Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Ripple Effect

We have all heard of the ripple effect, how even the most insignificant act can have far-reaching consequences. At the risk of sounding self-important, my sneeze last week may have caused an avalanche in Tibet. I hope no one was injured.

Seldom are we aware of the ripple effect resulting from a kind or an insulting word. Judges may make an off-handed remark in court that could have significant consequences for a litigant, a witness, or someone they know.

I recall a case over which I presided some 30 years ago. A young woman was charged with a misdemeanor offense stemming from her failure to protect her three-year-old daughter from her father's abuse. She pled guilty and I told her about her obligation to protect her daughter and to stand up to the father or call the police.

The young woman thanked me for the advice and I ordered her released from custody. We continued her case to the next month for her sentencing hearing. At that hearing I was surprised to see her dressed in jail garb. She was in custody. The Deputy City Attorney moved to dismiss the misdemeanor offense. I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The City Attorney informed me that he was dismissing the case because she was now facing a more serious offense, the murder of her husband. She smiled at me as though she had done a good deed. Maybe I am overstating it, but I felt she was tacitly telling me, "See, I followed your advice." I am still haunted by a vague sense of guilt for my possible complicity.

I recall a complicated case I wrote concerning whether a landlord was required to return a renter's security deposit. The case involved a statute that I said "teeter[ed] on the brink of unintelligibility." There had been much previous litigation concerning this statute. When the lawyer representing the landlord in a previous case inquired of an appellate panel how his client could avoid the harsh effect of the security deposit, one of the justices said from the bench, "Call it rent." Were it not for that off-the-cuff remark, I would not have had to struggle with Granberry v. Islay Investments (1984) 161 Cal.App.3d 382.

A judge's decision in a particular case can, and often does, have far-reaching consequences for many individuals. Going back again more than 30 years ago, I declared the solicitation section of Penal Code section 647(a) an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. The Brown Act made sexual acts between consenting adults legal. I reasoned that "if you can do it, you ought to be able to talk about it," and dismissed approximately 40 cases that charged violations of 647a. In a separate but similar case, the California Supreme Court in Pryor v. Municipal Court (1979) 25 Cal.3d 238 ruled as I did. To get an idea of the profound effect these decisions had on millions of people, I recommend you read "The Domino Effect," by Thomas F. Coleman, who, along with Jay Kohorn, argued the case in my court and the Pryor case before the Supreme Court. Their compelling briefs and cogent arguments made my job easy.

Stanley Mosk, one of California's preeminent jurists, wrote opinions that produced ripple effects permeating the state and the nation. Many of his rulings will endure for generations. But one case he decided as a young trial judge also created ripples that significantly affected many lives. Stanley Mosk's son, Court of Appeal Justice Richard Mosk, wrote a touching article in the Daily Journal, October 14, 2010, The Intersection of Two Lives, about some of the people whose lives were changed by this case, decided more than 63 years ago.

The famous United States Supreme Court decision, Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) 334 U.S. 1, holding that racially restrictive covenants in property deeds were unenforceable in courts of law, had not yet been decided. In Mosk's case, a Black family, the Dryes, purchased a house, the deed of which contained a racially restrictive covenant. When some neighborhood residents sought to enforce the Caucasian-only resident requirement, other Black families moved, but not the Dryes. They stayed to fight this injustice. They were represented by Loren Miller, the great civil rights lawyer, who later became a judge, and whose son Loren Miller became a distinguished Superior Court judge and a dear friend and colleague.

Judge Mosk ruled the covenants were an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. He pointed out how callous it would be to deny Mr. Drye, a decorated war hero who fought in two wars to preserve our country's freedom, the right to live in a house because of his race. The next year the United States Supreme Court decided Shelley v. Kraemer.

The Dryes stayed in the house and raised their son, whom I will never forget, and not because he and I share a first name. I met Arthur Drye on November 5, 2010. That was the day I was privileged to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Stanley Mosk Elementary School in the West Valley. All of us in the audience in the school auditorium felt a connection with one another. You could tell, because we were all smiling, a reflection about how good we felt about the ceremony.

One of the speakers was Arthur Drye, a teacher and school administrator. He asked the students to think for a moment about their heroes. He asked them if Superman or Spiderman were heroes. I was relieved to hear the kids roar in unison, "No!" When he asked if their parents and teachers were heroes, they yelled, "Yes!" I thought to myself there is hope for the future. Drye then spoke of his heroes, his father and mother, who had the courage and character to fight for their rights, and his hero, Stanley Mosk, who made it possible for him to live in the neighborhood of his parents' choice. He spoke of the jeers and taunts he suffered in school because of his race. But, like his parents, he refused to be defeated and became a teacher and school administrator. His message: A hero stands up to bullies. We succeed by not encouraging bullies. Bullies only win if we let them.

It was an extraordinary experience to hear Arthur Drye, standing on the auditorium stage of the Stanley Mosk Elementary School, inspiring and encouraging the students, 63 years after Judge Mosk's decision. It is fitting that the downtown court civil courthouse in Los Angeles be named the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. It is an acknowledgement of his invaluable contribution to California. No doubt Stanley Mosk would be pleased with this recognition. But the grammar school that bears his name, stemming from a demurrer sustained without leave to amend over six decades ago, I suspect, would be an immense satisfaction to him and would hold a special place in his heart.

Stanley Mosk swore me in as a Municipal Court judge on Labor Day, 1975. Through his example and my association with him, he has been my mentor. Arthur Drye and I have something in common beyond our same first names. For us, Stanley Mosk is a hero.

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