Judge' Rides Tall in the Saddle to Help Guide Nation's
Largest Trial Court
ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
To Rosa Montoya, his secretary
for more than a decade, Victor Chavez is a sort of romantic
"I used to call him Don Quixote,"
Montoya relates, recalling the days when she worked in Chavez's
mid-Wilshire law office. "He was a gentleman all the time.
And he would always try to help people with lost causes."
Chavez chuckles at the comparison, but he points
with pride to the corner of his Los Angeles Superior Court chambers.
There sits a gift from Montoya: a small sculpture of the foolish
but strangely dignified hero of the immortal Miguel de Cervantes
masterpiece, astride Roxinante, his old nag.
In another corner stands a sculpture of Joan
of Arc, the young Frenchwoman who rallied her country to fight
for freedom, using faith in God as her only guidepost. She,
too, is on horseback.
There are also two paintings of horses.
What does it all mean?
"I guess it means I like horsing around
at work," the judge says.
The remark is typical of Chavez, a man who will
offer a joke, a hearty laugh, or a wave of his hand to direct
attention elsewhere when he thinks he has received one too many
compliments or becomes too much the focus of admiring conversation.
But Victor Chavez, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise
1997 Person of the Year, does not horse around.
He is an avid horseback rider and a founding
member of the Cowboy Lawyers, and he and his wife, psychologist
Marlene Chavez, ride almost every weekend, but he somehow does
not fit the image of the dusty, trail-weary cowboy. He and his
wife were married on a ranch in cowboy duds amid laughter and
among close friends, but although he seems to smile constantly,
Chavez is an intensely serious man.
People other than Montoya make the Don Quixote
comparison, but they do not mean that they see in the trim,
white-haired judge the confused old gentleman who mistakes windmills
for giants. Judges who serve with him, attorneys who opposed
him in court, in fact all who know him, it seems, say Victor
Chavez exemplifies integrity, honesty, faith-and a fierce commitment
to what he thinks is right.
He will talk passionately about his respect for
the legal profession, and his distaste for those who would poke
at practitioners with lawyer jokes. He comes down hard on attorneys
who display disrespect for their colleagues or for the court.
Still, he is known as a generous, easygoing man,
one who makes it a point to assure that people in his courtroom-or
anywhere, for that matter-get their chance to be heard. Perhaps
that is why the judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court last
year took the unusual step of electing Chavez, who had served
on the bench for only six years, the court's assistant presiding
The presiding judge and assistant presiding judge
serve one-year terms, but a second term is traditional and presumed.
Just as traditional and presumed is the APJ's promotion after
his two year-long stints, and the court's 238 judges knew when
they cast their ballots that their new APJ would preside as
the chief policymaker in 1999 and 2000.
Those years will be crucial for the Superior
Court, the nation's largest court of general jurisdiction. Voters
are widely expected to approve a constitutional amendment permitting
consolidation of each county's trial courts, and in Los Angeles,
that means a potential merger with the judges of 24 municipal
courts that don't always see things eye-to-eye with their bigger
At least one of those judges, though, says the
Superior Court picked the right man to be in charge when unification
"I'm looking forward to Vic taking over,"
Rio Hondo Municipal Court Judge Rudy Diaz says. "He has
a good disposition for getting people together. He has the right
demeanor to let [unification] happen."
Meanwhile, Chavez plays a key role in advocating
for the court and its members. He serves on the state Trial
Court Budget Commission at a time when courts, for the first
time, will look to the state and not the counties for the bulk
of their funding. The new arrangement is a godsend to courts
in smaller counties, but could have a negative impact on the
massive Los Angeles Superior Court.
Presiding Judge Robert Parkin says he has the
utmost confidence that Chavez, an accomplished and persuasive
trial lawyer for 30 years before he took the bench, will accurately
convey to the budget commission-and the state Administrative
Office of the Courts-the financial needs of the court.
"I think he appreciates, now that he's in
the administration, the complexity of running this court,"
Parkin says. "We are of one mind in terms of our concerns
about adequate resources."
Parkin adds that Chavez's personality may be
his secret weapon in aiding the court in statewide affairs,
and in keeping judges in 14 courthouses around the county happy.
"He's an extremely easygoing person,"
Parkin notes. "When you're running something as big as
this court you have to be able to get along."
Born Near Courthouse
Chavez likes to point out that he was born and
grew up within three miles of his chambers at the Central Courthouse.
His parents and their two daughters moved here from New Mexico
in the 1920s when his father grew weary of an unsuccessful search
for good work in the land of his father and grandfather.
