DEUKMEJIAN’S SUPREME COURT NOMINEES : John A. Arguelles : A Latino and Democrat, He’s a Conservative Who Tries to Conform to Legal Precedents

Times Staff Writer

John A. Arguelles, 59, the only Democrat among the nominees, would be the second Latino to sit on the state Supreme Court and would join Justice Allen E. Broussard, who is black, as its only minority members.

Gov. George Deukmejian had been under strong pressure to appoint a Latino to the court after the defeat of Justice Cruz Reynoso in last fall’s elections. And Arguelles himself in the past has underscored the importance of Latinos serving in the state’s judicial system.

“I truly believe the governor’s interests would be served by his appointing another qualified Hispanic appellate justice,” Arguelles said in 1984 when he applied for his post on the state Court of Appeal.

Arguelles drew influential support then from Malcolm M. Lucas, the new chief justice. Lucas, a longtime acquaintance, wrote a letter describing Arguelles as “intelligent, hard working and a man of integrity” whose appointment he was recommending “in the strongest terms.”


The governor later included Arguelles’ name on a list of six potential nominees he considered in 1985 to succeed Justice Otto M. Kaus on the state Supreme Court--a post he eventually gave to Justice Edward A. Panelli.

Arguelles’ forebears emigrated from Spain to Mexico, with his father settling in California in 1923. He was born in Los Angeles, served in the Navy and studied economics and Spanish at UCLA, where he later earned his law degree.

Arguelles entered private practice, worked as a legislative lobbyist and served on the City Council of Montebello before being appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown in 1963. Gov. Ronald Reagan chose him for a Superior Court post in 1969, and Deukmejian elevated him to the Court of Appeal 15 years later.

He is married and the father of three children and lists his hobbies as reading, sailing and photography.


As a judge, Arguelles is widely regarded as a judicial conservative who tries to strictly conform to legal precedents, rather than blaze new trails that might better suit his personal beliefs.

In a 1985 case, Arguelles, applying a 113-year-old state law allowing a “master” to sue for harm done to a “servant,” ruled that a firm could bring suit for damages against a motorist who negligently injured one of the firm’s key employees.

The same year, giving a narrow application to provisions of the 1982 “victims’ bill of rights” initiative guaranteeing a right to safe schools, Arguelles refused to permit a teacher injured by a student the right to sue the school board for damages.

But in another case, Arguelles departed from precedent to hold that trial judges in some circumstances could impose default judgments against litigants who repeatedly defy court orders on the production of evidence. Later, the state Supreme Court set aside the judgment that was awarded against the defendant in the case because it exceeded the amount the plaintiff sought--but gave the plaintiff another chance to file a complaint seeking higher damages.


In a case decided in January, Arguelles concurred in an appellate decision allowing the use of a new anti-pandering statute against pornographic movie producers who pay performers to commit sex acts on film.

In his concurrence, Arguelles concluded that even if the film itself could be lawfully distributed and shown, the way in which it was produced could still be found illegal.

Past state court decisions, he said, “have unequivocally held that sexual intercourse for hire by models whose activity is photographed for publication is prostitution.”

He disagreed with a dissenting justice in the case who contended that the producers were protected by the First Amendment. “The prosecution here was based on conduct and was not aimed at prohibiting any communication of ideas,” Arguelles wrote.


Later the appellate panel held, however, that it would be unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” to sentence the film maker to the minimum three-year prison term required by the statute against pandering. The court majority upheld a sentence of 90 days in jail and five years probation, which had been imposed originally by the trial judge.

But Arguelles disagreed, saying there was nothing in the law drawing a distinction between pandering by pimps on the street and pandering by producers of pornographic films.

Attorneys who have faced Arguelles in the courtroom in the past describe him as courteous and gentlemanly--some even going so far as to give him the nickname “The Cardinal.”