Wednesday, March 20, 2002
Justice Jefferson Remembered as Soft-Spoken Legal Giant
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Friends and colleagues yesterday remembered Justice Bernard Jefferson as a quiet, soft-spoken man whose love for the law and for teaching of the law made him an unforgettable giant of the legal community.
Jefferson died Sunday in Los Angeles after a lengthy illness. He was 91.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George remembered Jefferson as a jurist with a never-ending devotion to improving the law.
“He was very eager to continue making contributions to the improvement of law even when he could have sat back and rested on his laurels,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George said.
George also recalled Jefferson as always willing to give his time to attorneys or fellow judges to discuss a legal issue.
“It is hard to believe that Justice Bernard Jefferson, a true icon, has left us,” Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer, of this district’s Court of Appeal, Division One, said. “With many others, I will remember Bernie for his great intellectual accomplishments, his devotion to the rule of law, and his unrelenting desire to improve society for all of us.”
U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter Jr. recalled appearing in front of Jefferson when he argued a school equalization case as a young lawyer.
“He’s one of the kindest, brightest, and finest lawyers and jurists I’ve met,” Hatter said. “He’s a real hero of mine.”
Jefferson was one of the first African Americans appointed to the state appellate courts, reaching the rank of presiding justice of Div. One of the Second District Court of Appeal during his final year on the bench.
“Justice Jefferson was a distinguished scholar, an admired jurist, and a valued colleague,” Administrative Presiding Justice Charles S. Vogel, of this district’s Court of Appeal, noted in a statement. “He will be remembered as an exemplary jurist and a positive force in the field of judicial education. Those who had the privilege of working with him learned much about judging and civic duty.”
A founder of the California Judges College, which trains the new judges appointed or elected each year, Jefferson is probably best known for his “California Evidence Benchbook,” which he wrote after being urged by a Superior Court judge to author a book based on his evidence classes.
Jefferson’s book has been cited in nearly 300 appellate cases, a remarkable number given that generally only statutes or prior cases are cited by a court to support a legal statement.
“It was a kind of bible for evidence,” U.S. District Court Chief Judge Consuelo B. Marshall, of the Central District, said. “He was just a master at being able to explain the rules of evidence and the exceptions of those rules.”
Several awards have been named after Jefferson for his commitment to the law and judicial education, including the California Judges Association’s Bernard S. Jefferson Judicial Education Award which is presented at the organization’s annual meeting to the California judge who has made the most exceptional contribution to the field of judicial education during the previous year. Past recipients include the late Los Angeles Superior Court Stephen E. O’Neil and Court of Appeal Justice Norman L. Epstein, who was awarded the honor twice. The University of West Los Angeles School of Law and the Jefferson Bar Association in Orange County also give awards in Jefferson’s honor.
Born June 29, 1910 in Coffeeville, Miss., Jefferson disregarded the advice of a high school counselor who attempted to discourage him from attending college and went on to attend UCLA, graduating in 1931 with a degree in political science. Jefferson also attended Harvard Law School, graduating cum laude in 1934. He later earned a Doctor of Juridical Science in the field of evidence.
After graduation from Harvard, Jefferson taught law at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and then served as assistant general counsel with the Office of Price Administration, a federal agency, for two years before entering into private practice.
As an active participant in the civil rights movement, Jefferson was involved in major civil rights actions with the likes of other prominent black lawyers, including the late former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Jefferson began practicing law in Los Angeles in 1946 until his appointment to the Los Angeles Municipal Court by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown in 1959. He was elevated to the Los Angeles Superior Court a year later.
In 1975, Jefferson was appointed to division four of the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District. Later he also served briefly as a pro tem appointee on the California Supreme Court. Jefferson retired from the bench in 1980.
After retiring, Jefferson became the associate dean of academic affairs for the University of West Los Angeles School of Law and went on to serve as president of the school from 1982 to 1992.
Current school president Robert Brown said he did not know where to start in recounting Jefferson’s legal accomplishments and qualities.
“He was a man of such high esteem and magnitude,” Brown said. “He was very instrumental in securing a strong reputation for the school.
Jefferson’s family has donated all of his books and records, Brown said, and the law school is currently seeking a suitable endowment for the Jefferson library.
Jefferson is survived by a wife, Betty, and two adult children, Cassandra Powell, and Dr. Roland Jefferson.
Funeral services will be held at 4 p.m., Saturday March 23 at the Angelus Funeral Home, 3875 South Crenshaw Boulevard, Los Angeles.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, Kelton Law Library, in honor of Hon. Bernard S. Jefferson, 1155 W. Arbor Vitae Street, Inglewood, California 90301. For information, call 310-342-5200.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company