He landed a job here as a boilermaker for the
Santa Fe Railroad.
"Those were the days when a person of Mexican
origin could not rise above that level," Chavez says. "A
person could work on the tracks, they could work in the roundhouse,
but they could never get on the train. It was a very bigoted
time...a black person could work in the kitchen, or serving
people in the dining car, or work as a porter. But the conductor
and the brakeman and those people were always white Anglo Saxon
Once in Los Angeles, his mother decided she was
going to get an education, and she did not worry that there
were no special courses for adults to earn their high school
diplomas. Although she had two young children of her own, she
enrolled in Lincoln High School, sat with the teenagers, studied
Then she went to UCLA, and graduated in the first
class out of Westwood-"carrying me at the time," Chavez
She then went on to USC to earn a master's degree
and a teaching credential.
The younger of Chavez's sisters was 10 years
his senior, and by the time he was in school the pattern of
education and aspiration was set. There was no question that
he, too, would go to college one day. Meanwhile, there was no
question that he would get his homework done.
In his family, Chavez recounts, "your table
manners had to be appropriate, your vocabulary had to be appropriate,
your use of words had to be accurate."
But his recollections betray no sense of burden,
no notion of having been picked on or nagged by his studious
mother and sisters. Learning, he says, was a joy.
His father's railroad job afforded the family
many opportunities to travel, and they went to Mexico frequently
and once as far as Guatemala. (The three children learned Spanish,
the first language of his father, but English was spoken at
home). The train also took them all over the United States,
and Chavez remembers trips to see the Statue of Liberty and
One highlight was a game at Yankee Stadium, where
he saw two of the DiMaggio brothers play-Joe for the Yankees
and Dom for the Red Sox.
On the trains, the family would read, often aloud.
Chavez read to his mother, she read to him.
That habit stuck. Today, Chavez keeps a book
in the car, so he has something to read if he has to wait in
line at the bank. In the car's tape player is a book on tape
(recent readings include biographies of Louis Brandeis and Learned
Hand) and by his bedside is a "lighter" work, something
like Tom Clancy.
Shaped by Faith
Chavez's life was also shaped and enriched by
his faith, and by the educational traditions of the Catholic
church. He served Mass as an altar boy at Precious Blood Church,
where Hoover Street and Commonwealth come together, about two
miles west of downtown. Later, at Mount Carmel High School,
he played football and became active in performing arts.
Even after he graduated, his name was known at
Mount Carmel, a virtual farm team for Los Angeles judges. Richard
Aldrich, now a justice of the Second District Court of Appeal,
started at Mount Carmel after Chavez had already left, but said
the young man left a reputation as an honest, earnest, hardworking
William Rea, who now serves as a federal district
judge in Los Angeles, was also a Mount Carmel student and remembers
hearing of Chavez.
"It was a small school and everyone seemed
to know everyone else" even students who already moved
on, Rea says.
After graduating, Chavez studied a year-and-a-half
at junior seminary in Los Angeles, then enrolled at Loyola University
on a scholarship. He sang in the glee club, reported for the
student paper, hosted a show for the student radio station,
and acted with the Del Rey players (the campus drama group).
As a young boy, Chavez has spent two years at
the prestigious St. John's Military Academy. Now, in high school,
he joined the Air Force ROTC and went on to serve as an Air
Force intelligence officer.
as student at St. John's
A former classmate and now Superior Court colleague,
Judge Lawrence Crispo, recalls that Chavez also played the trumpet.
"He is an outstanding judge and was a fine
trial lawyer," Crispo says. "He was a mediocre trumpet
Chavez intended to become a teacher, but eventually
his horizons expanded and he came to believe that a legal career
was within his grasp. In a 1996 article in the Tidings, the
archdiocese's newspaper, Chavez credited the Jesuits who trained
him in philosophy, logic and religion and developed his abilities-and
"[T]he Jesuits encouraged me to apply for
law school," he told the Tidings. "I didn't know a
lawyer when I took the exam for law school and started at Loyola
on a Farmer's Insurance scholarship. It was all because of the
influence of my parents and the education of the Jesuits."
At Loyola Law School, Chavez was thrust into
leadership positions. He became president of the Student Bar
Association and of the St.Thomas Moore Society.
holds daughter Victoria (now a Superior Court judge)
at his graduation ceremony at Loyola Law School.
