When retired Justice John A. Arguelles was on the state Supreme Court, he was known as a moderate and judicial centrist who cast decisive votes in some important cases that closely divided the court.
Now Arguelles finds himself once again the man in the middle--but this time in a dispute more politically volatile than any he faced on the court. He has been named by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates to lead an investigation of police misconduct, an issue that has polarized the community like few others in recent history.
A product of a racially diverse neighborhood of East Los Angeles, Arguelles worked his way through UCLA, practiced law in Montebello and then began a 25-year judicial career that culminated on the state high court, where he was only the second Latino to serve.
On the bench, he was known as hard-working, patient and so dignified and unfailingly courteous that legal colleagues privately called him “the Cardinal.” Observers say he may need those qualities--and more--as he chairs a five-member committee investigating police training practices and potential reforms to curb police brutality.
Longtime associates praised Arguelles’ selection and said they were confident that the 63-year-old former judge, now in private practice in Orange County, will perform in the objective and even-handed manner that characterized his years on the bench.
“That’s what’s needed here, obviously,” said Anthony Murray, a Los Angeles attorney and former president of the State Bar. “If the facts are negative, he’ll still call them as he sees them. . . . The selection of a man with his reputation and integrity is just what was needed, not only to do the right kind of a job, but also to give the appearance of propriety.”
One of Gates’ sternest critics questioned Arguelles’ appointment, saying the job should have gone to an expert on police practices--and preferably one from outside the state.
“Why Arguelles?” asked Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “I can understand that judges often give the feeling of impartiality to people . . . but there are others with the experience and knowledge to do a better job. I think this is just an attempt to deflect what really needs to be done.”
Former Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian, now in private practice, said Arguelles’ lack of direct involvement in police matters will actually weigh in his favor as he tackles his sensitive task.
“He will be able to look at this problem in an unbiased way, and because he is so complete and thorough in his work, he will make sure he has all the facts,” said Philibosian. “When I was a young deputy D.A., we were all told to be fully prepared before we went into Judge Arguelles’ court, and we made sure we were just that.”
USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, while voicing no view on Arguelles, said the committee would have gained greater public acceptance had it been formed by an authority other than Gates, the head of the department under investigation. Gates appointed Arguelles and Dr. James Zumberge, retired president of USC, to serve; the other three panelists are to be chosen by Arguelles.
“Any committee Gates appoints is going to be perceived as biased,” said Chemerinsky. “Had he had the mayor or the Police Commission pick the committee, it would have had much more credibility.”
Born in Los Angeles, Arguelles attended Garfield High School, working part time as a shoe salesman before enlisting in the Navy during World War II. High school was a “slice of Americana,” with a student body of Latinos, Anglos, Asians and other races all mingling together, he recalled in a 1989 Times interview.
After graduating from law school, he decided to practice law in East Los Angeles, “rather than try to compete with a thousand other lawyers by opening an office in Beverly Hills.” Later, he was elected to the Montebello City Council by what then was the largest vote in city history.
In 1963, Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown named him to a Municipal Court judgeship, and from there Arguelles worked his way up the judicial ladder, taking a place on the high court--as an appointee of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian--in 1987. Arguelles retired in 1989 and went into private practice with the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in its Newport Beach office.
On the Supreme Court, Arguelles generally voted with four other Deukmejian appointees who have steered the court rightward after the defeat of former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other liberals in the November, 1986, election.
He provided key votes when the court ruled 4 to 3 that Proposition 51, the “deep pockets” liability-reform initiative, could not apply to the thousands of cases pending at its passage in 1986. Similarly, he joined the majority in a 4-3 ruling allowing police roadblocks to catch drunk drivers.
But Arguelles also deserted the majority in other important cases. He joined two liberal dissenters when the court abandoned a constitutional prohibition against unlawfully obtained confessions and held 4 to 3 that such statements could be used to challenge the truthfulness of a defendant’s testimony at trial.
And although he usually voted to uphold the death penalty, he filed a dissent when the court, in a 4-3 decision, upheld the capital sentence of the killer of a Riverside high school coach. Arguelles said the majority erred when it held that procedural errors during trial were “harmless” and were not sufficient to warrant overturning the death sentence.