Justice Arabian to Work as Arbitrator, Counsel Armenia


Justice Armand Arabian, describing his “torturous” decision to resign next year from the state Supreme Court, said Monday that he will become a private arbitrator and devote his free time to helping the fledgling nation of Armenia develop a sound justice system.

Stocky and bespectacled, with a shaved head, Arabian is one of the court’s more approachable justices. He speaks with emotion, often of his Armenian heritage, and rarely tries to disguise his feelings. On Monday he said he loved serving on the court but wants to do something new after being a judge for 24 years.

“I think I’d like to wake up one morning and smell a different rose,” he said.

In a nearly hourlong news conference, the conservative justice said his most profound disappointment on the high court came as the Legislature vented its anger on the California judiciary after he and his colleagues ruled in favor of a ballot measure that imposed term limits on lawmakers.


He also appeared angry at the way some legal scholars have portrayed him. While praising him for producing some of the court’s most readable opinions--Arabian uses colorful language and literary allusions in his writing--scholars also criticized him for being bombastic and arrogant on occasion.

Arabian, whose Armenian grandfather and uncle were killed in a Turk massacre early this century, said he wants to help Armenia rebuild its legal system now that it is no longer under the Soviet Union. He said he hopes either to work on behalf of legal education in the Republic of Armenia or to teach there. He called Armenia “the new Israel.”

Arabian’s departure will create a second vacancy on the high court for Gov. Pete Wilson to fill next year, with Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas retiring in May. Among the candidates Wilson is expected to consider is Janice Brown, the governor’s former legal affairs secretary.

Wilson considered Brown, a conservative African American, for appointment to the state Supreme Court in 1994. A State Bar reviewing committee found her unqualified for the job, according to a knowledgeable source. Wilson subsequently appointed Brown, who had no previous judicial experience, to the state Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court’s only justice of minority heritage is Joyce Kennard, who is partly of Asian descent. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Wilson’s last appointment to the court, is the only other woman on the seven-person court.

Before selecting Werdegar, Wilson also considered Court of Appeal Justices Ming Chin, Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian and Reuben Ortega, all of whom probably will be reviewed again for the upcoming vacancies.

Arabian, appointed in 1990 by former Gov. George Deukmejian, has been one of the court’s most prolific justices. Addressing reporters, he proudly noted that he had written about 16 majority decisions a year. “That is not easy to do,” he said.

He said he would most like to be remembered as a jurist for his work on behalf of rape victims. As a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Arabian broke ground by refusing to tell a jury in a rape trial to consider the victim’s testimony with caution. The instruction of caution, standard at the time, later was struck down by the state high court.

Arabian, 60, will step down Feb. 29, making his tenure on the court six years. Although that is relatively short for a justice, Arabian pointed out that other justices in recent years have served even fewer years.

“There comes a time when someone else should dip their oars into the waters of their community, and I think that time has now arrived,” he said.

He noted that his son is preparing to marry and move out of the family’s San Fernando Valley home, and his daughter, an attorney, has already left home. The justice said he does not want to leave his wife of 33 years alone while he works in San Francisco during the week.

Although some scholars lament that the California Supreme Court is no longer one of the nation’s most distinguished high courts, and criticize it for affirming death sentences at one of the highest rates in the nation, Arabian defended the court’s reputation.

“We are not a third-rate court,” Arabian said. “We are first-rate.”

He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a death penalty ruling Arabian wrote in the Trailside Killer case that a prominent legal expert called the worst ruling in recent state high court history.

Nevertheless, he said, some decisions continue to haunt him, including a ruling that said condominium associations have the right to ban pets from units. Arabian, the self-described owner of “two beautiful cats,” dissented in the ruling and expressed hopes the Legislature will change the law.

“They are the joy of my life,” he said of his cats. “When I leave here and go back down south, there are two little cats waiting for me, and I love them.”

On the state Legislature, Arabian said legislators seemed to grow hostile toward the judiciary after the high court’s 1991 decision upholding Proposition 140, the term-limit measure. He noted that former Speaker Willie Brown even backed a proposal, later discarded, to move the court headquarters from San Francisco to Sacramento.

“I am talking about the breakdown in basic civility and respect,” he said, expressing hope that relations will warm as new legislators and justices come in.

Lucas, in a prepared statement, praised Arabian for his “dedication, energy and enthusiasm.”

“He has demonstrated a keen involvement in oral argument and has written a substantial number of significant opinions that have contributed greatly to the jurisprudence of this state,” the chief justice said.

Justice Ronald M. George said he will miss Arabian’s “common-sense approach, his productivity on the court, his wit, and the camaraderie that he brought to the court.”

After retiring, Arabian said, he will open an office in the San Fernando Valley and offer arbitration, mediation and alternative dispute resolution services.

“I have always considered myself as coming from the streets,” the justice said. “I have always been a people’s judge in my heart.”