Wednesday, July 11, 2001
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen O’Neil Dies at Age 56
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen O’Neil was found dead yesterday in his Palos Verdes Estates home by sheriff’s deputies, Presiding Judge James Bascue said.
Deputies were called to O’Neil’s home around 11:30 a.m. by court officials when he failed to show up for work at the Criminal Courts Building, Bascue said.
Upon arrival at his home, deputies discovered O’Neil’s body in his bed, Bascue said.
O’Neil, the supervising judge of the Superior Court’s criminal courts, was 56. He was married to Court of Appeal Justice Patti Jo Kitching of this district’s Div. Three.
“Judge O’Neil was a very fine trial judge,” Bascue said. “His loss is a tremendous blow to the bench of our court, as well as a deep personal loss to all of his friends. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family.”
O’Neil was feeling ill Monday, but he was still in court and several of his colleagues thought he had the flu, Judge Michael Kellogg said.
“Everyone here is in shock,” Kellogg said. “He was just so close to us.”
Kellogg, who ate lunch with O’Neil almost every day for the past four years, remembered O’Neil as a very personable and caring person who was always interested in listening to other people and their trials and tribulations.
“He ran his courtroom in such a friendly way,” Kellogg said. “He had an open-door policy and he always came into our courtrooms to see how things were.”
Colleagues said that O’Neil was in high spirits, having just returned from vacationing in Italy and looking forward to his daughter Kristin’s wedding coming up in September.
“He was really looking forward to that,” Kellogg said. “He talked about how excited he was about the wedding all the time.”
O’Neil spent nearly 15 years as a Los Angeles County judge, serving two and a half years as a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge before being appointed to the Superior Court by Gov. George Deukemejian in 1989.
In his capacity as supervising judge, O’Neil was responsible for overseeing the operation of all criminal courts in Los Angeles County.
Largest Trial Court
“It was his experience, his ability to get along with people, and his demeanor which is why I selected him for such a big responsibility,” Bascue said. “He was in charge of the largest trial court in the world.”
Bascue appointed O’Neil to head the criminal courts in November 1999.
O’Neil was widely known as an innovator. The longtime political independent passed out sheets to jurors and attorneys on several occasions requesting comments on how the trial was run.
In addition to time on the bench, O’Neil proved to be a devoted judicial educator, serving as dean of the California Judicial College, Center for Judicial Education and Research, the premier judicial education body in California in 1999 and 2000.
O’Neil also served as an adjunct professor for Loyola Law School’s night program for the past seven years.
“He was such a devoted judge and he felt very strongly about judicial education,” Assistant Presiding Judge Robert Dukes said. “I think the entire court is going to miss him.”
Prior to his time on the bench, O’Neil served as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1977-81, leaving to become vice president and senior counsel for Lloyds Bank of California for eighteen months.
After a short stint in the private sector, O’Neil took a $20,000 a year pay cut and returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1983 where he served as assistant U.S. attorney for three years defending the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act before being appointed to the bench.
Stephen Eugene O’Neil (his middle name is after the playwright’s) was born at the end of World War II at the Camp Robinson Army hospital, near Little Rock, Ark.
Shortly after the war, his family moved to Indiana where O’Neil became a self-described “basketball freak.”
He was a sports writer at Columbia University, but later turned his attention to law. He earned his law degree from Indiana University School of Law in 1969.
Returning home from his law school graduation, O’Neil received notice he was being drafted.
Judge Advocate Corps
He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, Judge Advocate Corps from 1969-77, during which time he received the Navy Commendation Medal.
There were no signs of struggle or foul play, Coroner’s Office spokesman Scott Carrier said.
“The cause of death is still being investigated,” Carrier said.
An autopsy has not been scheduled.
Criminal Courts Building Asst. Supervising Judge David Wesley will assume O’Neil’s duties temporarily. Bascue said he would name a permanent replacement this week.
O’Neil is survived by Kitching and two adult children.
Plans for services are pending.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company