Reminiscences of Judge Victor Chavez
By Arthur Gilbert
(The writer is the presiding justice of Div. Six of this district’s Court of Appeal and a former judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court.)
y First Meeting With Victor Chavez occurred in the late 1960s, (you expect me to remember the exact date?). The occasion, a deposition in a home in the middle of a forest in Bellingham, Washington. The case was a P.I. case….I guess. What else could it be? Victor was an insurance defense lawyer at the time. I was…let’s say a general practitioner.
I intended to use the occasion to visit Canada. I pulled into the driveway and as I got out of my car, defense attorney Victor Chavez got out of his van packed with camping equipment. With him was his adorable young daughter, who my buddy and colleague Justice Victoria Chavez tells me was her sister.
As Victor and I were saying “hello” to one another, the court reporter pulled up in his VW Bug with a canoe tied to the roof. It was at that moment that we all decided this would the shortest deposition on record. The plaintiff, a warm and gracious hostess, gave us cookies and hot chocolate.
The deposition was over shortly after the court reporter swore in the plaintiff. We settled the case in the driveway as the court reporter waived good-bye from his VW. And so began an enduring friendship.
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. Clichés are no less true because they are clichés. No wonder he would become the Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court after only six years on that court. He exemplified all the traits that Socrates enumerated in the ideal judge. It came naturally to him.
His love of horseback riding earned him the moniker of “cowboy” for some people. But he was the only cowboy I knew who lived and understood jazz.
How fortunate I am to have known you, Victor. And how fortunate I am to keep knowing you for years to come.
By Carolyn Kuhl
(Kuhl is a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court and a former presiding judge.)
ictor Chavez is one of my models for what a Presiding Judge should be. He cared deeply about his judicial colleagues and did not hold himself above them but tried to do whatever he could to make their judicial careers easier and more successful.
Judge Chavez served as Presiding Judge in a time of great change for the Los Angeles Superior Court. He presided over the merger of the Superior Court with the 11 Municipal Courts of Los Angeles County. He understood the importance of equality among colleagues. But he also knew that change had to be somewhat gradual in order to avoid a disruption that would derail the work of the newly expanded Superior Court. His work secured a future of excellence for the largest trial court in the country.
Some improvements that were important to Presiding Judge Chavez were courthouse security and a pilot project for handling complex civil cases. As Presiding Judge, he accomplished installing courthouse security screening at what is now the Mosk courthouse—a project that many had thought impossible because the courthouse has so many entrances. There had been a shooting on the escalator to the third floor of the Mosk Courthouse shortly before Judge Chavez began his leadership. He was determined that no judge, lawyer or litigant would suffer such a fate on his watch.
Judge Chavez also worked to secure funding so that Los Angeles Superior Court could be part of a statewide pilot project for more efficient management of complex civil litigation. The complex courts have continued to be successful over 20 years thanks to his initiative.
For Judge Chavez, no work of the Court was unimportant. He wanted to stay busy. In between trying long cause cases, he would call the civil master calendar court to ask for any case that was ready for trial. He would say that he did not care what kind of case he tried—he loved trial and every case was worthy of his careful attention. He liked lawyers. He loved the law. What else could one ask for in a trial judge? He also expected and received respect for the court and for his staff, whom he insisted lawyers call by their last names. His courtroom staff admired and loved him.
Judge Chavez was a wonderful friend to his colleagues. Nearly every time I spoke with him he would ask about my family—“How are the girls?” he would say. When I told my adult daughter that Judge Chavez had passed away, she said she always thought of him as the quintessential PJ, remembering the ceremony when he administered the oath of office to my husband, Judge Bill Highberger.
Vic Chavez will live on in the memory and in the actions of those who admired him and took him as a model. We have lost a great colleague and treasured friend. My only solace is that I know he had a great desire to continue judging and to “die with his boots on.” He accomplished that goal.
By Elizabeth R. Feffer
(Comments below are from a retired judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Her late father-in-law, Los Angeles Judge Irving Feffer, was a close friend of Victor Chavez.)
very one who met Victor Chavez knew he was truly one of the greats. The first thing that comes to my mind is his warm smile, and then his laugh. For my relatively newer friends on the bench who had never met Victor, I would describe Victor by saying that if you look up “gentleman” in the dictionary, you would see Victor’s picture.
