Malibu Courthouse 'Loses An Institution'

Times Staff Writer

When John J. Merrick hung up his judicial robes for the last time, his staff and colleagues at the Malibu courthouse looked as though they were in mourning. Merrick retired two weeks ago after 22 years as the first and only Municipal Court judge in the district, which stretches from the ocean to Calabasas.

Court Administrator Robert Steiner said he didn't even want to come to work the following Monday without him.

"His departure will make a difference," said Richard Brand, who worked with Merrick for 12 years as a court commissioner. "We are losing an institution."

Attorney Michael Shultz, who occasionally sits as a judge pro tem in Malibu, views Merrick as a judicial conservative and would like to see a more liberal replacement. (Judge Norris Goodwin is filling the vacancy until a successor is appointed.) But Shultz said local attorneys also would like a new judge as courteous and friendly as Merrick.

"When you have completed a case before him, you feel you have been dealt with fairly," Shultz said.

Praise for Judge

Said James Bascue, Santa Monica's chief deputy district attorney: "I think John is perceived as being compassionate and fair and as being interested in the community. . . . Even though we (as prosecutors) may not like his individual rulings on occasion, we respect him for being the kind of man he is. He has been a strong, constant force. . . . He has controlled the quality of justice in that community."

Malibu was primarily a farming community when Merrick moved there in the late 40s. He bought a 55-foot beachfront lot at Latigo Cove for $2,300, he said.

After he was elected judge there in 1964, Merrick kept a Beverly Hills law practice. He also was assigned to sit in Municipal Courts in Beverly Hills, Inglewood, Santa Monica, Glendale, Indio, Lancaster, Camarillo, Newhall, Los Angeles and Ventura.

"I was known as 'Have Robe, Will Travel,' " Merrick said. When the Malibu district population exceeded 40,000 in 1973, a Municipal Court was established there, and he ended his commuting.

As the district grew, so did Merrick's workload, including arraignments, civil and criminal trials, small claims and traffic cases.

Remained Constant

Looking back, Merrick said he thought he had remained constant over the years.

"Most people say I am a very fair judge. I try to see both sides, exercise some compassion and punish those who need it."

He said, however, that what he sees as a changing attitude of the public toward the law has been disheartening.

He strongly suspects some people who take the oath to testify stretch the truth.

"I think the oath doesn't mean as much as it should to people," he said. "I have a strong feeling that when you hear stories which are 180 degrees apart, you know somebody isn't telling the truth.

"There is a certain arrogance now. People are very demanding when they come into court. I think they try to minimize their violations. They don't look at them as seriously as law enforcement looks at them."

Judicial Gamble

Many people, for example, now ask for trials. "Many of them know full well they are guilty," he said. "They are gambling that by the time it comes to trial the (police) officer may not be available.

"Someone is charged with going 25 miles per hour over the speed limit. The officer has been tested and is an expert in estimating speed. Plus, he has radar training and the reading is calibrated. The net result is they (the defendants) waste a lot of everybody's time. I think it's a game. Lawyers are playing games all the time."

Though Malibu is a one-judge court, many of the cases heard there have been well known. Merrick signed the search warrant to gain access to the Spahn Ranch and arrest Charles Manson. He conducted the preliminary hearing for Manson family member Susan Atkins who was charged with the murder of Gary Hinman.

Merrick sometimes had to make unpopular decisions affecting his friends and neighbors, he said.

Nudist Camp Case

"When Elysium (a Topanga Canyon nudist club) opened, they arrested a number of people for nudity under a 30-year-old county ordinance. I declared the county nudity ordinance unconstitutional," he said. The decision was upheld by the state Court of Appeal, he said.

"It received wide publicity. Despite the fact that I am a deeply religious individual who attends Mass daily, I was described as a pervert and received a lot of hate mail."

Merrick was proud of his courthouse and expected it to be treated with respect. Because it is in the Malibu Civic Center near the beach "some people think it's a country club," he said. That is why signs are on the courtroom doors--in Calabassas too--reading "Persons Wearing Shorts, Bathing Suits or With Bare Feet Not Permitted in Court."

Merrick was graduated from Southwestern University School of Law. After he left military service in 1947, he was a gag writer for a while for comedian Edgar Bergen and his sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. To earn a steady living, he worked as a trust officer at the Beverly Hills National Bank.

Retirement Plans

He plans to spend his retirement reading for pleasure and catching up with some work at home. He also has ideas for a play and a novel. He will continue yearly canoe trips on the Green River in Colorado and Utah. And he may find time to resume his hobby of doing pen-and-ink drawings.

His wife, Marge, said she pushed him to retire. "I don't think he really wanted to retire, (but) he was awfully busy. He worked two to three hours every Sunday reading cases for Monday."

Merrick said he will take long walks in the canyon, swim at Pepperdine University and work with the Malibu Historical Society and the Malibu Lagoon Museum.

Friends and colleagues will honor the jurist at a dinner Dec. 4 at Westlake Plaza hotel. They are taking reservations at (213) 456-3381, Ext. 335.

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