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Blazing Trails to the Bench : Judge Judy McConnell, Role Model and Mentor in Feminist Issues, Not Afraid of Controversy in Courtroom

Times Staff Writer

The maitre d’ at the Grant Grill was one of the first San Diegans to test the depths of Judy McConnell’s determination.

The year was 1973, and the posh downtown eatery had a sign proclaiming it a habitat for “Men Only” from noon to 3. McConnell, a young lawyer relatively new in town, resented the exclusionary policy and set out with colleague Lynn Schenk to change it.

“We showed up with a male attorney for lunch one day, and when the maitre d’ saw us, he said, ‘There must be some mistake,’ ” Schenk recalled. “We responded that there was no mistake and he said, ‘Oh really, you ladies will be much more comfortable in the Garden Room.’ ”

The repartee continued, until finally the waiter suggested that McConnell would find the men’s language offensive if she went inside.

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“Let’s just say Judy responded in a way that persuaded him she would not be offended by the gentlemen’s language,” Schenk said, chuckling as she remembered her friend’s salty retort. “The maitre d’ blushed, but he seated us.”

Emboldened by success, the women returned repeatedly, ordering bowls of mock turtle soup because they couldn’t afford anything else on the menu. Finally, victory: The abhorrent sign came down.

Influential Judge

Fifteen years later, Judith Dobson McConnell does not have to create a stir to get served at the city’s finest restaurants. Not only have times changed, but as the assistant presiding judge of San Diego Superior Court, McConnell is among the most influential members of the local judiciary.

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Still, McConnell, 44, has hardly lost her appetite for battle. Indeed, her unflagging commitment to problems confronting women in the legal community and society at large has drawn admiration from female attorneys throughout the county.

“She is our mentor, our role model,” said lawyer Helen Rowe. “She is what we want to become as our experience and tenure in the field grow. She provides us with direction not only because of her status but because she remains so involved, so committed.”

McConnell’s strength, colleagues say, is that she leads by example. Take a glance at her resume. In her current post, she is second in command on the Superior Court, managing the sprawling, overburdened bench with Presiding Judge Michael Greer. She is the first woman to fill that position in San Diego and is in line to ascend to presiding judge--a title she also would be the first female to hold.

Earlier, McConnell served two terms as the top judge at Juvenile Court, guiding that branch during a time when its workload mushroomed and changes in the law were all but a daily occurrence.

She is a founder of both the Lawyers Club of San Diego, the local feminist bar association, and the National Assn. of Women Judges, of which she is president. She also sits on the board of directors of the San Diego County Bar Foundation and is active in the California Judges Assn.

On the bench, Judge McConnell is viewed by attorneys as even-handed and sensible, in command of her courtroom but also genial, tough on lawyers who attempt obstructionist tactics but capable of indulgence when it is merited.

Those who worked with her during her years at Juvenile Court, arguably the most stressful judicial assignment in the county, say she was a nimble administrator who shouldered a huge caseload while managing to show a keen interest in each youth who passed through her courtroom.

“She is very conscientious, hard working and knowledgeable about the law,” said Jane Via, a deputy district attorney in the juvenile division. “But one of the things I like best about her is that she has compassion, empathy for the children, and that is very important. She brought humanity to the bench.”

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Others cite the extraordinary custody battle over teen-ager Brian Batey as evidence that McConnell is one of the most courageous judges in the county. The lengthy fight pitted Batey’s fundamentalist Christian mother against the homosexual companion of the boy’s late father, Frank. McConnell, who ultimately awarded custody to Frank Batey’s former lover, endured harsh personal attacks from Betty Lou Batey and her supporters, and received hundreds of critical letters and telephone calls from around the nation.

“She is one of two to three judges I know who could have handled that case, intellectually and emotionally,” said attorney Lee Selvig, who represented Brian Batey, “and that’s the highest compliment I can give someone. She could have backed down and declined to hear that case and left Brian in a difficult position. She didn’t yield to the hysterical allegations.”

Whence did such backbone come? Good friends trace it to her Nebraska upbringing--she was born in Lincoln and lived on a farm--and a doting father who inspired her with the confidence that she could accomplish anything.

“Judy has a marvelous self-assurance about her,” said attorney Diane Sullivan, a close friend and former law partner. “I think her father, a newspaperman, had so much faith in her that she developed this incredible desire to achieve.”

As a kid, McConnell said, she set her sights on a seat in the U. S. Senate. “I had that childhood dream that I was going to do something about peace, you know, change the world,” she recalled during a recent interview at the downtown courthouse. “When I found out that 98% of all senators are lawyers, I decided I’d have to go to law school first.”

Once enrolled at Boalt Hall School of Law in Berkeley, where she also studied as an undergraduate at the University of California, McConnell realized she loved the law profession and lost her thirst for political life.

In 1969, she and her husband, sociologist Randall Collins, moved to San Diego. McConnell took and passed the bar exam. Then she tried to get a job, and reality set in.

“There were very few women lawyers in practice here at that time, and the private firms, especially the large ones, didn’t have any interest in employing women,” McConnell said. “One prominent San Diego lawyer wrote me a letter and said his firm did not hire women and would not even consider it.”

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The San Diego County Bar Assn. was similarly unreceptive to overtures from women attorneys eager to become involved on committees or the board of directors. The organization’s main interest in women, some lawyers recall, focused on their eligibility to pose for the regular female photo spread in the bar’s monthly magazine, Dicta.

The only employers willing to give women attorneys a chance in that era were government agencies, Schenk said. So Schenk wound up in the state attorney general’s office, and McConnell landed a job at the state Department of Transportation, handling eminent domain and personal injury defense cases.

