Tuesday, August 21, 2001
Paul Caruso: ‘He Was a Helluva Guy’
By ROGER M. GRACE
Few individuals could be described by both of those terms. But both fit criminal defense attorney Paul Caruso, whose life was celebrated Sunday at a memorial service in St. Peter’s Italian Church and at a “family” dinner afterward at Casa Italiana.
Son Carey Caruso, an attorney, recalled that it was like the Sunday family dinners of days gone by when hoards of friends would come by for pasta and wine.
The friends who came by last Sunday—numbering about 600—included District Attorney Steve Cooley and Public Defender Michael Judge, as well as former Public Defender Wilbur Littlefield. Among others I spotted were Court of Appeal Justice Robert Mallano, Senior U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, Superior Court Judges Lawrence Crispo, Elva Soper, and Philip Argento, former Court of Appeal Justice Robert Devich, retired Pasadena Municipal Court Judge Warren Ettinger, and former Superior Court Judges Bruce Sottile and Charles Frisco. Frisco’s son Chris Frisco, president of the Italian American Lawyers Assn., was in attendance as were several IALA past presidents. Paul Caruso was founding president of that group in 1977.
Caruso was a consummate gentleman: flawless in his manners, meticulously attired, proud in his bearing, and kindly. He was also a loveable rascal. A cross between Alistair Cooke and The Fonz, Caruso possessed disparate qualities, each in the right proportion. To talk with him was both a privilege and a delight.
Neither the word “gentleman” nor “rascal” was uttered either during the tributes in St. Peter’s nor the remarks across the parking lot in Casa Italiana, the meeting hall where the IALA holds its monthly meetings. But the sense of both terms came across in what was said.
Criminal defense attorney Richard Hirsch made reference to Caruso being an “immaculate dresser,” pointing to his wearing of a vest with a gold watch chain strung across it, and his use of cuff links.
The former prosecutor also alluded to Caruso’s rascality when talking about his knack for veering jurors’ attention from the issues.
“Paul was a master of closing argument,” Hirsch said. “He played the jury like a master musician.”
Caruso would repeat the same closing argument time and again, the lawyer said, noting, “It always seemed fresh.”
Caruso would introduce his family, tell of his immigrant parents, and “by the time he got through,” Hirsch recounted, “the jury didn’t know what the case was all about.” When they voted to acquit, Hirsch said, it was because they found for Caruso.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan hinted at the rascality. He recalled that as a high school student, he listened to Dick Whittinghill and Gene Norman on the radio, and that “every once in awhile, they would talk about this fabulous lawyer, Paul Caruso.” As many of those assembled knew, Caruso gained name recognition by providing discounted or free legal services to area broadcasters.
I first learned of Paul Caruso in listening to late-night commentator Tom Duggan on KCOP (later on KTTV). Duggan—whose actual name was Goss—would frequently encounter legal problems, such as in those arising from his propensity for drinking and driving. He would with regularity recite, “My attorney, Paul Caruso, says….”
During the memorial service, Carey Caruso mentioned that after news of his father’s death (the night of Aug. 14) reached the public, he received numerous phone calls from persons who told him, “Your father was like a father to me.” He commented:
“That’s a legacy my brothers and sisters are proud to share with everyone here.”
Indeed, during the eulogies that followed, two criminal defense lawyers referred to Caruso’s fatherly quality.
Hirsch mentioned, “He was like a father to many of us.”
And Harlan Braun—who met his wife, Diane, when he was an attorney in Caruso’s office and she was a secretary there—recounted that “Paul was like a father to Diane.”
Her actual father, he noted, was deceased. Braun said that when he announced to Caruso that they would be wed, it was almost like asking him for her hand in matrimony.
Braun noted that his wife is Italian and, relating that she was hired as a secretary notwithstanding that she could not type, joked:
“You could get a job with Paul either by being qualified or being Italian.”
Caruso’s Italian heritage was a focal point of the remarks, which was appropriate given the intense pride Caruso took in that heritage. (That’s a pride I can well understand, being married to an Italian American, and being an Italophile.)
Carey Caruso recalled that his father, who referred to himself as “a kid from Frankfurt, New York,” was the son of immigrants who spoke Italian in the home. But the youth spoke English in school, he noted, and flowered “into a full fledged American.”
Gene Carloni spoke on behalf of the IALA during the ceremony at Italian Hall. Graciously, he thanked Chris Frisco for relinquishing that honor to him. But after all, it was Carloni who founded the IALA, along with Caruso, the late Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mario Clinco, and attorneys Michael Angelo Pontrelli, Eugene Damiano, and Carl “Tony” Copozzola. Pontrelli and Damiano were in attendance, Carloni noted, and he read remarks from Copozzola, who described Caruso, aptly, as a “true icon of the legal profession.”
Carloni reflected, “Paul and Mike—Judge Clinco—are somewhere in heaven planning for us to join them.”
