Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, January 12, 2024


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 A London-Born Judge Known for Courteousness, He’s a Former Professional Race Car Driver, Erstwhile Blogger


By Sherri Okamoto


The many adventures of Mr. Toad, from Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows,” inspired both a famed attraction at Disneyland and a certain little boy from England.

As a child, David Berger’s parents would send him off to bed by reading the tale of Mole, Ratty, and Badger as they tried to help Mr. Toad after he becomes obsessed with motoring and gets himself into trouble.

Little did they know, Berger himself would grow to share in Mr. Toad’s fascination with speed, automobiles and airplanes.

Even though Berger was born 12 years after the end of World War II, London was still scarred by the destruction of the Blitzkrieg. He says he recalls spending many rainy afternoons with a “staple diet” of war films featuring the daring aviators who flew Spitfires and Hurricanes to overcome the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

The ceiling of his bedroom was adorned with scale models of WWII aircraft he had built and suspended on strings, and he was determined to join the Royal Air Force and become a fighter pilot. Unfortunately, Berger’s dreams were dashed at the tender age of 14 when he learned he needed glasses, since pilots then needed to have perfect 20/20 uncorrected vision.


Berger recounts that when he graduated from the British equivalent of high school in 1974, “with fairly decent grades,” his family was “convinced that accountancy was the career for me.” So he headed off to the City of London College to study accounting.

“It did not take me long to realize that accounting was not for me,” he recalls. “It only took a little longer for me to convince my family of the same.”

By 1976, Berger’s brief foray into computations was over, and he worked for his father’s hotel business until he was able to enroll at Holborn College of Law.

Berger explains that as a child, he had also idolized the TV characters Rumpole of the Bailey and Perry Mason, he also had participated in his school’s public speaking society and done well at competitions, so he reasoned a career as a lawyer may be “the next best thing” to being a pilot.

In 1984, Berger began his legal education on a part-time basis, so he could continue working for his father. But Mr. Toad’s influence was about to pop up again.

Race Car Driver

A friend arranged for a private day at a race track in 1986, and Berger had the opportunity to drive a real race car for a few laps. He turned out to be a natural at racing.

“This was my first drive in a Formula Ford 1600 at Zandvoort, Holland,” he recalls. “Apparently, I was quick enough to be offered an opportunity for a full season the following year.”

He joined a racing team based in Holland and drove with backing from a variety of sponsors at most of the major circuits in Europe.


Berger stands next to his 1986 Reynard FF2000 at a car racing track in Zandvoort, Netherlands, circa 1989.

In 1989, Berger left his racing days behind and came to the United States. His maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles had all emigrated to Los Angeles from London before Berger was born, and the plan was for Berger’s family to eventually follow.

Berger’s father remained in London after the rest of the family moved to Los Angeles, and he never had an opportunity to rejoin them. He passed away in February 1990, and Berger had to return to London to settle his affairs.

Near-Fatal Accident

Berger himself almost lost his life in a car accident in November 1990, while visiting his girlfriend in Dublin.

While Berger himself has no recollection of the accident, he was told the car left the road and crashed into a low wall and then flipped over on its roof. Most of the impact was to the passenger side, where he had been sitting. He broke most of the major bones on the left side of his body and spent over three months in the hospital.

When Berger left St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, he was unable to walk, and it was unclear whether he would ever walk normally again. That was not an acceptable proposition for Berger, who took it upon himself to find a rehabilitation facility that could put him back on his feet.

“I had heard of the work of Professor Wili Dungl in Austria,” Berger says. “He had helped Formula 1 Champion Niki Lauda return to racing in record time after a horrific crash.”

So Berger packed up his bags and checked in to the Dungl Center in Gars Am Kamp, Austria. Eight weeks later, Berger walked out the door—but he wasn’t quite as good as new.

Berger returned to racing, but “it was too soon,” and “I was horribly slow,” he says. “I clearly was neither physically nor mentally fit enough to drive as quickly as I used to.”

As broken-hearted as he was by the end of his racing career, Berger was able to find solace with a different love. He married the girlfriend from Dublin in 1992, and they remain happily together to this day.

