Thursday, July 17, 2003
William B. Keene: Judge on ‘Divorce Court’ in the 1980s
By ROGER M. GRACE
It was 1952. Edgar Allan Jones Jr. was a newcomer to the faculty of the fledgling law school at UCLA — which that year would hold its first graduation. He taught a class in wills. One of his students was William B. Keene.
As Jones instructed and Keene scribbled notes, neither was apt to have imagined that both would go on to fame, cast in the roles of judges on nationally televised courtroom shows.
Jones in 1958 became the judge on ABC’s “Traffic Court,” “Day in Court,” and “Accused.” Keene’s turn would come later.
Keene, who was in that first graduating class, passed the bar exam, served as a deputy district attorney from 1953-1957, then went into private practice. It was as a private practitioner that he appeared as a defense lawyer on an episode of CBS TV’s daytime show, “The Verdict Is Yours.” Portraying the prosecutor was young deputy district attorney named Joseph P. Busch Jr.
The show had a storyline, but was unscripted. “At the dress rehearsal, we had some fun,” Keene told me, recounting that he and Busch switched parts, he assuming the prosecutorial duties. Nobody noticed, he said.
Once the taping started, Keene noted, they switched back to their assigned roles.
A quarter of a century later, Keene would have his own daily show similar to “The Verdict Is Yours.” But that’s getting ahead of the story, again.
Keene was appointed to the South Bay Municipal Court in 1963 by Gov. Pat Brown, and was elevated by Brown to the Superior Court two years later.
In 1970, Keene and Busch were again pitted against each other, this time for real. Both wanted to be appointed by the Board of Supervisors as district attorney, succeeding Evelle J. Younger, who had been elected attorney general. (Younger, the subject of earlier columns, was the first judge on “Traffic Court” when it was a local show on Channel 7.)
There was a seeming legal impediment to Keene getting the nod. Art. VI, §17 of the state Constitution provides that “during the term for which the judge was selected,” that judge “is ineligible for public employment or public office other than judicial employment or judicial office.” Keene questioned whether that provision could pass muster under the federal Constitution. In any event, Busch got the nod.
In February, 1975, I quoted Keene as saying he was was contemplating a challenge to Busch in the next year’s election. But Busch died June 27 of 1975, and the selection of a new DA again was in the hands of the board. Keene challenged the state constitutional provision by way of a petition for a writ of mandate filed in the state Supreme Court, which was denied July 23, 1975. The job went to John van de Kamp.
Though his political hopes were dashed—since his days as UCLA student body president he reportedly had ambitions to become governor—Keene hardly faded into obscurity. He continued as co-author of two frequently updated benchbooks, became dean of the California Judges College in 1980-81, and was recipient in 1980 of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.’s first “Outstanding Trial Jurist Award” and in 1981 of the California Judges Assn.’s “Bernard Jefferson Award” for outstanding contributions to judicial education.
Keene retired from the bench on Jan. 2, 1984.
But he was soon back in a black robe, as the judge on “Divorce Court,” serving from 1984-91. The syndicated show reprised TV’s longest-running courtroom series to that point, also syndicated, that aired from 1957-69.
About 50 retired judges reportedly vied for the role that went to Keene. At the time, Joseph A. Wapner, a retired judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, was riding high as the judge of the enormously popular “People’s Court,” and former colleagues of Wapner thirsted to enjoy like fame.
Keene, however, was not a job applicant. As he recounted it, the producers got in touch with the California Judges Assn. seeking a recommendation of a retired judge to preside on their show; then-Executive Director Constance Dove touted Keene; she telephoned him and advised, “Bill, I recommended you”; he contacted the producers to confirm an interest; and he was given a screen test.
The reaction after the taping of his rendering a decision was, he recounted, “the classic, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ ”
They did call, and he had a new career as a TV star.
Next week: more about Keene and his version of “Divorce Court.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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