Laurence J. Rittenband, 81, Shows an Unorthodox Style : Crusty Judge Rules His Court With Iron Hand

Times Staff Writer

He has been known to rule before hearing the evidence and to show his disdain for a written motion by tossing it in the wastebasket.

He makes--and sustains--his own objections. He grills witnesses when he thinks they have not been thoroughly questioned.

He sometimes tells lawyers appearing before him to “shut up” or “get on with it.” He frequently evicts a defense attorney he dislikes from his Santa Monica courtroom. And he once berated jurors who voted to acquit a defendant, saying that the verdict was “the most horrible miscarriage of justice” he had ever witnessed.


Unorthodox Judicial Style

Now a crusty 81, Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband is believed to be the oldest full-time judge on the bench in California. While presiding over the murder trial of Billionaire Boys Club leader Joe Hunt--which is scheduled to go to the jury this week after 2 1/2 months of testimony--he has astonished courtroom observers with an unorthodox judicial style that some call “refreshing” and others “reprehensible.”

The short, stocky judge leaves no doubt as to what he thinks of the participants--a tendency which occasionally results in the prosecutor’s siding with the defense against him.

“I am gravely concerned with the course that the court is taking,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Frederick Nathan Wapner told Rittenband during an in-chambers discussion about his refusal to permit Hunt’s second defense attorney to question witnesses.

“I will take my chances,” the judge snapped back, according to a transcript. “I know that you have an obsession about any kind of error. . . . I am running this trial, not you nor they.”

Seldom Reversed

Noting that he is seldom reversed on appeal--”maybe one time in 20”--Rittenband said his judicial philosophy is one of involvement: “A judge should not be an automaton or referee. He should participate in the case to make sure that justice is done, not just lie back.”

While his decisions sometimes appear arbitrary and autocratic, he said that they are actually the culmination of 26 years on the bench and, in the Hunt case, a thorough knowledge of the issues after having heard the 1985 trial of Hunt’s co-defendant, bodyguard Jim Pittman, which ended with a hung jury and is scheduled for retrial next month. Hunt and Pittman are accused of shooting Beverly Hills businessman Ron Levin for revenge and money.


“He’s still very sharp, very bright,” said Deputy Public Defender Michael Demby, who is assigned to Rittenband’s court. “He just gets impatient.”

Demby, one of the few lawyers who try cases before Rittenband who did not insist on anonymity, said he has been able to win cases in his court and does not feel that his clients are punished for going to trial despite Rittenband’s reputation as “a prosecutor’s judge.”

While acknowledging that he has learned to deal with the judge’s personality and his idiosyncrasies, “most who work this court over the years end up liking him,” he said.

Host of Complaints

The Hunt defense team is not among them. Slapped with a gag order after publicly criticizing Rittenband’s actions, lawyers Arthur Barens and Richard Chier have accumulated a host of complaints they say constitute judicial misconduct and the basis for a motion for mistrial they plan to file this week.

It will charge, Chier said, that Rittenband deliberately elicited prejudicial evidence against Hunt by questioning witnesses, that he belittled and banished defense staff from the courtroom, that he frequently refused to allow the defense to approach the bench to voice objections and that he aligned himself with the prosecution by grimacing, smirking and showing impatience and disbelief at crucial points in the defense’s cross-examination of witnesses.

“He takes a partisan stance in the presence of the jury . . . injects himself in the questioning . . . but rarely if ever interrupts the district attorney unless he thinks he’s not nailing the coffin enough,” said a lawyer involved in the proceedings who requested that his name not be used. However, Rittenband did favor the defense in granting Hunt bail.

Legal observers say that a judge’s obvious leanings toward one side can sway a jury in that direction, but may be just as likely to create a backlash of sympathy for the other side.

Law Is His Life

Regardless, Rittenband said, he tries to follow the law even when it conflicts with his personal beliefs. The law, after all, has been his life.

The son of a New York clothing manufacturer, Rittenband graduated at 19 from New York University law school--where he earned the nickname “The Judge”--and, too young to take the Bar exam, killed time by earning a degree from Harvard, graduating summa cum laude.

Before moving to Southern California in the 1940s, he worked in the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, taught law at City College of New York, established a private law practice and served in U.S. Air Force intelligence in North Africa, where he was wounded.

He was practicing law in Los Angeles, and playing golf at the Hillcrest Country Club, where he still lunches daily, when he became a friend of then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., who appointed him to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1961 and elevated him to the Superior Court the next year. He has been assigned to the Santa Monica court since 1968.

A Republican, Rittenband said that Brown “never asked me what I was and I didn’t have to contribute to any political campaign.”

Parade of Celebrities

Since then, many celebrities have paraded through his courtroom on civil or criminal matters, among them Marlon Brando, Charles Manson, Elvis Presley and Roman Polanski.

He performed several publicized marriages--that of President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, who, he said, stiffed him with the $28 license fee, and that of an armed robbery defendant who he then sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

He sentenced a 16-year-old boy to life in prison after his conviction in a so-called Chinese Mafia slaying in 1974. The same year he upheld California’s death penalty law in its first test in Los Angeles County.

And, on a lighter note, he stopped police from revoking the entertainment license of Chippendales, a male strip club that caters to women.

“I enjoy doing what I do,” he said when asked why he refuses to retire. “What am I going to do? Play bridge and gin in the card room here?” he asks over lunch at his club. “I’ll probably die in office,” he said, adding that “if I feel as I do now I probably will run again in 1988.” He has repeatedly beaten back younger opponents and gotten the highest vote of any judge on the ballot. He earns $81,000 a year and lives in Century City.

Challenged Law

Although he lost the lawsuit he filed and financed to challenge the constitutionality of the retirement law, legislation is now pending that would remove the age bar as discriminatory, he said. Under the law, judges lose some pension benefits if they stay on after age 70. As for those who stay on too long, “we already have the Commission on Judicial Performance to deal with unfit judges,” he said.

His clerk said that he is the hardest working judge in Santa Monica, with his only apparent concession to age the giving up of his regular tennis game. Widely read, well-traveled and never married, he has courted two younger women simultaneously for several years, turning from curmudgeon to charmer when he sheds his black robes.