Resumes Law Studies

Resuming his studies, he attained a law degree from the University of London in 1993. Berger then returned to Los Angeles and submitted his transcripts to the State Bar. He was told he needed to complete one year of study at an approved law school to establish eligibility to take the bar exam and get a California law license.

In 1994, Berger enrolled at Loyola Law School, but about half-way through the year, he says, he “realized that there were truly significant differences between English and American law.” Berger decided he needed a better understanding of the common law on this side of the pond before sitting for the bar exam, so he elected to complete the three-year J.D. program at Loyola instead of just taking the one year as originally planned.


Berger is seen at his graduation from the University of London, in August 1993.

During law school, Berger says, he took a summer job at a boutique immigration and family law firm.

“It was an interesting experience in the course of which I met an attorney who, while not a specialist in either of those disciplines, displayed a mastery of the courtroom in arguing his cases,” Berger recalls. While the name of the attorney has been lost to time, his advice has not. Berger says when he asked the attorney how to acquire such skill, the attorney told him to become a prosecutor. Berger decided he would seek to join the District Attorney’s Office.

Initially, the plan was to “spend a couple of years learning how to try cases, and then go and make my fortune,” but “that plan evaporated the moment I stepped into a courtroom as a certified law clerk in the Santa Monica courthouse,” Berger says. “The camaraderie and esprit de corps was intoxicating.”

Becomes a Prosecutor

Berger joined the office at a time when there was a hiring freeze on deputy district attorneys, and he spent a year as a salaried law clerk. In 1998, he was one of five deputies hired by then-District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Berger spent time in the Central Trial unit, the Major Frauds Division and Victim Impact Program before once again, his attention was diverted.

In 2009, Berger ran for Los Angeles city attorney. He says he did it to “provide the electorate with an alternative to the status quo,” since incumbent Rocky Delgadillo was termed out, and the other leading candidate, Jack Weiss, was “another career politician.”

Berger says he “felt that the people of L.A. had suffered enough from career politicians who seemed to care more about their next political job than defending the people of Los Angeles from outrageous civil lawsuits and criminal conduct.”

He finished fourth in the primary, behind Weiss and eventual winner Carmen Trutanich. Berger opted to back Trutanich in the run-off against Weiss, then joined Trutanich’s office as a special assistant.

The assignment was short-lived, with Berger leaving abruptly after nine months. At the time, Berger said that Trutanich asked him to do something unethical, and instead, opted to resign.

He says he still prefers “not to detail the particular unethical straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, there were plenty to choose from.”

Dragnet Blog

Berger returned to the DA’s Office and launched a series of online blogs, through which he voiced witty, and often acerbic criticism of Trutanich. He also provided coverage on issues of politics and local legal news under the name “Joe Friday” on the now-dormant Los Angeles Dragnet blog.

When Berger decided to run for a judgeship in 2016, controversy generated by the blogging resulted in a “not qualified” rating from a Los Angeles County Bar Association committee. Berger was nonetheless endorsed by the Los Angeles Times (as well as by the MetNews).

Berger says he decided to run when his mentor, Judge Elden S. Fox, announced plans to retire.

Fox was the first judge he had appeared before on a regular basis as a deputy district attorney in 1998, Berger says, and in 2011, he became the calendar deputy in Fox’s courtroom.

“In the five years that followed, I learned a great deal from him, perhaps the most valuable lesson was the need to treat litigants respectfully, even when their arguments are patently not supported by the facts, or their demeanor is less than respectful to the court,” Berger recounts. “I suspect his approach explains why he was so widely respected by both sides as an excellent trial judge who allows attorneys to try their cases, while at the same time keeping a firm grip on proceedings.”

Decides to Run

When he heard Fox was going to retire in 2015, Berger says, “a light bulb went off in my head—I could do what he did.”

He says Fox was very supportive of the idea, and many colleagues also said they would back his run. “I had reported on judicial elections on the Dragnet, and thought I had a pretty good idea of what was needed to run a successful campaign,” Berger says, and “it only took three elections to get it right.”


Berger, center, participates in a debate competition hosted by the English Speaking Union at its London headquarters in 1974.

