they have a trial date: today. Send it back to me and we’ll pick a jury.” Of course, he ended up settling the case himself. He’s unstoppable.
Second, Vic is charming. He has a delightful personality that is all about you and never about him. He cares about you and wants to know what you are doing. How many of us are truly selfless? Victor’s lunch club means he stays in touch with his ever-widening circle of friends, and those on that list are a large and lucky group. And you don’t need to be part of that lunch club to feel his warmth and sincere interest in you. He makes you feel as if you are the only person in the room when he talks with you.
Third, Victor Chavez is the judge’s judge. That is a cliché, but clichés sometimes are true. There is nothing he hasn’t done and nothing he can’t do. From the epic Dodgers case to a small claims appeal, Victor can and will handle any trial, with consummate skill every time. Lawyers all love him and want him.
Victor continues to charge ahead with his docket. We celebrate his 17 years of Gavel To Gavel. We are inspired to have this truly great judge in our midst.
Copyright 2020, Metropolitan News Company