Friday, January 17, 2020
Page Special Section
Inept High School Student Shines As Lawyer, Judge, Court Leader
By SHERRI OKAMOTO
OS ANGELES SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE KEVIN BRAZILE has the distinction of being the first African-American presiding judge of the largest trial court system in the nation, but he is certain he will not be the last.
If tradition continues to hold, current Assistant Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor will become presiding judge on Jan. 1, 2021—and Taylor will be the second African-American presiding judge for the Superior Court.
But it’s not just the history of assistant presiding judges taking the helm as presiding judges that gives Brazile confidence that more persons of color with take his place; he’s been working hard to create that opportunity.
As his first year as presiding judge wraps up, Brazile says he is most proud of having increased the diversity in the court’s leadership.
“We have the makeup of L.A.,” he says, and there’s also “a pipeline of great leaders from which to ensure the diversity continues.”
When his term is over, Brazile says, he hopes that he will have inspired other ethnic minorities to get into the practice of law, and court leadership, and remarks that he’d like to think he “set a path they could follow.”
Father-in-law Calvin Hall, mother-in-law Helen Hall, Brazile, wife Nitra Brazile, and son Jonathan Brazile, are seen at the judge’s swearing-In ceremony in 2002.
Straight, Narrow Path
Brazile has always been one to walk the straight and narrow path. As a child, he recalls, he was “conservative and cautious.” It’s hard to believe the man with the ear-to-ear grin and hearty laugh was once a shy and retiring youngster.
He says it’s because his parents had been very strict, and he was also subject to the watchful eye of three older siblings.
“There was definitely a pecking order,” Brazile recounts, and he had to do as he was told. He finally had a chance to boss someone else around when his younger sister was born, but at 10 years his junior, Brazile says it was pretty ineffective trying to give orders to an infant.
Brazile himself was born at the Queen of Angels Hospital in Echo Park, in 1957. He attended the 74th Street Elementary School and then the Albert F. Monroe Middle School in Inglewood.
He started high school at Inglewood High School, but his family moved to Culver City during his freshman year.
Not Conscientious Student
While at Culver City High School, Brazile played sports and chased girls—and he admits “I didn’t really apply myself the way I should have” when it came to academics. His grades suffered as a result, and he says he believes he had the dubious honor of being the senior with the lowest grade-point-average to graduate.
But Brazile had been determined to graduate, and to be the first in his family to go to college.
Having seen some of his classmates fall prey to gangs, drugs and criminality, Brazile says he was determined he was “going to be someone in this life.”
His original plan to make something of himself had been to follow his brother’s path into the military. Ken Brazile served in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Ken Brazile then received an assignment to serve as a bailiff, and he would regale his teenaged brother with stories about the judges and lawyers in action in the courtroom.
“The stories he would tell, gave me the inspiration” to pursue a career in law, Kevin Brazile relates. “It was like a light went off, and I said ‘I’m going to give this a try.’ ”
Given his dismal high school grades, the only college option for Brazile was a junior college. West Los Angeles Junior College in Culver City was the closest to home, and that’s where Brazile enrolled.
“I had some catching up to do,” he says, but after two years, he was able to transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles.
Brazile worked to put himself through school, as a clothing salesman, gardener, mover, and a holder of a myriad of other odd-jobs. He also lived at home to save money.
“I suspect I took college a bit more seriously than my peers,” Brazile reflects, “but I had nothing to fall back on.”
The hard work paid off, and Brazile graduated cum laude from UCLA in 1980.
UCLA Law School
He remained at UCLA for law school, as it was “the cheapest place to go at the time.” Brazile says it cost $700 a semester, and making that was never easy, but with his summer earnings and a scholarship, he was able to muster the money.
Brazile was admitted to the State Bar of California in June 1984 and he joined the Los Angeles County Counsel’s Office. When he applied for the job, Brazile confesses, he didn’t know exactly what the county counsel did, but his friend’s girlfriend’s father worked for the office and encouraged him to give it a shot.
At the office, Brazile met Lloyd W. “Bill” Pellman. Pellman was a principal deputy county counsel back then. He would become the county counsel in 1998 and hold that position until 2004.
Pellman is now a partner in Nossaman LLP.
Brazile calls Pellman the single most influential person on him in his early years of practice—and he says Pellman remains a mentor and advisor to this day.
Pellman has “always motivated me, always encouraged me,” Brazile says. “He’s never wavered, never faltered, in saying ‘You can do this.’”
But Pellman suggests that Brazile may be over-stating his influence.