Upon graduating from law school and passing
the bar exam, Chavez repaid Farmers' faith and support by
taking a job with Early, Maslach, Price & Baukol, the
insurance company's house counsel. There, he honed his skills
as a trial lawyer, taking case after case to court and laying
out for one jury after another the arguments in favor of Farmer's
Meanwhile, Chavez married; he and
his wife had six children.
Aldrich, an accomplished plantiffs'
advocate before his appointment to the bench, recalls a few
medical malpractice cases he had against Chavez.
"He had a great grasp of the
legal issues, and these were some very sophisticated medical
situations," Aldrich says. "He was always a very formidable
opponent, but extremely professional. That was much more common
in those days, and almost without exception the trial lawyers
in [medical negligence practice] were a very honorable group
of people. But Vic stood out."
Another opposing lawyer who was impressed with
Chavez was Leonard Pomerantz, who had a case against a Farmer's
insured at Lake Tahoe. The two men got to know each other while
waiting for the plane back to Los Angeles, and they hit it off.
Several years later, Chavez left Farmer's to
set up a plaintiffs' practice with Pomerantz. There, his reputation
as a skillful lawyer and a man of integrity grew.
"We sort of supplemented each other well,"
Pomerantz says. "Vic was an excellent trial lawyer. Vic's
ability was to relate to the jury. He could always kind of bond
with the jury. His honesty came across."
That remark is repeated many times among lawyers
who know Chavez from his law practice days. Joseph H. Cummins
of Cummins & White says he "cottoned to him right away"
because Chavez's integrity was so clearly in evidence.
"He was a gentleman and easy to get along
with, and not dishonest," Cummins says. "A square-shootin'
type of guy."
Harold Hunter, too, knows Chavez from the Farmer's
days, and says Chavez established a reputation as a "highly
ethical yet unyielding advocate for his clients."
John McNicholas recalls working at Farmer's with
Chavez in 1960, before either were attorneys. They would play
volleyball during lunch breaks, then grab a bite together.
"I wonder if he still drinks tea with Mexican
food," McNicholas asks. "That's just awful!"
But it is not Chavez's eating habits that McNicholas
cites as the man's hallmark.
"Victor Chavez is a gentleman, and from
that flows his civility," McNicholas says. "He is
a very courtly man, firm without being overbearing. Very, very
difficult to drive to anger. And I don't think he knows he has
these qualities, which is really refreshing."
To drive home his point about the implicit trust
one immediately has in Chavez, Pomerantz notes a business arrangement
that one rarely sees between law partners these days.
"Vic and I were together for over 20 years,"
Pomerantz says, "and there was never a written agreement
Victoria Chavez, the first of Chavez's children
and now the supervising judge at the Compton branch of the Superior
Court, came to work at Pomerantz & Chavez after she graduated
from law school. Her perspective is different, and she can tell
a few stories about her father that others can't—such as how
he interviewed her dates—but the bottom line is the same.
"He is what he seems to be," Victoria
Chavez says. "He is perceived by most as a very honorable
man. He is. But he's not a wimp. He's not afraid to take his
position and maintain it even against adversity."
She also says her father could be a "soft
touch" for the powerless, or even penniless, client looking
for an advocate.
"He's nicer than I am," she says. "I
am the only one in his professional life who could bring him
Chavez laughs now about the times—more than
once—when his daughter dressed him down for taking on a pro
"Yes, that would happen," Chavez says.
"My daughter would come to me sometimes and would say,
'Dad, who is this client that you've just saddled me with? Does
this person remind you of your dad, or your grandfather? Because
it was obviously not a good case. But you take it on, because
you thought these people needed representation.'"
Robert Chavez is also a lawyer now, and although
he never worked at the firm the way his older sister did, he
remembers being a file clerk there while in high school and
a law clerk when he went to law school.
He learned from Victor Chavez, the lawyer, the
same things he learned from Victor Chavez, his father.
"Be fair and be honest, and you will have
no trouble sleeping at night," Robert Chavez says. "That's
what he taught me. And a couple other things too. 'If you don't
do anything you're ashamed of you don't have to lie.' And, 'Your
word is your bond.'"
Like Victoria Chavez, Rosa Montoya remembers
the pro bono cases, and the others that did not perhaps pay
as well as they should. But she says it was those cases that
really showed Chavez for the hero he is.
"Especially the Spanish-speaking clients,
they were very pleased with his services," Montoya says.
"He would take time to listen to them, make them feel comfortable.
He was always interested in their well-being."
