Hoiles' Suit Judge Thrives on Long, Complex Trials

Times Staff Writer

He just spent a year listening to what most people would consider very boring testimony about exclusionary zoning.

And even while lawyers continue submitting written arguments in that Newport Beach affordable housing case, Judge Leonard Goldstein has settled in for what is expected to be a three- to four-month trial on the family fight over the future of Freedom Newspapers Inc.

But for Judge Leonard Goldstein, presiding over a long, complicated trial is what he likes to do best on the Orange County Superior Court.

And it is a good thing he likes those trials, too, a colleague on the bench said, because "nobody's standing in line to take those suckers."

Lawyers who have practiced before him say Goldstein is intelligent, patient, witty, articulate and well-read.

After the political upheaval in the late 1970s--when prosecutors throughout the state unseated a number of incumbent judges appointed by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.--Goldstein would also have to be credited with perseverance.

His initial appointment was criticized; he was defeated at the polls, and his immediate reappointment to the bench was questioned. Yet few people doubted that he was one of the most qualified candidates for the bench.

His defeat "was really shattering to him because it was absolutely unjustified," said Superior Court Judge Robert H. Green, who was co-counsel with Goldstein on numerous cases when the two were practicing lawyers in Santa Ana in the early 1960s.

"The governor told me at a dinner once that Goldstein was one of the best (judicial) appointments he ever made," Green said. "He has the best legal mind of anyone I ever worked with."

Goldstein, 55, is embarrassed by such accolades.

"I can honestly say that Leonard Goldstein is the same guy he was when he was first appointed," he said in a recent interview.

Only time and a little too much of his own good cooking have taken their toll, whitening his hair and beard and widening his girth. With his cherubic face and mischievous smile, he could easily don a red-and-white snow suit once a year and pass for Santa Claus.

A sort of newspaper junkie, Goldstein is an avid reader, and he has two old presses in his garage. He also publishes miniature books under the name of Gold Stein Press.

Appreciates Detail

The tiny books--less than three inches tall--have been a big success. His limited edition publication of an original Ray Bradbury poem sold out all 75 copies at $100 a book in 1985 and is now going for $200 apiece, he said.

Appreciating the details of the miniature books fits well with his avowed interested in the complicated court cases.

Goldstein said he enjoys the "complexity" of the big cases, which "raise esoteric areas of the law" that are usually advocated by "admirable attorneys."

He certainly has seen good lawyering.

Two years ago, his courtroom was packed daily with spectators watching famed San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli try to prove that one of the opposing attorneys, prominent Los Angeles lawyer R. Browne Greene, had committed malpractice. The winner was Charles A. Lynberg of Los Angeles, Greene's soft-spoken attorney, who decimated nearly all of Belli's witnesses.

Goldstein also has seen such top Orange County talent as Arthur N. Hews and the current crew of lawyers on the Freedom Newspapers trial--Robert E. Currie, Leonard A. Hampel and Vernon W. Hunt Jr.

A Little Cold Water

From the rambunctious Belli to the talkative Hampel, Goldstein has made one thing clear: he is in control of his courtroom. It was never more evident than when the flamboyant Belli brought his show to town.

At one point during trial, Belli had archrival Greene on the witness stand, and the animosity gleamed in their eyes as the accusing questions were met by hostile responses. The pace started to heat up, but Goldstein quickly threw some cold water on the proceedings.

"We're getting too close to one another. We need a little more space and a few microseconds of silence" between questions and answers, he warned.

During the most electrifying moments as well as the driest times, Goldstein maintains a good sense of humor and a quick wit, lawyers and judges said.

"He has the full range--from the sardonic to the sarcastic--and it's all spontaneous," said Superior Court Judge Richard J. Beacom.

In the Freedom Newspapers trial, which begins its fourth week of testimony on Monday, defense attorney Currie objected to several questions posed by plaintiff's attorney Hunt about the roles of family owners in "managing" the media chain. Currie claimed the questions were ambiguous.

Judge in Pinto Case

"My problem is with the word managing. I don't know what it means," Currie explained. The judge quickly shot back: "Your office must be in disarray."

Goldstein's flair for the complex is often tested. His first major trial was a difficult, six-month-long products liability case against Ford Motor Co. for its design of the Pinto model gasoline tank. The current trial on the dissolution of Freedom Newspapers has provided him with legal issues that have not been raised before in California--or in many other states.

In a first phase of the trial, conducted by written arguments and sworn statements, Goldstein grappled with a curious oddity in corporate law--whether a company with more than 35 shareholders could effectively have only three shareholders because the votes traditionally were cast along three family lines.

The difference was important because California law allows a corporation with fewer than 35 shareholders to be dissolved if "liquidation is reasonably necessary for the protection of the rights and interests of the complaining shareholder."

