Tribute to Rex H. Minter
By David Berger
(The writer is a current judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court.)
N THURSDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2022, at around 3 p.m., a small airplane took off from Santa Monica Airport and headed up the coast towards Malibu for what was probably a sight-seeing flight, a chance to perhaps catch one of those stunningly beautiful Pacific sunsets. On board the Cessna 150 was just the pilot and his passenger—retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rex H. Minter, a life-long pilot and aviation enthusiast, former U.S. Marine, former Santa Monica Councilman (1955), former Mayor of Santa Monica (1963-1967), former City Attorney for Arcadia, and former Commissioner (1968), until 1971 when then Governor Ronald Reagan appointed him as Judge of the Santa Monica Municipal Court where he served until his retirement as a Superior Court Judge following unification in May 2002. Minter continued to sit on assignment until 2012.
As the airplane headed towards Malibu it developed engine trouble, and the pilot announced his intention to return to the airport, reporting to Air Traffic Control ("ATC") that the engine was "Very, very rough," and shortly thereafter declaring an emergency. The airplane was cleared for an immediate landing, however, the pilot was unable to maintain altitude with the failing engine and he broadcast his intention to land on the beach. ATC advised the pilot that he would be "Landing at his own risk," to which the pilot replied "I wish I had another choice." Amateur cellphone video showed the airplane touching down at the shoreline and immediately flipping over. Rescue services were on scene quickly, and the pilot survived, however, Minter did not. Unconfirmed reports indicate he succumbed to cardiac arrest.
Twenty seven years ago, a very inexperienced Certified Law Clerk with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office made his first appearance in Minter's courtroom in Santa Monica. Minter was approaching the end of his legal career, I was at the beginning. I was to conduct a preliminary hearing under the supervision of a veteran Deputy District Attorney. I made a mistake during the prelim, after asking the prosecution's chief and sole witness "What was your occupation and assignment on [date of the crime]?" and following up with "How long have you been a Santa Monica Police Officer?" I was surprised to receive the answer "Two years," I was even more surprised when the answer to my next question "Have you completed a POST certification course to testify at preliminary hearings?"—it was a succinct "No."
I was surprised because most officers should be able to testify at preliminary hearings as to hearsay statements under Proposition 115, either because they five years' experience or have completed a POST certification course. Although not essential to the case, I wanted a statement by a bystander to come into evidence through the officer, there being no applicable hearsay exception. After pausing, probably with the proverbial 'deer in the headlights' expression on my face, I decided to move on. Sensing a trouble in the prosecution camp, the defense attorney started objecting at every opportunity and thoroughly tested my knowledge of the Evidence Code. It was a spirited but fair attack, nevertheless, the defendant was held to answer.
After the hearing my supervising D.A. told me to come with him and we went into Minter's chambers. The walls were covered with photos of aircraft, mostly military as I recall. Seated in chambers with Minter was my witness and the defense attorney. Minter had a kindly smile on his face and said, "You know, you could have got that statement into evidence," and continued to explain that my witness, the Santa Monica Police Officer, had been his bailiff for several years prior to becoming a SMPD Officer. So, if I had asked the right question, "How long have you been in law enforcement?" the Officer could have testified under Prop 115. We all had a pretty good laugh about that, and they all offered me advice and encouragement with my career. Needless to say, I never forgot that day, nor made that mistake again.
What I remembered the most about Minter was that he had taken the time and trouble to talk to me, with all the parties, in the almost collegiate atmosphere in his chambers. It was a debrief with a measure of good-natured humor and wit, he clearly sensed that I had fumbled but wanted to make sure I was not too discouraged and to offer some advice. In many ways Minter reminded me of Fred Gwynne's portrayal of Judge Haller in the 1992 movie “My Cousin Vinny,” an elder, respected, bench officer with keen instincts and a wry wit.
According to his obituary, Minter is survived by Doris his wife of seventy-seven years, also a keen aviator, his three children, eight grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
Rest in peace, Honorable Rex Hughes Minter, you may be gone, but you are not forgotten and certainly not by this bench officer, for your kindness and consideration, and for being amongst the last of the Greatest Generation. I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect Minter passed away doing one of the things he loved dearly, flying the skies around his beloved city.
Copyright 2023, Metropolitan News Company