Friday, Dec. 29, 2000
Attorney and Politician, He Now Presses for Excellence
on the Bench
ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
was just a mid-year meeting of the State Bar of California,
the kind that usually draws few participants. In fact, some
sessions were canceled due to lack of interest.
one conference room at the Costa Mesa hotel that hosted the
March 1999 event was packed. The reason: at the head of the
table was Burt Pines, judicial appointments secretary for
newly elected Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
of lawyers, many of whom believed they had been shut out from
possible careers on the bench during 16 years of Republican
governors, hung on Pines’ every word. What were he and the
governor looking for? Was there a litmus test? Did only Democrats
have a chance?
responses would not have surprised those who have come to
know Pines personally and professionally over the years. People
who had seen him recreate the Los Angeles City Attorney’s
Office into an innovative, top-flight municipal law firm,
who knew his work for clients during his two decades as a
name partner in a Century City firm, who watched as he quietly
worked through crises behind the scenes at City Hall when
called on by officials years after he left government service—they
knew the new appointments secretary would respond with his
trademark blend of relaxed charm and concentrated intensity.
is judged on his or her merits, Pines said. There are no litmus
tests. Avoid slipshod answers and grammatical errors. Neatness
always paid a lot of attention to good legal writing," Pines
added. "It’s a pleasure to read an application that’s the
product of good legal writing."
was a clear undercurrent. Sloppy writers, sloppy thinkers,
need not apply. Otherwise, consider signing up.
Burt Pines, what you see is what you get," his friend and
former law partner Marshall Grossman says. "What you see is
an extremely bright, intelligent, hard-working, fair-minded
man who is totally committed to his state. He is one who insists
on a high level of competency and intellectual capacity. Very
careful and deliberate in decision-making."
and Davis were criticized at first for being a little too
deliberative in making appointments. July, 1999, which Pines
predicted would bring the first appointments, came and went.
Then August. September. The vacancies mounted.
nine Superior Court judges were named in October, and the
names have been coming ever since. The product of Pines’ deliberate
and meticulous review of applicants has been the appointment
of, so far, 74 trial and appellate jurists.
have earned near-universal acclaim for high quality and diversity.
The trial bench’s tilt toward prosecutors is slowly being
corrected, but Pines has recommended some prosecutors and
Davis has appointed them. The long drought of Democratic judicial
appointments is over, but there continue to be Republicans
selected as well.
deflects plaudits for the selections and instead cites the
high standards of Davis. But Davis called on Pines in the
first place because he knew of his old friend’s reputation
for insisting on high standards. Those standards have won
him public office, respect, admiration, and awards.
is this year’s Metropolitan News-Enterprise Person of the
61, strides with obvious relish around the horseshoe-shaped
hallway running through the governor’s office on the first
floor of the historic state Capitol in Sacramento.
smiles as he points out the offices of Davis’ other top lieutenants.
Appointments chief Michael Yamaki, also a Los Angeles transplant.
The legislative secretary next door. The legal affairs secretary
across the hall. The communications secretary around the corner.
The governor himself.
like being involved in the administration," Pines says. "It’s
fun knowing what’s going to happen before everyone else does.
I like being in the center of things."
would think from the remark and the boyish enthusiasm with
which it is uttered that Pines is still the ambitious USC
student, who was awarded a debating scholarship and became
president of the Trojan Young Republicans. Or the 20-ish assistant
U.S. attorney intent on putting away the crooks and making
a name for himself. Or the 30-ish private practitioner and
novice Democratic activist who stormed City Hall three decades
ago by ousting the 20-year incumbent city attorney.
the enthusiasm is real, and that may be part of Pines’ secret.
He has poured himself into every task he has undertaken.
current job, for example. At first, when Davis called on him
to help lead his transition team after the November 1998 election,
Pines made plans for a temporary sojourn to Sacramento before
returning to his lucrative Century City practice at Alschuler,
Grossman & Pines.
when Davis asked him to stay on as judicial appointments secretary,
he decided spending more time in Sacramento wouldn’t be so
bad, as long as he could shuttle back to his firm, his clients,
his community leadership posts and his friends.
could have done it, too. No law prevents it. But Burt Pines
is not one to do anything half-way.
sought counsel from past judicial appointment secretaries,"
Marshall Grossman says. "Burt came to the conclusion that
while he could continue to have a relationship with the firm
of counsel, it would present an apparent or potential conflict
of interest to do that. As is typically Burt’s manner of doing
things, he made a principled decision in the public interest."