“He gives me a lot of credit,” Pellman says, but, “as I told him and Eric Taylor”—also a deputy county counsel—“all I did was stand out of the way, let them do their jobs, and cheer them on.”
At the office, Pellman recalls that Brazile was “recognized early-on as talented.” In fact, Pellman jokes that it was almost a “problem” because Brazile “was so good, many departments wanted to use him exclusively,” and that simply wasn’t feasible.
Brazile was also well-liked by his colleagues, Pellman says. He was known for helping less-experienced attorneys in the office, and the firms under contract with the county, in learning how to handle cases.
Pellman reflects that Brazile also had a talent for recognizing “the talents and personality of opposing counsel,” which is something that not every attorney can do.
“His humility and strengths provide a wonderful combination for people to want to work with him, and learn from him,” Pellman says.
Brazile says his original career goal had been to become a division chief of the County Counsel’s Office—and, indeed, he became the first African-American division chief of the General Litigation Division.
Once Brazile became a division chief, he says, the job wasn’t everything he had dreamed it would be. He wasn’t trying cases anymore, and he says, that was not how he wanted his career to end.
Brazile then turned to Pellman for advice, and Pellman encouraged him to apply for a judgeship. Brazile says he was not entirely sure about his chances of being selected, so he was “a little shocked” to get the call in 2003 when then-Gov. Gray Davis tapped him for the bench.
Pellman declares that he knew Brazile would be headed for a judgeship, long before it happened.
After Brazile left the office, Pellman comments, others “followed him to the bench from the office in part because they recognized his leadership and had his encouragement.”
About two years before Brazile took the bench, Pellman went to visit Washington, D.C. and he stopped at the U.S. Supreme Court gift shop. There, he bought a tie with the scales of justice, and he brought it home to California. Pellman then kept the tie tucked away until the day of Brazile’s enrobement, when he presented the tie to Brazile as a gift.
Brazile is himself well-acquainted with the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the last in-house attorney at the County Counsel’s Office to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court—and he was there after getting a unanimous reversal from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Pellman says he is “really proud” of Brazile, who is “like a little brother to me.” He says there is no greater satisfaction than “watching someone grow up and become successful and then keep going on to the next level.”
Brazile served as supervising judge of the court’s civil departments and he was the site judge at the court’s West Covina branch before moving to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in 2007.
Former Presiding Judge Daniel Buckley says he quickly noticed Brazile was “a strong and talented courtroom judge,” and he was happy to have Brazile as the assistant supervising judge when he was the supervising judge of the civil departments in 2012.
Buckley says he saw Brazile had “a deep, deep concern for the well-being of judges” as well as the “organizational skills and leadership skills” necessary to be a judicial leader.
What’s more, Buckley says, there’s “nothing fake” about Brazile. “He’s really a good and a nice person,” which are also strengths for a presiding judge to have, Buckley opines.
Buckley says he was among the many judges who encouraged Brazile to make a run to become the assistant presiding judge in 2016.
Brazile also notes that many of his colleagues “had faith in me” and helped put him into the position to mount a campaign to become the assistant presiding judge.
“I couldn’t do it alone,” he says. But, “if you have a good support group, a village, you can do just about anything.”
When he ran, Brazile says, he didn’t really think about the fact that he would be the first African-American to become presiding judge. He says he is just grateful to his colleagues for believing in him, and his capabilities, “regardless of what I look like.”
Above are Brazile, wife Nitra Brazile, Carol Chiang (Lee Baca’s wife) and then-Sheriff Lee Baca at a reception for the enrobing of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dalila Lyons.
Condition of Courthouses
The condition of the court’s facilities presents the most pressing issue for him, Brazile notes. The Stanley Mosk Courthouse and the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center are two of the most heavily-trafficked courthouses in the county. If a major earthquake strikes during the busiest business hours, Brazile says there could be thousands of persons injured or killed.
“People are coming here for justice,” he comments, “and they have no idea the buildings are dangerous in the event of the earthquake.”
Brazile says his priority is “making sure the Legislature knows that, and getting the money to rebuild.” While he acknowledges its “going to be a long fight,” Brazile declares that “it’s one we can’t afford to lose.”
Colleagues say Brazile is not only working to build a stronger court infrastructure, he is also building a stronger court.
“What he is doing to make this a friendlier, more collegial court and bench bar environment is exemplary,” Judge Huey Cotton, supervising judge of the Northwest District, declares. “You can’t earn better goodwill for a court than by doing what he is doing.”
One thing Brazile has started, is an electronic monthly newsletter, Cotton reports. Brazile’s “infections smile and laugh” come across in that missive, and it helps create a “family environment” for the employees, as he sees it.
