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Paul Egly, judge who oversaw Los Angeles school integration, dies at 97

Paul Egly, judge who oversaw Los Angeles school integration, dies at 97
Judge Paul Egly gives a speech to the Interchange for Community Action on March 14, 1981, the day he announced he would recuse himself from the L.A. school desegregation case after the state Supreme Court upheld a voter-approved constitutional amendment to bar mandatory busing. (Los Angeles Times file photo)

Paul Egly, the controversial judge who oversaw court-mandated integration efforts of Los Angeles schools in the late 1970s, died June 26 at his Laguna Beach home. He was 97.

California’s Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that Los Angeles Unified School District must work to desegregate its schools in Crawford vs. Board of Education, and Egly was assigned the job in 1977 of overseeing the district’s development and implementation of an integration plan.

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He started as a well-liked judge known for his jovial nature and ability to get along with different groups, and tried to bring racial integration to Los Angeles schools through collaboration rather than force. But over the four years that he oversaw the case, Egly faced resistance from white communities and politicians, an effort to recall him and a change to the state constitution that heavily stymied integration efforts.

“He was willing to take a case that nobody in Los Angeles would touch and he tried his best to reason with people,” said Gary Orfield, the co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and one of Egly’s advisors during the case.

Despite L.A.’s liberal leanings, desegregation was never a popular endeavor — many white families did not want their children bused to schools in primarily black and Latino neighborhoods. The L.A. Superior Court judge who initially ruled that the schools were segregated was voted out of office the next year.

In March 1977, before the hearings began, a Times reporter asked whether the idea of losing voter support concerned him. Egly said, “Of course it does. I thought about it and swallowed it — with a gulp. But I have been a judge for a long time, and a judge’s job is to judge.”

By July of that year, after he rejected the district’s initial desegregation plan and demanded a more comprehensive one, a Times story noted that he had received multiple death threats, and “may well be the most unpopular judge in Southern California.”

He believed deeply that parents and community members needed to buy into any desegregation plan in order for it to work, and that the school board implementing the plan needed to be involved in developing the plan, rather than following court mandates. He tried for years to facilitate that collaboration, and under his watch L.A. Unified began its magnet schools program and a voluntary busing program that still exists in a limited capacity today.

Egly recused himself from the case in 1981 after the state Supreme Court upheld a voter-approved constitutional amendment to bar mandatory busing. When he stepped down, Egly lambasted the city and district leadership for shortchanging minority students.

“These children didn’t ask to be born into this lousy world,” he said at the time. “They have the same right to a good education as everybody else.”

For decades after he left the case, Egly worried about the outcomes of students in Los Angeles affected by segregation, Orfield said.

“He believed Los Angeles was better than it turned out to be, and that was heartbreaking for him,” Orfield said. L.A. Unified has yet to implement a comprehensive and successful desegregation plan, he said.

Some said Egly could have been more heavy-handed earlier on in demanding results from L.A. Unified, and that more African Americans and Latinos should have been involved in the discussions.

Diane Watson, an L.A. school board member during 1970s and one of the few African American women to have served on the board, said she gives Egly credit for his efforts in the face of mass opposition from both parents and politicians.

“Yes, he could try harder, but what do you do when parents take their kids out of school?” Watson said. “A lot of things interfered. He tried, but you can only go so far. … at least he tried.”

Before law school, Egly served in the U.S. Army during World War II, landing in Normandy, France, on the second day of the Allied invasion, according to a 1977 Times story. He returned from the war and decided to go to law school in Washington, D.C., then eventually opened a law practice in Covina. He became a judge in 1963, and oversaw San Bernardino’s school desegregation efforts before he was tapped to take on the L.A. case.

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About 30 years ago Egly began slowly losing his eyesight to macular degeneration, and lost his eyesight completely about five years ago, said his wife, Jane Egly. A voracious reader, he learned Braille and listened to audiobooks. He suffered from diabetes and died while in hospice care with his wife and a niece by his side.

History will remember Egly as a man who worked to ensure that young blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles knew that there were people in America’s judicial system who understood the importance of ensuring an equal education for all, Watson said.

“He tried as hard as he could to inform people about what is required by the Constitution of the United States, by American ideals,” Watson said. “And you know, we have ideals that sometimes we can’t reach.”

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