Pines and his wife, Karen, who had lived in the San Fernando
Valley for decades, packed up and moved to Sacramento.
explains that as he was working part-time helping Davis fill
key spots in his administration, he "just became very enthused
and excited" about the work, and about the chance to help
the governor appoint new judges.
after a short time, I decided I’d like to be a part of this,"
Pines explains. "As I began to learn more about the position
and the responsibilities, I realized that I could not do this
job and continue in private practice. Besides, it’s difficult
to work out of Los Angeles. This is where my staff is. I wanted
to be part of the administration. I didn’t just want to be
part of the L.A. office and hear about things later."
says he and Karen also like the slower pace, the more courteous
drivers, the water instead of concrete in the rivers.
Pineses got themselves a place on the American River in Carmichael,
a short drive from the Capitol. Burt Pines, as one might expect,
has timed the transit carefully.
17 minutes to the office," he notes.
retrospect, the pace of appointments to the bench has been
brisk, compared with the number of vacancies filled in the
first full year of then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s term. But before
Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Jon Mayeda’s promotion to
the Superior Court was announced in October 1999, impatient
observers and applicants were getting a little restless. Pines
reminded all who would listen that Davis takes judicial appointments
seriously and would not be rushed, but with numerous vacancies
remaining in the governor’s own office as well as on the bench,
there was increasing pressure for action.
reports began circulating that Pines was grilling applicants
over the death penalty. The rumor went that no one who opposes
the death penalty could expect to be appointed.
repeated: no litmus tests. But he also took pains to note
that Davis insists on promoting public safety, a term observers
took as code words for a death penalty litmus test.
first appointments silenced the critics for a while. Mayeda
was a safe and obvious choice, given his outstanding credentials
and the simple fact that he would soon become a Superior Court
judge anyway because of court unification. Few could quarrel
with Morrison & Foerster partner Dennis Perluss, a former
deputy general counsel for the Christopher Commission. For
the waning days of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, there
were Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie A. Swain, former Los Angeles
Police Commission President and interim inspector general
Deirdre Hill, and Fourth District Court of Appeal senior attorney
Arthur Gilbert from Court of Appeal justice to presiding justice
was neither surprising nor controversial, but simply solid.
The elevation of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Candace
Cooper to the Court of Appeal was applauded.
was congratulated. Davis was off the hook.
only for a few months. The following February, on the heels
of his comment that elected legislators were there to implement
his vision, Davis told a gathering of governors that the judges,
too, should expect to toe the line.
are not there to be independent agents," Davis was quoted
as saying. "They are there to reflect the sentiments that
I expressed during the campaign."
they arrive at a conclusion that differs from the governor,
he said, "they shouldn’t be a judge. They should resign."
was a shocking statement given the fact that judges are, of
course, expected to be independent from the governor. Davis
issued a retraction, but it was left to Pines to do the delicate
soothing of ruffled feathers.
a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, in wording
similar to letters sent to newspapers around the state, Pines
wrote that Davis’ goal to appoint was judges of the "highest
caliber and integrity."
behalf of the governor, I conduct the interviews of the candidates,"
Pines wrote. "I probe their background and experience, their
goals and aspirations, their reasons for wanting to become
a judge, their judicial philosophy and their willingness to
follow the law irrespective of their personal beliefs. I also
seek to ascertain if the candidates have generally similar
views to those of the governor, particularly his commitment
to public safety."
Pines explains months after the flap, he does ask applicants
about the death penalty and their willingness to impose it.
governor has a strong commitment to public safety," Pines
says. "And I have to be comfortable that the candidates I
recommend to him share that commitment. He does not want to
appoint judges that are going to be soft on crime. I do ask
them about their views on three strikes. And a host of other
quarter of a century ago, Los Angeles City Attorney Burt Pines
might not have qualified for a Gray Davis judicial appointment.
He staffed his office with the same types of people Davis
now wants to see as judges—talented women, minority and gay
lawyers, people of diverse backgrounds, idealistic thinkers
and pragmatic achievers. But he opposed the death penalty.
course, that was the era in which Gray Davis was chief of
staff for Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed Rose Bird and other
death penalty opponents to the state Supreme Court.
have written that Davis wants to avoid at all costs the public
outrage spurred by the Bird court’s steady rejection of death
verdicts. That outrage resulted in the ouster from the bench
of the late chief justice and two of her Brown-appointed colleagues.
Pines’ change of stance on capital punishment is not a result
of political expedience. He cannot recall just when he changed
his mind, but he says it was at least 20 years ago.
just seen such horrible acts by human beings against other
human beings that I just felt that people who chose to commit
such acts would forfeit their right to life," Pines explains.