“I’m convinced I got my job at Caltrans because the boss thought it would be neat, novel, different, to hire a woman,” McConnell said. “I’m sure glad he felt that way.”

Misery, they say, loves company, and in the early 1970s, a handful of women lawyers in town began meeting for lunch, sharing their tales of woe and plotting ways to make life better for the generations of female attorneys who would follow. Those informal gatherings eventually led to the birth of Lawyers Club, which now has about 650 members--one quarter of them male.

“The issues for women were critical then,” said McConnell, the club’s first president. “Women couldn’t get jobs at the good firms, they couldn’t get credit. . . . The ERA was hot,” she said of the equal rights amendment. We felt we’d have more of a voice if we organized.”

Meanwhile, McConnell moved from Caltrans into private civil law practice with Diane Sullivan and Sheridan Reed, now presiding judge at Juvenile Court. The three “had a lot of laughs,” Sullivan recalls, but, in December, 1977, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. broke up the partnership by appointing McConnell to the Municipal Court.

Three years later, McConnell was elevated to Superior Court. Her tenure there has included a stint in 1985 as chief of the court’s appellate division; two terms, totaling nearly five years, as presiding judge at Juvenile Court and two months as a judge pro tem on the 4th District Court of Appeal.

An attractive woman with a crown of thick blond hair and stylish tortoise-shell glasses, McConnell is most widely known for her work at juvenile court, where judges decide a wide array of cases involving molested and abused children as well as delinquent youths. Some judges refer derisively to the assignment as “kiddie court.” McConnell viewed it as “a chance to save a child’s life, to really make a difference and see a happy ending.”

“She was an excellent administrator, with an ability to understand the perspectives of all parties--the Probation Department, Department of Social Services, district attorney’s office, the children, their parents--in running the court,” said Municipal Judge Melinda Lasater, who was chief of the DA’s juvenile division in the early 1980s.

“She had a great deal of credibility, from the Board of Supervisors on down to people who worked in the clerk’s office,” said Juvenile Court Director Michael Roddy. “She always told the straight story and you knew you could rely on her word.”

McConnell decided hundreds of cases during her tours of Juvenile Court, but none stands out like the celebrated Batey case, a custody battle that spanned several years and received nationwide publicity. During the saga, Betty Batey and a fundamentalist Christian group that provided her with legal representation challenged McConnell as “biased” and “unfit” to hear the case because of her “active feminist” politics.

The final chapter closed Nov. 5, 1987, when McConnell appointed Craig Corbett, the homosexual companion of Brian’s late father, the boy’s legal guardian. The decision infuriated Mrs. Batey, who had been the subject of an FBI search when she stole away with her son in 1982 rather than allow him to live with his father. During the hearing, two relatives of Brian’s made profane statements about the judge, whose family and background they earlier had attacked in press conferences and court documents.

“She took an awful lot of abuse during that case, but she is not one to yield to public pressures, so she made a decision based on the law and . . . what she thought was best for the boy,” said Juvenile Court Judge Christine Pate.

Case Took Its Toll

The Batey case, however, clearly took its toll on McConnell, a chain smoker until recently. As court director Roddy put it, “She got called more dirty names than anyone I’ve ever seen in my life, and it started to wear on her.”

Sullivan said McConnell “worried about Brian Batey constantly, like he was her own son. She is not one to leave her work at the bench, and that’s what makes her a good judge.”

Indeed, while the robe may come off at 5 each day, there is little evidence that McConnell ever fully retreats from her role as jurist and women’s leader. Weekends and evenings are often devoted to meetings or speeches; trips to conventions or seminars are routine.

Her family, however, has a protected place on her agenda, friends say. Son Anthony, 13, is a computer whiz named after Susan B. Anthony; daughter Maren, 10, is named for McConnell’s mother.

Gardening is also an escape for the judge, who will spend hours at a stretch nurturing the rows of splendid roses that frame her home. And, each morning, neighbors see her “power walking” through the streets of Mission Hills, chugging along at a near-run, her arms draped with weights.

But there is little time for other hobbies. As president of the National Assn. of Women Judges, whose founders include U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, McConnell heads a group tackling some weighty issues, from the feminization of poverty to gender bias in the courts.

San Diego restaurants may no longer exclude females, but McConnell notes there are new challenges facing women in the legal community: “Why aren’t more women becoming partners? Why aren’t they getting significant cases? Why aren’t more women being appointed to the federal bench?”

McConnell herself says she still encounters sexism on the job. But, “if people treat me in a patronizing fashion, they don’t do it for long, because I don’t like it.”

Despite her unswerving allegiance to feminist causes, colleagues say, she is not overbearing in pushing them. Some attorneys who have tried cases before her say she keeps her views out of the courtroom; others say knowing up front where she stands on certain issues makes it easier for them to craft a case.

Although some Superior Court judges may disagree with McConnell’s positions on given topics of the day, her style minimizes conflict, according to Presiding Judge Michael Greer, one of his colleague’s biggest fans.

“She’s not going to burn her bra,” Greer said. “She is not what many people think a ‘feminist’ is. She’s obviously interested in women’s issues but she doesn’t upset anyone. Her ideas don’t seem threatening because they’re coming from Judy, a very funny and likable person.”

Her ability to “rub people the right way,” as Schenk describes it, is a quality likely to help McConnell ascend about a year from now to presiding judge, an elected post that typically falls to the jurist occupying the assistant presiding position.

Beyond that, many observers say McConnell would be a shoo-in for a spot on the 4th District Court of Appeal if a Democratic administration ever holds sway again in Sacramento. But that’s a possibility McConnell says she doesn’t think much about.

“I really can’t imagine a better job than the one I’ve already got,” she said. “There’s never a dull moment around here.”


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