Judge No Stranger to High-Profile Cases
Within hours of last week’s decision that local judges would be barred from hearing misconduct cases stemming from the Orange County bankruptcy, the Los Angeles County judiciary was ordered to find a replacement.
The presiding judge of the Superior Court huddled with the supervising judge of the Criminal Court. They studied crowded court calendars. They debated the legal complexities of the Orange County cases. They weighed the intense media interest. They sought the coolest head around.
Though they could have selected any of a hundred other judges, John W. Ouderkirk was their first choice.
“I thought he was perfect,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James A. Bascue, supervising judge for the Criminal Court. “He has performed in an outstanding fashion when it comes to pressure attendant to high-profile cases like this one.”
Just two years ago, Ouderkirk presided over one of the hottest trials ever: the case of those accused of beating trucker Reginald O. Denny and others during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Until the trial of O.J. Simpson, the Denny case had been one of the most scrutinized courtroom proceedings in history. It fixed the spotlight on Ouderkirk, who had been appointed to the Superior Court just 2 1/2 years before.
Under heavy pressure from some who believed he was biased
in favor of the prosecution, the onetime police officer and former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney handed defendant Damian Williams the maximum 10-year sentence. Before the sentencing, he played videotapes of Williams’ attacks on each of the victims, a move decried by Williams’ supporters.
But Ouderkirk’s courtroom demeanor, evenhandedness and knowledge of the law impressed his colleagues, bosses and many others in the legal community, who admired his patience in the explosive case.
“John’s unflappable,” said Judge Robert W. Parkin, another Los Angeles Superior Court judge who was consulted about selecting Ouderkirk to oversee the civil misconduct cases of Orange County Supervisors Roger R. Stanton and William G. Steiner and Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis.
“He can handle anyone and everyone in a courtroom,” said Parkin, who is ruling on another motion involving the Orange County bankruptcy. “He has excellent knowledge of the law and a fine judicial temperament. He can control the court in a way that’s not offensive to anybody.”
Despite Ouderkirk’s heavy workload, his bosses had no problem selecting him for the job. Ouderkirk is juggling a death penalty case involving two juries and the trial of former Los Angeles City Councilman Arthur K. Snyder, who is accused of using illegal campaign contributions to gain influence as a lobbyist.
The 53-year-old New York native will be available full time in about four to five weeks, Bascue said, and will be able to handle all hearings in the interim.
His first assignment comes Monday in a Santa Ana courtroom, when he is scheduled to hear arguments from defense attorneys that the Orange County district attorney’s office should be prohibited from prosecuting the Stanton, Steiner and Lewis cases.
Attorneys for the three men have argued that Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi and his staff are victims of the bankruptcy and have other conflicts of interest in handling the cases. Prosecutors say there is no conflict.
None of the Orange County defense attorneys object to the fact that Ouderkirk is a former deputy district attorney. “I’m a former prosecutor,” said Allan H. Stokke, who represents Steiner. Stokke noted that most judges previously have been prosecutors.
Ouderkirk joined the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in 1977, following his graduation from Loyola University School of Law and after five years as a Santa Monica police officer. Ouderkirk was assigned to a gang unit but also had experience working in a special unit that handled political corruption cases, another factor that helped him win the Orange County assignment.
The cases against Steiner, Stanton and Lewis allege that they failed to oversee the county’s former treasurer, whose risky investments led to a $1.64-billion loss in savings held on behalf of nearly 200 special districts, schools and other government agencies. The accusations are civil, not criminal, and the most severe penalty each could face is removal from office.
After 10 years as a prosecutor, Ouderkirk was appointed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian to the Los Angeles Municipal Court. He was elevated to the Superior Court in 1991, and sworn in by Judge Lance A. Ito.
“He’s a good judge,” said Gerald L. Chaleff, a prominent criminal defense attorney. “He listens. He’s fair. He works hard. It seems to me that he’ll be good at determining whether certain statutes have been violated in the Orange County cases because he knows his facts and he knows the law.”
Courtroom observers said that Ouderkirk’s greatest strength during the Denny case was his ability to keep the emotionally charged proceedings from erupting, despite having to remove several jurors because of illness and other personal reasons and having to restart deliberations three times.
During the Denny case, Ouderkirk’s marriage to Sherry Perkins, who was once an executive secretary to former Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, became something of an issue. Williams and another defendant had been charged during Reiner’s tenure, and a defense lawyer raised the marriage as a potential conflict in an effort to have Ouderkirk removed from the case.
Ouderkirk refused to step down, and an appeals court backed him because he had earlier informed the defense of the relationship without objection.
Ouderkirk, who did not return calls for comment on this story, has told the Los Angeles Daily Journal that his father was a cameraman on the Ed Sullivan television show and his mother was a bookkeeper. Although he had little contact with law enforcement, he said he always wanted to be a police officer.
Ouderkirk has also said he enrolled at Iona College outside New York City with an eye toward becoming a high school teacher, but dropped out and headed for California with a friend. He earned a bachelor of science degree from Cal State Los Angeles in 1972.
Although he can be stern and unemotional on the bench, Ouderkirk is also praised for his willingness to compromise, especially in cases that he is seeking to help plea-bargain. At least once, he wrote to the California Supreme Court on behalf of an attorney who had not been paid by the state for court-appointed work on a death penalty appeal.
On another occasion, Ouderkirk helped a man facing a four-year prison term for insurance fraud. Although prosecutors had objected to the man’s insistence that his incarceration date be delayed until he could raise money for the care of his daughter, Ouderkirk listened intently to the man’s extended pleas.
When the man was finished, Ouderkirk returned a $2,000 fine he had just collected, so it could be used for the girl. He then immediately sent the man to prison.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John H. Reid, who has known Ouderkirk for years, called his colleague “absolutely perfect” for the Orange County cases.
“There are a lot of highly publicized cases, like the Madonna case, in which there’s not a lot of legal issues or people on either side who care about the outcome,” he said. “But a lot of people are concerned about what happened in Orange County and people will bring a lot of biases before him. He is one of the best, if not the best choice, to handle this.”