"I’m a strong proponent of the death penalty."
Pines’ death penalty stance may not have disqualified him
after all, and his experience may hold a lesson for judicial
hopefuls who will be asked if they can follow the law without
regard to their personal qualms. Pines opposed the war in
Vietnam, but as an assistant U.S. attorney he prosecuted draft
thought that was my responsibility," he explains. "That was
the job that I had."
elected official gets his or her share of negative newspaper
stories, but there is one headline that sticks in Pines’ mind
from his tenure as city attorney:
Mother Arrested for Gambling."
shrugged it off at the time. He’s not his mother’s keeper,
he told reporters, and all law-breakers are treated equally.
Besides, he knew all about his mother’s penchant for card-playing.
was no hint of embarrassment or shame.
today, Pines acknowledges that as far back as he can remember,
he wanted to rise above a background he calls "humble."
only child, he lived with his grandparents in a small Burbank
apartment. His room was a converted dinette. His mother, Ruth
Pines, worked on airplanes for Lockheed during World War II,
usually taking the night shift so she could be with Burt during
she worked in sales, traveling with a crew of women selling
pots, pans and similar items door-to-door. Still later, she
managed a bridge club. The kind where money was wagered.
on, her interest in cards had led her to another gambler,
Charles Landeau. They married, and Burt was born, but when
he was just a year old the couple divorced. Burt’s mother
had her son’s last name changed to Pines, her maiden name.
really didn’t know my father," Pines says. "He was a gambler
and a bootlegger. Not really interested in family."
Pines resists being pegged as the child who strove to succeed
to compensate for a less than ideal family life.
were many factors that played a part in that," he says. "It’s
hard to analyze one’s psychology. I think early on I wanted
to excel. To do something worthwhile. I think I wanted to
go beyond my origins. Certainly in my family there was a stress
on education. I’ve wanted to excel my entire life."
Angeles High School classmate Marshall Grossman recalls Pines
as being a fairly serious student, interested in student government
and perhaps a future in politics.
were friends," Grossman says. "But we didn’t hang out in the
was elected student body president.
USC, he debated and majored in philosophy. And there was that
Young Republicans leadership post. It was 1960, not a time
for young Republicans.
jokes now that he doesn’t usually admit to his old Republican
affiliations, but that since 40 years have passed it may now
be "okay" to mention.
he asserts, Republicans were more moderate in that era. And
law school at New York University (full scholarship), during
the Kennedy era, put an end to his Republican days anyway.
graduation in 1963, the offers flooded in from the big firms,
but Pines had spent a summer clerking at a New York firm and
he knew he wanted something different. He wanted courtroom
time. So he accepted an offer from the U.S. Attorney’s Office
for the Southern District of California, which was the name
then of the federal prosecutor’s office headquartered in downtown
first there was the bar exam. He got himself an apartment
on Sycamore and Beverly to study, but he took a shine to his
upstairs neighbor, a young lady who had moved to California
to escape the Ohio winters.
the neighbor would come home from work and Pines needed a
study break, he would tap on the ceiling with a broomstick.
Two stomps in response mean "I’m busy." A single stomp meant
come on up.
the distraction, Pines passed the bar, and he and Karen married.
he got his courtroom time—35 jury trials in just under three
years. The office covered San Diego and Imperial counties
as well as Los Angeles, and he and his 17 colleagues occasionally
rode circuit to places like Fresno. He prosecuted car thieves,
check forgers, bank robbers.
I look back on my career, I think that some of my greatest
days were in that office," Pines recalls. "There was an esprit
de corps. We all felt we were on a mission to protect the
a sense, Pines’ boss was Robert Kennedy. But it wasn’t until
he left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1966 to join Kadison
& Quinn that he became interested in Democratic Party
politics. That’s when he befriended a Van Nuys lawyer named
suggested that Pines get involved in the 1969 John Tunney
for Senate campaign, and he took the advice and threw himself
into it. He wound up co-chairing the speakers committee with
another political novice—Gray Davis.
Kennedy-esque Tunney toppled incumbent Sen. George Murphy,
and Pines then helped get Manatt elected chairman of the state
Democratic Party. Pines became counsel to the party, and cemented
the contacts that made his 1973 challenge to veteran City
Attorney Roger Arnebergh possible.
had been virtually handed the office in 1953, when incumbent
Ray Chesebro announced his candidacy for a sixth term, scaring
off challengers, then whispered to Arnebergh that he should
file. Arnebergh filed, Chesebro dropped out and endorsed him,
and Los Angeles didn’t see a real election for city attorney
for another 20 years.