“You look forward to engaging with colleagues, and getting messages,” Cotton says.
But it’s not all fun and games. Brazile is “still a tough boss who holds us to our task,” Cotton warns. “He keeps the court running efficiently and improves on its efficiencies, but he’s going it in a way that makes you happy to come to work every day.”
Additionally, Cotton points out, Brazile is doing all the work of a presiding judge, “and making history as he does it, without being conscious of the fact that everything he’s doing, is making history.”
While Cotton says he is certain “the historical moment” is not lost on Brazile, he observes that it’s not influencing Brazile, either.
When it comes to Brazile, Cotton continues, “there’s not applause requested or needed,” and “that’s exceptional to me.”
Seen as ‘Visionary’
Judge Allen Webster Jr. opines that Brazile is “a visionary when it comes to leadership.”
Webster says Brazile clearly “recognizes the broad talents and experiences of the judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court” in making judicial assignments and placing people “in assignments where you can best serve the needs of the court and the citizens of Los Angeles County.”
What’s more, the assignments are “reflective of the diversity that is Los Angeles County,” which “brings about a richer dialogue” as to the needs of a particular committee or court system, Webster notes.
Under Brazile’s leadership, in Webster’s view, the court is “a broad reflection of the makeup and population of Los Angeles county,” adding:
“As far as I’m concerned that’s going to be his legacy.”
When his time is up as presiding judge, Brazile says, he is not sure what he will do. He says he plans to head back to his old civil courtroom, and maybe travel.
While Brazile says he thinks he is “slowing down” a bit as he ages, he says he suspects his wife, Nitra, is not ready for him to retire.
The couple met 31 years ago, while he was still working at the County Counsel’s Office. A receptionist there arranged a blind date for Brazile with his wife-to-be. She was an administrator for the Rosemead Unified School District.
Although Brazile says he thought the date had gone well, he failed to make a positive first impression. The date ended with him tripping and falling from the porch after he walked his date, Nitra Hall, to the door.
Hall later gave Brazile a second shot, concluding he might not be hopelessly clumsy, after all, in light of her mother having fallen and broken her arm while roller-skating. Brazile managed to maintain his footing on that next date, and this time, sparks flew.
“We have been together ever since,” Brazile says.
The couple has one son. Jonathan Brazile who passed the February 2019 bar exam and is in private practice in a South Pasadena civil law firm.
Friendship With Taylor
Kevin Brazile’s time with the County Counsel’s Office also yielded one other major relationship for him: the relationship with Taylor.
Brazile and Taylor are not only the first pair of African-American judges to serve as presiding judge and assistant presiding judge, they are also the first two former members of the County Counsel’s Office to hold both spots.
Taylor says that he and Brazile have led “lives that were sort of parallel.” They were both “sort of geeky kids” with “similar upbringings,” who grew up about a mile apart.
Their paths didn’t cross until they met each other at the County Counsel’s Office in the early 1990s, though.
“Kevin was a quiet, kind of demure person back then, if you can believe that,” Taylor recalls.
Working together, Taylor says he was “struck by the amount of knowledge” Brazile had. They approached their tasks with “a positive attitude, teamwork and sharing of information,” and eventually formed a close friendship, Taylor relates.
“I became a much better lawyer because I knew Kevin,” Taylor claims. “He is, quite frankly, the best lawyer I’ve ever known.”
When Taylor was appointed to the Municipal Court in 1998, he says Brazile was right beside him, cheering him on. He did the same when Brazile was seeking an appointment.
“We fed off of each other,” Taylor says, then and now. “It has been a circle of support and trust.”
Taylor discloses that he had initially been a bit hesitant to seek the position of assistant presiding judge in 2018 since there had not yet been one, let alone two African-Americans to hold the top administrative judicial positions for the court, but Brazile and others inspired him “not to see race as an obstacle.”
Taylor says that he honestly “never thought we’d hold these positions, “as “neither one of us came from central casting to the legal profession and then into the judiciary,” but he credits their achievements to teamwork.
Together, Taylor says, he and Brazile are committed to repairing and replacing existing dilapidated courthouse structures, and expanding services into areas and communities where access to the courts is lacking.
“It will happen, and it will happen soon,” Taylor vows. “We must provide a functional and safe justice system that the people of this county deserve, in line with the current commitment of Gov. Gavin Newsom and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.”
Assembly member Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, Assistant Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor, Brazile, Senior U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. of the Central District of California, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rupa Goswami are seen at an event hosted by Holden celebrating Brazile becoming the first African American presiding judge at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena.
