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Verdict on a veteran judge, Joan Dempsey Klein -- 'smart, funny, fearless'

February 6, 2012 | 12:41 pm

Justice Joan Dempsey Klein
Just about everyone knows at least something about the Supreme Court justices,  even though they may not be as famous to most Americans as those judges on TV.

But there are state benches and state judges as well as federal ones.

And one California judge, a pistol of a woman I know and admire, was recently honored for her work as she enters her 50th year on the bench.

Joan Dempsey Klein is the longtime presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Three. She was put on the municipal bench in Los Angeles by Gov. Pat Brown in 1963; his son named her to her current post in 1978. At an event at the California Club, she was acclaimed by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s senior lawyers section, whose tongue-in-cheek emblem is a dinosaur -- the Apatosaurus, once known as the Brontosaurus, the thunder lizard.

"If I'd known I was going to get all this attention for getting older," Klein observed with characteristic wit, "I'd have done it sooner."

She was feted along with the late Y.C. Hong, a 1925 USC law school grad and the first Chinese American to be admitted to practice law in California by examination, and his son, attorney Nowland Hong. Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, summoning the aphorism that the apple never falls far from the tree, remarked, "Y.C. was a great tree; Nowland, you're a great apple."

Cooley, the retiring DA, sat at the same table as the woman he's endorsed to succeed him, his chief deputy, Jackie Lacey. County counsel Andrea Sheridan Ordin, former DA Robert Philibosian and L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich were also at the sometimes rollickingly funny California Club event; yep, you read that right: funny lawyers.

Klein was praised in person and on videos from her colleagues, among them Norman L. Epstein, presiding justice of the Second Appellate District, Division Four, of the state Court of Appeal. 

He recalled the era when United Airlines ran a 90-minute men-only "executive" flight from L.A. to San Francisco, staffed by comely flight attendants who served drinks and hors d'oeuvres and who gave every passenger a cigar as he deplaned.

"Joan called United Airlines to book a reservation" and was told it was men only. Her rejoinder: She'd be filing a complaint with (what was then) the Civil Aeronautics Board. The men-only "executive" flight ended forthwith.

Klein, who co-founded the national Assn. of Women Judges, had once been a swimming champ who had swum in exhibitions on tour with actor and Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe. As one of her fellow justices, Arthur Gilbert, pointed out, she did synchronized swimming. "Joan, in synchronized swimming? No wonder she left the tour in Italy. I can't see Joan synchronizing with anybody!"

Klein swam upstream in her career too, even working briefly as a riveter, and going to college and law school in spite of a father who wasn't too keen on such an education for women. She became the first UCLA law school grad to be appointed to the bench.

Her colleagues called her a "dynamo," a woman who is "smart, funny and fearless" and someone who always asked herself, of the legal decisions she made, "Is the result fair and reasonable?"

Orange County Superior Court Judge Marjorie Laird Carter listed Klein as one of her heroines, along with Queen Elizabeth I and Sacajawea.

Attorney Patricia Phillips remembered Klein at a wintry conference in the upper Midwest; when someone suggested they all go for a bracing walk, Klein showed up ready to go -- in a yellow track suit and a fur coat.

And as another fan remarked, "She has always been and will always be her sister's keeper."

Once Klein rounds out that 50 years, she's planning on retiring. As she told the California Bar Journal, "I was appointed by Jerry Brown … and I feel obligated to give him my position. So I will retire in time for him to find my replacement … unless he decides to run again."


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Photo: Justice Joan Dempsey Klein is seen administering oath of office to newly elected Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in 1996. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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