Chavez loves to talk about lawyers, and he freely
names those he thinks are among the best, but he doesn't chat
much about his own ability. His pride shows, though, when he
points to a plaque from the American Board of Trial Advocates.
He was president of the Los Angeles Chapter in
To join ABOTA, a lawyer must demonstrate that
he or she has outstanding moral character and has tried at least
20 lawsuits to conclusion. In many ways, ABOTA membership is
the Hall of Fame for trial lawyers.
Aldrich, who was president of the local ABOTA
chapter in 1986, says Chavez makes a point during ABOTA meetings
of addressing his favorite subject: the declining civility in
Chavez explains that many lawyers today mistake
a "militant kind of hostile style" with advocacy.
"I think you can really fight hard for someone
and still be a very sociable person," he says. "You
get so much farther. It's so much easier to deal with people."
Why have things gotten so bad?
"I hesitate to say this," Chavez says,
"but I think there's really a breakdown in morality. One's
word meant so much to a person. And does still to many. To most.
But there are those [to whom] that means nothing. It's a question
of 'I can work the system.' "
Appointed to the Superior Court in 1990 (Victoria
Chavez, then a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, administered
the oath), Chavez cultivated his admiration for good trial lawyers.
Don't dare tell him a lawyer joke—he hates them. Oh, he may
laugh but, he says, he feels guilty afterwards.
"They're very, very tasteless," he
complains. "They're hurtful. Why is it okay to disparage
a profession with those kinds of jokes when you wouldn't do
it to an ethnic group?"
After sitting on the bench for seven years and
watching "some marvelous work," Chavez says he still
sometimes walks into his chambers after a skillfully presented
argument and marvels at what he saw.
in his judicial robe
"Sometimes I just have to say, 'Now that
was a piece of work,'" he remarks. "I get fascinated
and I get torn, because of course I can't rule for both sides.
And yet they're gentle persons, they're not nasty, they don't
use pejorative terms about the opposition or anything of that
sort. It is a delight. It makes this job a delight. Not everybody
can reach those levels of advocacy, but when you see it, you're
just proud of it."
The Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles
recognized Chavez's appreciation for trial lawyers and his ability
to manage a courtroom with the Trial Judge of the Year Award
Association President Deborah David explains
that trial lawyers can tell when the person on the bench knows
as much as the advocates in front of him.
"He likes lawyers and has an enormous respect
for the jury system," David says. "He believes that
system deserves and merits protection."
She adds that more and more new judges come from
the ranks of criminal prosecutors. It is rare, she says, to
find a judge who is a member of ABOTA.
"He really has been in the trenches,"
David says. "He knows what it's like to be a practicing
Chavez says the proudest day of his life was
the day he took his oath of office as an attorney. Trial advocacy
is his life's joy, he comments, but notes he has many other
Chief among them is his wife of eight years,
psychologist Marlene Schall Chavez, who says she was fascinated
by Chavez's passions for the variety of life.
"He was just as comfortable at a football
game as he was at the ballet," she says. "He is a
She remarks that she was drawn to his dignity
and his moral fiber. People find him warm and "touchy-feely,"
she says, but he sets limits.
"He wouldn't allow someone to treat him
in a less-respectful way," she says. "He wouldn't
allow someone to offend him."
Hooked on Horses
One of Chavez's passions is horseback riding,
and although it took Marlene Chavez some time to overcome her
fear of horses, she too eventually was hooked.
They rode to their wedding on horseback, in Western
garb, and were married in a corral. Victoria Chavez performed
the ceremony. Victor Chavez wore a huge Mexican hat, not a sombrero,
but the sort of straw hat worn by the hero in those old Cisco
He still wears that kind of hat when he and his
wife go riding, he says. On his horse, Margarita, he cuts the
figure of a mounted hero.
Not the Cisco Kid. It's been a few years since
Chavez was a kid. But he is far too sharp to appear like Don
Quixote. For one thing, the best Roxinante could ever muster
was a slow trot. And Chavez likes to do "some serious loping"
A Western gentleman, yes. But he is no Lone Ranger.
He is far too ebullient and loves people too much to be a "lone"
anything. He is far too refined to be a John Wayne, too courtly
to be a Clint Eastwood.
Maybe Victor Chavez might be more usefully compared
with Teddy Roosevelt—a weekend "rough rider," and
during the week a vigorous defender of the principles and the
institutions he loves.
went on to serve two terms as presiding judge, in 1999 and 2000,
leading the court during the difficult period of unification
with the county's municipal courts. In January, 2001, he resumed
hearing cases, presiding in a civil trials department in the