He had a pleasant, calm, and warm demeanor that we would all strive to have. Victor loved life and experiencing new things every day. He loved traveling with his beloved Marlene all over the world.
Before Victor moved to the Spring Street courthouse, there were many, many mornings where we would by chance arrive at Mosk [courthouse] together, so we would walk through the corridor together to the ground floor. Back in the day, Victor would always have a red Netflix DVD mailer in his hand, telling me about the new movie he and Marlene had just watched. Oftentimes it was a foreign or independent movie, that Victor had wanted to check out and see.
Victor of course loved being around other people, and loved helping people; going to lunch with colleagues and friends was one of the highlights of his day.
Years ago, Victor sent a letter to the Governor’s Office in support of my judicial application; he sent me a copy, and I strived to be the type of judge he said he thought I would be.
ne of his pieces of advice, which turned out to be absolutely correct, was to go out to lunch every day if possible. Victor said many judges stay at their desks and don’t go out to lunch, but judges need to be out to relieve stress, and that it’s also important to enjoy being with whom Victor called “our many wonderful colleagues.”
I was tasked (gladly) with “rounding up a group” at least once a month, every month, for “lunch with Victor.”
Years ago, Victor mentioned at lunch to our group that he was going to have brunch at his house on a weekend in a few weeks, and asked if would we be interested in attending. We of course said yes, and shortly thereafter I received an email from Victor inviting “my lunch bunch” to brunch at the Chavez home. When I walked in the back yard I was pleasantly surprised to see well over 100 judges and spouses sitting at tables in Victor’s back yard. Victor did in fact have a “lunch bunch” every day! Victor was, of course, absolutely correct, that collegiality on the bench is one of the very best things about being a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
ictor carried over his respect and affinity for his colleagues to his role as the Presiding Judge of the court. Victor of course was the Presiding Judge during the unification between the many Municipal Courts and the Superior Court. Again, guided by his personal principles, Victor worked with the end goal of not just unifying work and assignments, but also unifying the bench, as colleagues who respect each other as colleagues. No doubt the integration of the Municipal Court and Superior Court judiciary went as well as it did, with such durability, because Victor was the Presiding Judge.
In addition to being the Presiding Judge of the world’s largest trial court, Victor of course had an extraordinarily successful legal career as a lawyer and as a judge that few can attain, let alone pull off with such excellence. Victor tried over 100 jury trials as a lawyer.
Of course, as a long cause trial judge, Victor presided over many of the largest, longest, and most challenging trials ever tried in Los Angeles. Victor loved the legal system, loved lawyers, loved jurors, and loved trials. Yet, Victor handled everything with his typical kind and modest approach. When I started in the court’s civil division in 2012, before the current hub system, I had a dedicated trial court assignment that included handling many types of matters, including small claims overflow and small claims appeals. One of the small claims appeal cases I was assigned had the underlying small claims case tried by…Judge Victor Chavez. After hearing the case, ultimately, the ruling of the lower court stood! That a former Presiding Judge with a long cause assignment would offer to take small claims cases in his “down time” speaks volumes about Victor’s willingness to be a “team player.”
ever, ever once did I hear Victor mention any difficulty with jurors. He loved the jury system because, I think, Victor loved people, but also loved justice and the rule of law. Ensuring that the litigants received a fair trial, and that the lawyers and jurors were treated well, was a natural consequence of Victor’s respect for people. Victor told me that after a trial he wrote a “thank you” letter to each former juror, and enclosed a survey asking “how we can do better?”
He let me copy and use his letter and survey, which I did. A few years ago, when I was writing an article on post-trial juror feedback, I asked Victor if I could use some of his juror feedback. He of course did, and I was surprised to see a “thank you” card to Victor, signed “The Jurors.” Collectively, the jurors signed off onto these comments, thanking Victor for “educating us, being so gracious,” for “being funny, being kind,” for “giving us a positive experience,” and, for “being the best judge ever.”
Some individual jurors also wrote comments, such as “It has been a pleasure serving on a jury in our court. Your affection for the process is contagious,” “Thank you for caring about us,” and, “I am so blessed to be part of the team under a wonderful, very patient and awesome judge like you!” I asked Victor what kind of case the jurors heard, because the card was, to me, utterly amazing (but wonderful to see that total strangers, too, all quickly came to respect and love Victor). Victor responded , in his typical modest fashion, that it had been the first jury trial he had tried at the Spring Street courthouse, so he had told the jurors that it was a somewhat historic event, of his first trial there being held in a historic building.
