‘Out here, you get time to think about doing justice in individual cases.’
On the mainland, judges may be obscure figures cloaked in black robes, but not on Santa Catalina Island.
In 66 years, just six men have served in Avalon as judge of the Catalina Justice Court, the supreme, and only, judicial authority on the island. The judges have tended to small claims, traffic citations and other duties, and been enlisted outside the one-room courthouse as legal advisers and father confessors for the island’s 2,200 inhabitants.
But Catalina’s civic psyche had gone without its own judge for nearly three years, ever since Judge Robert H. Furey Jr. was removed from office by the state Supreme Court for “willful misconduct.” The court said Furey was too quick to fine and jail people on contempt charges.
Since Furey’s departure, various judges from the mainland--locals call it “over town"--had presided at the Avalon court, but for just one day every other week.
Wish Comes True
Islanders said they wanted a judge of their own. In January, they got their wish. On the first Friday of the new year, Peter Mirich of San Pedro began his six-year term in the jurisdiction that covers both Catalina and San Clemente islands.
Mirich won the most votes in a primary election last June that attracted a record 16 candidates. Islanders--who had never seen more than three candidates for judge before--said they had grown weary as the 16 lawyers, all but one from the mainland, descended on the island with pamphlets, placards and door-to-door campaigns.
Mirich, 37, emerged the winner, taking two-thirds of the vote in a November runoff against Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Joe Piro. A former criminal defense lawyer, Mirich will earn about $70,000 a year serving Fridays in Avalon and the rest of the week as a judge in the San Pedro Municipal Court.
Islanders said they are happy with their choice.
“I think we picked the right man,” said Harry Brown, owner of Leo’s Drug Store. His wife, Sue, agreed:"We’ve been looking forward to a permanent addition to the community.”
“Go get the bad guys, judge!” urged helicopter pilot John Moore, as Mirich stepped off a flight for his weekly day on the bench.
During the court’s lunch recess, Sally Lopez stopped Mirich on the street for some curbside commiseration.
“It was terrible!” proclaimed Lopez, who held a shaggy brown dog on a leash. “My little Buffy was out here on the street last week, and this big dog ran up and knocked Buffy down and almost poked his eye out!”
Mirich nodded sympathetically but moved on without commenting, telling Lopez he might one day have to hear her case in court.
One lawyer at the courthouse on business called Avalon “Smalltown, U.S.A.” And that’s just the way Mirich likes it.
When he sentences defendants to perform community service, he can check with Avalon Fire Chief Jack Goslin, just around the corner, to make sure the work is done. In resolving a small claims dispute over where a resident should leave his trash cans, Mirich has time to survey the property in question. And when the new judge considers how a defendant should pay a fine, locals feel free to discuss their personal finances.
“Out here, you get time to think about doing justice in individual cases, instead of being a vending machine for justice,” Mirich said. “I like that.”