In the Italian culture, families typically are close. Tynan noted of Caruso, “He was in love with his family.”
The joke of the day was the line in the Aug. 16 Los Angeles Times obituary on Caruso that he “was one of the last lawyers admitted to the State Bar of California without attending law school.” Carey Caruso, in light-hearted spirit, concluded his remarks at St. Peter’s by holding up a framed document, telling the overflow assemblage: “In light of the Los Angeles Times [article]: this is my father’s law degree.”
Thunderous applause ensued.
In their respective turns at the lectern, Hirsch quipped, “I’m rather shocked to find he actually had a degree,” and Tynan wisecracked, “I’m glad that Paul finally got his degree this afternoon.”
(Actually, the Times did run a correction the following day saying, “Caruso, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles at 81, attended Loyola Law School and later graduated from the former Columbia Law School in Washington, D.C. He was admitted to practice law in California on a special motion from the state Legislature without passing the state bar exam.” Caruso, a graduate of Columbus University School of Law, invoked a then-existing statutory veterans’ exemption from taking the bar exam based on his service in the Marine Corps following graduation from law school.)
Stories about Paul Caruso abounded at the Casa Sunday. I have my own story about him, heretofore untold. There’s no humorous aspect to it—it’s just a reflection of Caruso’s caring nature.
Once upon a time, there was a presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court who cut off virtually all of the court’s subscriptions to this newspaper because he didn’t like our coverage of his administration and a certain judge. Litigation ensued between the presiding judge and us—“us” including three of our employees whom he detained in his chambers on a particular occasion. (Contrary to a lingering misconception, neither the court nor any other judge was a party.)
In 1993, the “despotic twit” descended the throne, his term having expired, and Mallano became the presiding judge. We wanted the subscriptions reinstated. Mallano, a highly principled man, would never himself have utilized economic retaliation against a newspaper based on its reportage, but did not want the court to lose face. On the other hand, judges did want their subscriptions back.
It was Caruso who, in effect, said “phooey,” and arranged for Mallano and me to have lunch with him at the Pacific Dining Car. The interchange was none too pacific at first, but an accord was forged before dessert.
(We did not win reinstatement of a courtwide subscription to the paper, but any judge who wanted a subscription could get it, at court expense.)
Caruso assumed the role of peacemaker, and peace occurred.
Beyond that, I gained a respect for Mallano at that lunch based on his unflagging loyalty to his colleagues, yet a commitment to fairness, and a resolve to reach a result which betrayed neither interest.
By chance, the person sitting next to my wife and me at the memorial service for Caruso was Mallano.
It’s not “politically correct” to refer to individual characteristics of different ethnic groups. We’re supposed to believe that everybody’s the same, as if humans were as fungible as widgets, and ethnic groups were utterly indistinguishable. Common human experience shows that this is not so. Why should we pretend that it is?
The truth is that Italians, like every other ethnic group, have distinctive characteristics. Speaking in generalities—at the risk of snorts that it’s ethnic stereotyping—they revere beauty, art, and music. Life is enthralling to them. People invigorate them. They are devoted to family, they are adherents to moral values. Wine and fine food delight them. They are alive, and full of gusto.
Paul Caruso was an Italian American. He proclaimed and treasured his heritage.
It can be said that he was a warm and genial individual. It can be observed that he was an extraordinarily gifted trial lawyer. But perhaps the accolade he would have most treasured is this:
Quintessentially, he was an Italian American. He personified the distinctively Italian qualities which those of us of different heritage admire. His preeminence in his chosen field, a learned profession, reflected most favorably on those of like ancestry.
Or perhaps his smile would have been broadest at the simple observation voiced by one those at the Casa, attorney Mike Montgomery, who said of Caruso: “He was a helluva guy.”
UPDATE—At the request of the petitioner in the case, as well as Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the Los Angeles Superior Court’s Appellate Division on Aug. 6 decided to publish its opinion in Simpson v. Limited Jurisdiction Court, BS069127. That’s the case where a defendant filed a writ petition to get back her answer fee after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brett Klein denied a fee waiver without holding a hearing. Klein received a copy of the writ petition, reviewed it, then ordered a return of the fee. The Appellate Division nonetheless decided the case, holding that a hearing must be held before a fee waiver is denied. The opinion, by Judge Patti Jo McKay, recites that all “parties”—in the plural—were served. It announces that a brief filed by the respondent Superior Court was stricken because opposition, if any, should have been filed by the real party, the plaintiff. What McKay did not disclose was that the plaintiff had not been served with a copy of the writ petition or any other papers relating to the writ proceeding. The order to publish removes the criticism that it was pointless to decide a moot issue in an unpublished opinion. However, the opinion contains misleading statements and is incomplete in its analysis. Nonetheless, it will be published; Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal last Wednesday determined that transfer of the case to itself was unnecessary.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company
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