Man of the Law

Outside the legal profession, Ralph J. Gampell was largely unknown, but inside he will be remembered as a visionary with extraordinary influence over the California court system. As president of the State Bar and for 10 years the administrative director of the state courts, Gampell championed policies to open up the courts to the public and to improve their efficiency.

Thanks to Gampell, cameras are permitted inside trial courts, the appellate courts are computerized and meetings of the Judicial Council are open. For years, he argued that the state, not the counties, should fund the trial courts, to assure stable financing; his dream was finally realized, just days before his Oct. 3 death, when Gov. George Deukmejian signed the funding bill. Another pet Gampell project--requiring attorneys to perform pro bono work and share their good fortune--met considerable resistance but is still debated. Maybe its time will come, too.

Throughout his career, Gampell showed great resiliency, not surprising in someone who started life as a British subject, practiced medicine and in middle age changed both his citizenship and his profession. Selected by former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird to run the courts, Gampell often acted as a lightning rod for criticism aimed her way. He did that gladly, never losing either his composure or his wit. “Now, . . . in this next meeting, we must be sincere even if we don’t mean it,” he quipped once when she was under fire. That was vintage Gampell.