Pines had moved around a bit. When Kadison & Quinn merged
with another firm to become Kadison, Pfalezer, Quinn &
Rossi, it became—with 14 lawyers—too big for Pines’ taste.
He set up a litigation practice on the Westside with Schwartzman,
Greenberg and Finberg, then later formed Dunn & Pines
with now-Superior Court Judge James R. Dunn.
enjoyed private practice and felt proud that I made it on
my own," Pines says. "I felt that this wasn’t enough in life.
I felt that I wanted to make a contribution. I felt city attorney
was an office I could win if everything went right. If things
broke right. Arnebergh’s office was fairly low-profile. A
Pines poll showed that only about 25 percent of residents
recognized his name—but the majority thought he was doing
a bad job!
there was the growing Watergate scandal, and a general dissatisfaction
with incumbents. There was a weariness of Mayor Sam Yorty,
and a feeling that it was now time for African American mayoral
candidate Tom Bradley.
notes, too, that the Los Angeles Times decided to cover his
campaign. Plus he benefited from the expert campaign piloting
of Bob Thomson, who went on to become his chief deputy. He
got help, too, from Manatt, who offered his expertise.
was very clear to me that timing is almost everything in politics,"
Pines says, "and the timing was right."
won the office, Pines set about reorganizing it from top to
bottom. Gay lawyers, for the first time anywhere, were welcomed
into the fold. As Bradley opened city commissions to women
and minorities, Pines did the same in the City Attorney’s
addresses a crowd during is days as city attorney of
Los Angeles. Seated are, from left, Gov. Jerry Brown
and Mayor Tom Bradley.
cites with pride some of the young lawyers who helped him
put the office together. Aileen Adams, now Davis’ secretary
of secretary of State and Consumer Services. Mary Nichols,
secretary for resources. Peter Dunn of Korn/Ferry.
a host of judges—Dion Morrow, Judith Ashmann, Sally Disco.
salary spread was not that great between what we could hire
people at and what firms were paying," Pines explains. "We
wanted to create the best public law office in the country.
There were not the opportunities for women and minorities
in the private sector that there are today. We were the beneficiary
was also a time when the city had money in the budget. Pines
set up a consumer fraud section, an environmental protection
section, a hearing officer program in which paralegals handled
citizen complaints against police.
as now, Pines was meticulous, deliberate. But he showed he
could also move. Leading a crew of television cameras, he
stormed a slum apartment to crack down on code violations
that were forcing tenants to live in squalor. He brushed aside
Police Chief Ed Davis’ insistence that criminal complaints
against his officers be pursued only administratively.
could not have a different standard for police officers from
everybody else," Pines explained. "This did not ingratiate
me with the rank and file."
and Karen Pines had three young children, sons Adam and Ethan
and daughter Alissa. Adam Pines, now a lawyer at Manatt, Phelps
& Phillips, the firm started by Manatt and the former
home of ex-senator Tunney, remembers visits to his father’s
Angeles City Attorney Burt Pines relaxes at home with
his family. From left are wife Karen Pines, daughter
Alissa, and sons Ethan and Adam.
always looked like fun," he recalls. "As I got older, I
liked the way he got along with people. I liked the way
people treated him. Although parties got to be a hassle,
because we had to wait while he talked to everybody."
concern for family life led the Pineses to move to Shadow
Hills, the horsey country in the Northeast San Fernando Valley.
There they rode horses and cared for chickens, peacocks, sheep
and rabbits. The kids mended fences. They would take weekend
family horseback rides. They lived the semi-rural life a half-hour’s
drive from City Hall.
remained important to the man whose own father walked out
when he was an infant. Pines reserved Sundays for family,
even when he sought the Democratic nomination for attorney
general in 1978. Supporters urged him to give up the family
time to focus on the tough fight against Yvonne Brathwaite
Burke. But he wouldn’t do it.
because of his Sundays off, perhaps because Burke raised a
two-year-old incident in which a Pines deputy authorized the
shredding of several tons of police records, Burke came from
behind to win the nomination. She was defeated in the general
election by George Deukmejian.
politics meant giving up family time, Pines had had enough
of it. He had promised to stay only two terms, and although
he was lauded for the job he did doing those eight years,
he was more than happy to keep the promise.
felt that I had made a contribution and accomplished much
of what I wanted to do," Pines says. "I also felt that after
two terms there ought to be a change. I decided not to go
on to pursue other elective offices because I was not prepared
to pay the price in terms of my family life."
leaving office, Pines took his family on a road trip of national
parks around the West.
courted by firms all over Los Angeles even before leaving
office, Pines heeded the invitation of his old high school
friend, Marshall Grossman. Alschuler & Grossman was a
small but prominent Century City firm. Alschuler, Grossman
& Pines became a Los Angeles powerhouse.
selected to join a smaller firm because he enjoys the camaraderie
and professional relationships," Grossman says. "He brought
a broadening of the face of the firm. We were able to distinguish
ourselves in an area other than commercial litigation."
cemented relationships he had built over his career and became
counsel to Korn/Ferry, United Airlines, U.S. Airways, and
other corporate giants. He took his place in the leadership
of the Greater Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. And he kept
his contacts at City Hall.