Despite his loss in the city attorney race and his first judicial bid, Berger says he thought he did “a pretty good job of disguising my disappointment,” with “that stiff British upper-lip thing.”

His mother has always known better though, Berger says. When he first became a deputy district attorney, he says, his mother gave him a miniature figurine of Sisyphus, eternally rolling a rock uphill.

“I suppose it sums up my philosophy,” Berger posits. “Do not give up: not on your beliefs, not on your standards, and don’t compromise either to please or appease others.”

Berger says: “I have always thought that it is better to have tried and failed, than to have failed to try,” and if anyone can learn anything from his experiences, it should be “perseverance pays,” and “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Wendy Segall says she noticed that Berger “always stayed positive” when both of them were embroiled in heavily contested elections for the bench in 2018. “That’s one of his best traits.”

She prevailed in her race; he didn’t in his. But “he never gave up, he never was angry,” Segall says. The election “forged this bond” between them, as they “did everything together” Segall recalls, and they remain close to this day.

 Throughout the process, “he was my confidant, supporter, cheerleader, protector and friend,” Segall says. “He’s such a loyal, kind person, and he’s so deserving of this award.”

Cooley Comments

Former Los Angeles District Attorney and MetNews Person of the Year Steve Cooley agrees. He says he remembers Berger was “doing very creative and good work on the gang front up in the Antelope Valley” back when Cooley was D.A..

Berger “is one of the most unique persons I know in terms of his varied background, having been an attorney, a race car driver, a D.D.A., a candidate for political office, and now a judge,” Cooley remarks. He adds that Berger has had “a tremendous number of interesting life experiences,” which coupled with “a marvelous sense of humor and quick wit” serves him well as a judicial officer.


Former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley shakes hands with Berger during the Los Angeles Police Emerald Society Awards Dinner in 2016.

Assistant Head Deputy Rouman Ebrahim of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office says he has known Berger for a “very long time,” but they didn’t really get to know each other until both were stationed in Van Nuys. It was Ebrahim’s first supervisory position, and he was a little apprehensive about being nominally in charge of Berger, who was “substantially older than me” and had been a part of the office for a few months longer.

However, the arrangement worked out fine. Ebrahim said he told Berger that “I fully, 100 percent trust you” and that he’d be available if anything ever went wrong, but that never wound up being necessary.

The two bonded over a shared love of motor sports and fine cigars. Berger was also “a really good person for me to have as a sounding board, with experience in the office and substantially more experience in life,” Ebrahim says. “It was wonderful to have him on the team.”

‘Highest Regard’

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Verastegui says she “holds Judge Berger in the highest regard.” Berger appeared before her as an attorney “for many years,” she says, and he “was always, always courteous, professional and prepared.” Some of the cases involved “delicate” situations, Verastegui remembers, but he “always treated everyone with respect,” from the victims to the defendants.

“A lot of times civility can be lost during contentious hearings,” Verastegui adds, but “he never lost his civility, he never lost his composure, and he carriers that with him as a jurist.”

Berger has “taken his character, persona, integrity, and really brought it to the court,” Verastegui says, leading his courtroom “with integrity, and a real eye for doing the right thing and serving justice.” She opines the citizens of Los Angeles are “served by Judge Berger in a way that is quite extraordinary” as he is “an amazing individual, and an amazing jurist as well.”

Fox’s Assessment

Fox says he remembers Berger as a new prosecutor in the Beverly Hills courthouse who “exhibited far more maturity and life experience than most.” Berger was “sophisticated and well-rounded in his education, travel and experiences,” Fox recalls. “As a prosecutor he was an advocate for the people, but tempered that advocacy with compassion and a reasoned sense of justice.”

Fox says Berger “impressed me with his ability to seek a just result for all victims while recognizing mitigating factors that might impact on the defendant’s culpability for his conduct.”  Berger was “a polished and articulate litigator,” who was “effective without being arrogant or disagreeable,” he continues.

When he heard that Berger was going to run for judge, Fox says, “I was very supportive” as “I truly believed that David would be the kind of judge that would always attempt to follow the law, and most importantly, seek justice.”

Fox says Berger “exemplifies courage, respect and fairness” and that he “has been an outstanding example of the best of our criminal justice system.”


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