Alumni of Office
Several other members of the County Counsel’s Office have followed Brazile and Taylor on to judgeships.
Judge Victor Wright had worked with Brazile at the County Counsel’s Office before taking the bench. He jokes that on his first day at the office, he was told to do whatever Brazile said, and “that was some of the best advice I ever got in my life.”
Wright further claims, “That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.”
Being assigned to work with Brazile was “probably one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Wright reflects. “It was a really wonderful way to learn how to be an attorney.”
Working with Brazile, “you learned, it wasn’t someone just giving you a fish—it was someone teaching you how to fish,” Wright says.
Brazile “has been a mentor since the day I met him,” Wright adds. In fact, Wright posits that Brazile “probably has 50 best friends” because he is so personable and supportive of others around him.
“You can come to him about anything, work, school, personal situations,” Wright says. “He’s always given me great advice.”
Brazile, Taylor and Wright all became close friends while they were working at the county’s law office, and the three men began a tradition of regularly going to lunch together.
According to Wright, it was at one of these meals that the three decided that they were going to pursue judgeships, and they encouraged each other along the way.
And, they encouraged others.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rene Gilbertson says Brazile’s encouragement was one of the big reasons why she decided to make the leap from the County Counsel’s Office to the bench, through election in 2018.
Brazile “is a person who brings out the best in all of us,” and “leads by example with hard work and also with kindness,” Gilbertson says.
Gilbertson had worked with Brazile at the County Counsel’s Office, where “he was a mentor, not only to me, but to so many people,” she says, reflecting that “you rarely see people give time like Kevin did,” helping anyone who needed assistance.
Brazile says his priority has always been “giving back,” being a mentor to young lawyers and judges, helping to provide them with the mentoring and support he had received.
“If you climb that ladder,” he says,” when you get to the top, the question is: Are you going to hold that ladder for someone else to make that same climb?”
Brazile says he sees himself as “holding the ladder,” and that’s what he hopes people will remember about him from his term as presiding judge.
The fact that Judge Brazile is the first African-American to be the presiding judge is horrible news and great news. It’s almost shameful that it’s taken this long, and it’s wonderful that it is Judge Brazile.
He brings to the job an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious in creating a desire to help build what is already a wonderful court into an even better court.
President Los Angeles County Bar Association
As co-chair of the Judicial Council of California’s Advisory Committee on Providing Access and Fairness, Judge Brazile was instrumental in improving and updating the judicial branch’s diversity tool kit, which is designed to increase the diversity of applicants for judicial appointment in California.
Chief Justice, California
I’ve known Kevin for almost 30 years. He was the best lawyer that I’d ever met at that time. And he’s since been one of my best friends. Judge Brazile is kind and considerate. He cares about our court, and it’s employees and bench officers. I’ve enjoyed walking the halls of our courts with him with a hopeful eye for the future. We couldn’t have a better leader at this moment.
Assistant Presiding Judge,
Los Angeles Superior Court
I am pleased to share my thoughts on Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile as we honor him as a “Person of the Year.”
Judge Brazile is an outstanding jurist, one we are fortunate to have as our Presiding Judge. He is bright, caring and devoted to equal justice for all who are served by the Los Angeles Superior Court. He has the unique ability to bring individuals with diverse viewpoints together, listen to them and formulate solutions to difficult issues and challenges.
In my capacity as Assistant and later Supervising Judge of the Civil Division of our Court, I was privileged to work with Judge Brazile on a regular and often a daily basis. I was most impressed with his leadership skills. He never asked our judges to do anything that he would not do himself. In my close to 25 years on the bench, I have never met an individual who was kinder or cared more for our judges.
We are a better Court because Judge Kevin Brazile is our Presiding Judge.
—Debre K. Weintraub
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
Cannot say enough about my PJ, Judge Kevin Brazile. He is inspirational, very supportive of our work as judges both on and off the bench, he is a leader but also a friend when needed.
—Marguerite D. Downing
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
Judge Brazile is the essence of collegiality, of can-do optimism, of all that’s good about our court. It’s always a pleasure to work with him.
—Anthony J. Mohr
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
A founding member of AAACJO; a principal founder of the LA Judges-PAC; Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile has strengthened the bridge of justice that all trial judges must cross if we are to preserve judicial independence and serve our communities. We proudly salute our fellow member and friend.
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
President, Association of African American California Judicial Officers, LLC
Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile is a dedicated and humble servant-leader who genuinely cares about the judicial officers, the public and the future stability of the court.
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
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