Victor experienced the horrific tragedy every parents prays to avoid, of losing not just one but two of his beloved children. Victor was a devout Catholic, and no doubt his faith helped him through those extraordinarily difficult times.
ictor also warmly embraced Judaism when he married Marlene, for the benefit of her and of her children. Victor told me that he found the prayers and services to be beautiful and moving; he learned them and perfectly recited them in Hebrew. After driving us to lunch once, Victor opened his car’s glove box, and I saw a kippah [yarmulke] inside. Victor explained that he kept it there because he never knew when he might need it. Frankly, I don’t know many fellow Jews who do that!
The world had a gift of Victor Chavez’ presence for 90 years, and yet it still feels “too soon.” We all know that Victor, a cowboy lawyer, never wanted to retire from the bench, and that he wanted to go “with his boots on.”
Victor’s strength of character, his kindness, his generous spirit, his love of life, and his genuine affection for people is rarer than it should be.
It was truly a pleasure and a joy to have spent the time I did with Victor.
We have lost “one of the greats.”
By Stephen M. Moloney
(The writer is a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. )
ictor Chavez was a kind man. He defined judicial demeanor. He loved being a Judge. But, there was more to Victor. Simply put, away from the Court he was fun to be with.
Victor would arrange lunch with many of his fellow Judges, retired Judges and Justices. It was special to be on Victor’s list since you were able to be with him where he loved discussing politics, the Court, religion, family and so much more. He loved his lunches with his fellow Judges.
I got to know Victor after I passed the Bar in 1975, since I defended tort cases with his firm (Pomerantz & Chavez). I vividly remember Victor approaching our table shortly after he was appointed to the Court, where a group on my law partners were having lunch. He said something that has stuck with me since then: How much he loved being a Judge.
Fast forward to 2009 when I was appointed to the Court. Victor immediately included me in his lunch groups even though I was new to the Court. That was Victor, i.e., open to sharing a meal and a good story with his fellow Judges. During the past 11 years, he shared many lunches at Catch 21, LA’s Finest Deli, the Cathedral and the Police Academy.
Victor enjoyed time he spent with my uncle, a retired Catholic Bishop. I was the third one at lunch, but it was the two of them who bonded. Victor would often remind me to schedule another lunch with the Bishop.
hen COVID-19 hit, Victor wanted to continue having lunch at local restaurants he frequented, but many were fearful of the virus so we would instead meet in his chambers on Spring Street at his conference table to share lunch wearing our masks.
Victor and I both attended Catholic seminaries (although years apart). He loved reminiscing about those days and also about his time at Early, Maslach where he defended medical malpractice and other tort cases. What impressed him the most, however, was the car allowance that allowed him to purchase a vehicle. He often told the story about how he and Tom Girardi were in trial against one another but I never did find out who won.
Victor was proud of his service as Presiding Judge during the conflict over Court consolidation. I believe it took Victor’s personality to make this happen.
I’ll miss Victor’s smile and how he would ask: “How are you doing, kid?”
My wife and I were scheduled to have dinner outside at his home on Sunday, Nov. 1. Victor wanted life to go on even amid the virus.
ineteen years separated Victor and me in age, but he accepted me and so many others as friends. Victor made you feel special when you were with him. He listened. He respected your views and especially enjoyed a good joke or story.
I’ll always be grateful and Victor asked me to join his regular lunch with retired Court of Appeal Presiding Justices Roger Boren and Bob Mallano. He didn’t have to do that, but that was Victor. I was out of my league and I knew it, but Victor always asked me to join them. That was Victor.
I spoke to Victor by phone a few days before he died. He was in severe pain at Good Samaritan Hospital but he still asked how me, my wife and his friend the retired Bishop were doing. That was Victor.
Victor suffered tragedy in his life but it did not define him. We spoke privately about his loss. I was moved that he was willing to share his pain and sorrow with me.
Victor was 90 years old when he died, but he left us too soon. He was young in spirit, mind and soul. He told us he would work until he turned 100. Now he’ll be working in another location he richly deserves for a life well lived in service to others: Heaven.
God bless you, Victor. The tears are real. You touched our lives. You made a difference. All of us are grateful.
Copyright 2020, Metropolitan News Company