Administrative Officer Keith Comrie remembers working closely
with Pines on various crises and developing a deep respect
like the old Dr. Kildare," Comrie says of Pines. "He has a
very nice manner about him. But he’s very intense. Extremely
Comrie became engaged, several years after Pines left office,
he and his financee had no doubt whom to call to perform the
ceremony. They got Burt Pines.
ex-public officials can be certified for a day to perform
marriage ceremonies, and my wife and I were unanimous," Comrie
says. "We knew Burt Pines would have the best sense of humor
for a second marriage. So he did it."
City Hall ties also were of a more official kind. He advised
Mayor Richard Riordan on a number of issues. He counseled
the mayor during the flap over Police Chief Willie Williams’
rebuke by the Police Commission for half-truths about gambling
trips to Las Vegas. He headed in inquiry into the actions
of top Riordan aide Michael Keeley, when Keeley overstepped
his bounds by sharing litigation strategy with the city’s
opponent. Other roles were more, as Riordan puts it, "below
someone I’ve always been able to turn to for advice," Riordan
says of Pines. "He has a great deal of experience and remains
a valuable asset to the city."
has not always seen eye-to-eye with the current mayor, however.
When Riordan pressed charter reformers to replace the elected
city attorney with an appointed counsel and an elected prosecutor,
Pines lobbied hard for keeping the office as-is.
retired from public life, Pines remained politically active.
He was a staunch supporter of Davis as a candidate for the
Legislature, lieutenant governor, and governor. So it was
no surprise, really, that Davis called on him to join the
are First Lady Sharon Davis, Gov. Gray Davis, Karen
and Burt Pines.
take the sting out of leaving Los Angeles, he got a place
in Paradise Cove for the occasional weekend trip home. But
he says he and Karen Pines spend more and more time in Sacramento,
working during the week, horseback riding on the weekends.
Pines, a marriage and family therapist in the San Fernando
Valley, landed a part-time counseling job at American River
College, counseling welfare recipients transitioning to work.
Then Davis appointed her to the to Behavioral Sciences Commission,
and the Assembly speaker appointed her to the Commission on
Aging. She became an adjunct professor at Cal State Sacramento.
Pines is absorbed in judicial appointments.
really like this job," he says, noting that he has the opportunity
to meet so many people who have risen so far from such—there’s
that term again—humble origins. He has recommended, and Davis
has appointed, judges from all socio-economic backgrounds
and walks of life. But the ones Pines mentions are the children
of Japanese American internment camps, the children of migrant
farm workers, and the others who have risen above their backgrounds.
the interviews, Pines says, he likes asking people about themselves.
He wants to get a feel for who they are, how they think.
Schnegg, the former Los Angeles County Bar Association president
who was appointed to the bench earlier this year, says Pines
is true to his word. No litmus tests.
was really a wide ranging discussion of a variety of topics,"
Schnegg says. "It came through that he takes his job very
seriously. I didn’t feel there were any right or wrong answers,
that it was more of an exchange than anything else."
she notes, it’s also clear that he is meticulous. He did his
knew your PDQ through and through and he didn’t have to refer
to it," she says.
weeks ago, Pines took part in the Women Lawyers of Los Angeles
program on "How to Become a Judge." Again, hundreds of prospective
judges crowded into the room just like at the forum Pines
first conducted for the State Bar in March 1999, before Davis
had sent any names to the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission.
time, there was a track record. More than 50 appointments.
But the message was the same.
is a merit-based system," he said. "It doesn’t matter if you
donated to the governor."
litmus tests. But remember, the governor is a moderate with
a strong commitment to public safety.
more likely to appoint people who reflect his views than not,"
Pines told the crowd. "That’s what governors do."
another thing. Neatness counts.
been in practice a long time and I do give a lot of attention
to detail," he said. "I can’t help but be concerned when I
see applications replete with grammatical and spelling errors.
I don’t know why we have applications with spelling mistakes.
Please give this your best shot."