Otherwise, dissident shareholder Harry H. Hoiles would have to prove the tougher standard--that the other two family branches took actions constituting "persistent fraud, mismanagement or abuse of authority or persistent unfairness."

With no clear precedent set already, Goldstein ruled that the company's 49 shareholders at the time the suit was filed indeed represented more than 35 shareholders, and Hoiles would be held to the tougher burden of proof.

Libertarianism Question

During trial testimony, the judge was faced with two daylong arguments on other close questions of law--whether Hoiles could delve into a sibling's state of mind and whether the libertarian philosophy played any part in the trial.

Goldstein barred state-of-mind questions and severely limited evidence on libertarianism to areas where it related to Freedom Newspapers' operations and editorial policies.

In the process of making the latter ruling, he also dealt a devastating blow to Hoiles' case by deciding that any "reasonable expectations" arising out of the family's beliefs in libertarianism could not be used to show the "persistent unfairness" required to dissolve the company.

Regardless of the position he takes, Goldstein usually manages to win the respect of even the losing attorneys.

"He made a terrible ruling against me," said Santa Ana lawyer Hews, "but he is really a high-level judge."

Hews won a $128.5-million verdict for a burn victim in early 1978 when jurors found Ford liable for the faulty design of the Pinto gasoline tank, which had a tendency to explode when the car was hit in the rear end. Finding the verdict excessive as a matter of law, Goldstein cut the award to $6.6 million, which cut Hews' contingency fee as well.

"He's a very compassionate, very humane person. And that's difficult for me to say because I disagreed so very much with him for his ruling," Hews said.

Hews appealed the ruling but lost.

Attended Kent State

Born and raised in Cleveland, Goldstein went to Kent State University, where he studied religious philosophy and political science--"like throwing incense at the president," he quipped.

He spent five years in the Navy, and caught the lawyering bug while acting as a lay prosecutor aboard a destroyer. He said he was well-liked by the command--until he successfully defended a friend. That defense got him placed on restrictions, he said, "because I had incurred the wrath of the captain."

After graduating from the Boalt Hall School of Law of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1962, Goldstein hung out his shingle in Santa Ana and learned the ropes under the tutelage of Robert H. Green, one of his colleagues on the bench now. Three years later, he joined the state attorney general's office in Los Angeles, where he specialized in prosecuting business and investment frauds.

He returned to private practice in Los Angeles in 1968 and three years later rejoined state government as a hearing officer, or what is now called an administrative law judge, hearing cases involving various state agencies. He moved to Fullerton in January, 1976, when he learned that he might have an opportunity of being appointed to the bench in Orange County.

Five months later, Gov. Brown appointed him to the Municipal Court in Fullerton, and officials of two law organizations voiced their anger about the appointment of an out-of-county lawyer to the bench.

In July, 1977, Brown appointed Goldstein to the Superior Court, and he started hearing the Pinto case a month later.

Shortly after the trial was over, the judge became a target in the tumultuous times that fostered voter anger and rebellion over Brown's appointments. Prosecutors statewide led a call to oust judges they accused of being soft on crime, and Goldstein fell victim in June, 1978, to Oretta Sears, a deputy district attorney.

No Criminal Cases

The trouble was that in his brief tenure Goldstein never handled a criminal case. After hearing the Pinto case, Goldstein was assigned to hear pretrial issues in routine civil cases. The word never really got to the voters, however, and Sears and three other deputy prosecutors defeated Goldstein, another Superior Court judge and two Municipal Court judges.

Sears also had labeled Goldstein a "carpetbagger" because he came from Los Angeles. Yet she was a former Italian contessa who started practicing in the county after Goldstein left for the attorney general's office.

What Judge Beacom admired about Goldstein was that after his defeat, Goldstein continued to work hard on the bench until his term was over in December.

"There have been instances in the last few years where judges took a hike after losing," Beacom said. "Not him. He came to work every day. He didn't wring his hands and curse the electorate. He hung in there."

Goldstein also worked to repair the gulf between Sears and himself. An advocate of "collegiality and congeniality" on the bench, he reached a cordial relationship with Sears, who twice wrote to Brown urging him to reappoint Goldstein.

Brown did just that, naming Goldstein first to his old seat on the Municipal Court in Fullerton eight days after the judge left the Superior Court and then to back to the Superior Court in March, 1980.

True to the pattern, the reappointment to the Municipal Court brought howls from county supervisors, who complained about budgetary restraints. And the final reappointment ended up scuttling a Municipal Court election when Brown named a replacement on the lower court. The maneuver prompted the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting such 11th-hour moves.

In the face of such events, Goldstein has taken an "institutional view" of the court, defending it and welcoming all newcomers.

"The court needs nurturing," he said in a recent interview. "It has a unique and important function in society."

In the 1982 elections, Goldstein was again challenged. He won by the largest margin of any Superior Court candidate that year.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°