Wednesday, February 03, 2010

My Courtroom Is Not Dark

476-2151. That is my old phone number. The phone company disconnected it when I moved to a new address 39 years ago just as we began establishing area codes. I do not always remember what I did a few days ago. Still, it is not extraordinary that I remember my phone number from decades ago. The phone, then, as today, was a vital link to others. And, as today, we “gave” our numbers to special people, but there were no cell phones to store numbers. Those special phone numbers from the past stay imbedded in memory because they were “dialed” so often and because they kept us in touch with people who were important in our lives. I still remember some of my friends’ phone numbers I “dialed” 50 years ago.

But a phone number was merely the code that made the connection with others possible. Many of the conversations—the arguments, the expressions of love, anger, compassion and sympathy, the exchange of ideas, profound and commonplace—linger in our memories because they are significant parts of the unique story of our lives. A transcript of some may be prosaic in isolation and seemingly beyond recall. But a momentous event in the present can bring them to the surface where they can be seen with striking clarity for their special significance.

One such phone call from several years back recently was called to my mind. It was from my friend, Federal District Court Judge Florence Cooper. She said, “Art, thanks for introducing me. We had a wonderful conversation.” This unremarkable short call was not about a conversation between Judge Cooper and me, but I doubt I will ever forget it.

A little history will explain. Approximately 20 years ago, I, along with others, formed the West Los Angeles Inns of Court. I recruited several lawyers and judges, including then Superior Court Judge Ronald Schoenberg. He joined with his son, Randy, a recently admitted lawyer. Years later Randy assumed the role of David when he challenged Goliath, the Austrian government, in a celebrated lawsuit over ownership of a group of paintings by Gustav Klimt. The Nazis had stolen the pieces from an Austrian Jewish family. After the war, the paintings came into the possession of the Austrian government.

One painting, in particular, the portrait entitled Adele Bloch-Bauer I, was described by Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times as the "singular 1907 tour de force, … among the greatest early Modern paintings now in the U.S…. [I]t ranks as a destination work—the kind one travels just to see—comparable to Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at New York's Museum of Modern Art ...."

Randy represented Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Ms. Altmann fought to have the Klimt paintings restored to her, the last surviving family member. Her attempts to obtain redress in Austrian courts were not successful. But Randy took another tack. He filed suit for Ms. Altmann, when she was in her late 80's, under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in the United States District Court, Judge Florence Marie Cooper Presiding.

Did Ms. Altmann have standing to sue the Austrian government? Judge Cooper said she did. So did the United States Supreme Court.

Owing to Ms. Altmann’s advancing age and the passage of years over which the appeals would stretch, whatever the outcome, Randy and Ms. Altmann opted for binding arbitration before three arbitrators in Germany. The decision was unanimous in Ms. Altmann's favor. The five Klimt paintings, including the stunning portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, were returned to the rightful owner.

I attended a special showing of the paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where Randy introduced me to Ms. Altmann. As I was congratulating Ms. Altmann, I noticed out of the corner of my eye Judge Cooper entering the gallery. I grabbed hold of Judge Cooper’s arm and brought her over to Ms. Altmann. “And here’s the judge who made it all possible,” I said. They hugged and sat down at a table and became engaged in animated conversation like two friends who have known each other for years. I still see so clearly the two of them, talking and laughing, two people of great courage and character, who in quite different ways demonstrated how the courts can be a potent force for justice.

It is so difficult for many of us accept the terrible news that Judge Cooper died on January 15, 2010. She was a friend whose warmth, kindness, humor and brilliance touched everyone she knew. We had dinner many times throughout the years with a small group of friends, all of whom shared a disdain for formal clubs. We formed our own anti‑club dinner club, dubbed “CALJIC I" by its president, criminal defense attorney Bob Schwartz. Bob takes pride in his inability ever to establish order at our meetings. Our bylaws prevent me from disclosing or even summarizing our conversations. No matter, the bylaws were not written and the conversations were hard to follow with all the interruptions and laughter.

Florence Cooper proved that an academic pedigree is not an essential ingredient to be a great judge. She graduated top of her class at the Beverly Rubens Law School, now called the Whittier Law School. No doubt, Beverly Rubens was one great law professor. And Florence and one of her best friends and classmates, Miriam Vogel, who graduated magna cum laude, were stunningly brilliant students. Miriam, now a leading appellate practitioner, became one of our state’s most respected justices on the California Court of Appeal. To hear Miriam recount their days in law school, studying for the bar, pursuing their careers and raising their families is both hilarious and touching.
Through example, Judge Cooper made us better at what we do. She showed judges what it is to be the best possible jurist. One could not help take notice. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon, for whom she clerked when she graduated from law school, described her as one of the finest jurists in our country. He was so impressed with her work in his chambers that he acknowledged that she had become part of his brain. And that is one impressive brain. Exceptional people like Judge Cooper stay with you forever.

A typical example of how other judges viewed Judge Cooper is found in these words written by California Court of Appeal Justice Elizabeth Baron (Ret.). Upon learning of Judge Cooper’s death, she wrote so eloquently: "I have known Florence Marie Cooper for 30 years and, to me, she was the quintessential judge; the purest and most perfect example of what it means to be a judge. From holocaust victims to whales to government malfeasance, she was committed to overseeing a process that would render an outcome based on a fair and impartial adjudication of each case. Her crushing caseload never prevented her from reading every document presented to her or analyzing each issue in depth. She provided the foundational and emotional support for her family. She was loyal and true to her friends. She sang like an angel, played the piano and knit sweaters for us. Her death leaves a gigantic hole in the fabric of our legal world and in my life."
Judge Florence Marie Cooper remains with us through the legacy she leaves. With apologies to Mary Frye, who after the death of a dear friend is reputed to have written a moving poem in 1932, entitled "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep," I close with a poem inspired by Ms. Frye and Judge Cooper.

My Courtroom is Not Dark

My courtroom is not dark, the door opens wide,
I have not gone, I still preside.
I am the judge, the judge who is fair,
I am the judge, the judge who cares.
I am the judge before whom you rise,
Yet, the judge who is humble, who strives to be wise.
I am the judge intent and kind,
The judge not afraid to change her mind.

I am the judge who loves the law,
Who knows the record, sees an argument’s flaw.
I am the judge who does not glower,
The judge who uses, not abuses her power.
I am the judge all can trust,
The judge who rules as she can, and rules as she must
My courtroom is not dark, the door opens wide,
I have not gone, I still preside.