Controversial Judge Redeems Reputation in Superior Court


John Hunter was one of the best and brightest. An editor of the law review at USC. The youngest judge on the California bench. The elder son of the future prophet of the Mormon Church.

But after his appointment at age 33 to the Ventura County Municipal Court, he got stuck at the lowest rung of the judicial ladder--a step away from the Superior Court, where complicated civil cases were more suited to his ample intellect.

In fact, when Hunter retired from the Municipal Court 3 1/2 years ago, he was better known for his harsh sentences than for his mental prowess.


He gained notoriety in 1989 when now-defunct California Magazine chose him as one of the state’s “wackiest judges,” noting not only his severe treatment of minor criminals but also the time he had a public defender arrested, handcuffed and dragged before him.

Just months before his September 1992 retirement, attorneys of the county Bar Assn. rated him lowest of 10 regular judges on the Municipal Court, marking him down for demeanor, settlement skills and impartiality. That same year, voters rejected him 2 to 1 in his only run for the Superior Court.

But in the years since he formally retired, Hunter has redeemed his reputation as a jurist, excelling both as a full-time, fill-in Superior Court civil judge and as creator of a highly efficient “fast-track” system to eliminate a years-long backlog of civil cases.

Local trial lawyers have given him a special commendation for his work. His most recent ranking in the Bar Assn. poll was “very good.” And colleagues say he is one of the best civil judges on the local bench.

“He literally does the work of two people,” said Melinda Johnson, presiding judge of the Superior Court for the last two years. “He does his work more efficiently than almost anybody else could, so we say, ‘Thank you, God, for John.’ ”

Johnson, who tried cases before Hunter years ago when she was a lawyer and he was on the Municipal Court, said it is a shame that he spent so much time on minor cases, where his greatest skills were not needed.


“Even though people would get furious with him, those of us who knew him knew he was extraordinarily bright and practical and hard-working,” Johnson said. “But if all you get to do is drunk driving trials, maybe you get a little cranky. . . . With us he has been able to do the kind of work he was always so able to do.”


Lawyers who know Hunter well, who have seen him mediate both simple criminal cases and lawsuits of daunting complexity, say he is smart and decisive.

And as an example of his diligence, they cite his return to work within days after his right leg was amputated below the knee last summer. He would call in rulings from his wheelchair at his hilltop Ojai home.

Off the bench, Hunter is widely admired for his good nature and spirit, a devoutly religious man who married his college sweetheart and raised 10 children with her. For 27 of the last 35 years, he has awakened at 5:30 a.m. every weekday to teach teenagers religion before school. He is an Eagle Scout, as are seven of his sons.

Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury insists that there is more to the man than meets the local Bar. “If people only knew the thousands of hours he has spent helping children in the Scouts, they would be astonished,” said Bradbury, who has worked with Hunter in Scouting activities for decades.

“He’s a very personable guy . . . when he’s not on the bench,” acknowledged Richard Erwin, a longtime Ventura County public defender and Hunter’s archrival before retiring a decade ago.


But Hunter watchers also talk in terms of the Good John and the Bad John.


As a Municipal Court judge, he could turn from amiable and witty to scathing and punitive from one minute to the next. He would lecture attorneys on their shortcomings and regularly slap defendants in jail for minor crimes such as traffic or probation violations.

“There were those who felt very wronged by John and made it very known,” recalls Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren, who practiced as a lawyer before Hunter. “But I was never the recipient of the Bad John. I saw the Good John. He was so facile and fast that he expected others to perform accordingly. And when they didn’t, he didn’t have the patience for it, I guess.”

Criminal defense attorney George Eskin, who worked for Hunter in the district attorney’s office three decades ago and considers him a friend, said he admires the judge’s work on the Superior Court.

But for years Eskin refused to allow his clients to be judged by Hunter in Municipal Court, exercising his right to transfer cases to another judge.

“I have a very warm personal affection for him,” Eskin said. “But he just had an Achilles’ heel when it came to sentencing some people. I don’t know what caused him to display a mean-spirited quality, a seeming impatience with people. . . . His attitude was, ‘You’re going to take responsibility for this, and I’m going to help you take that responsibility.’ ”


Richard Loy, a Ventura civil and criminal lawyer, expresses an unabashed affection for Hunter and admiration for his skill as a judge. But he also made sure he kept some types of cases out of Hunter’s Municipal Court.


“I love the man. He’s a straight-forward, honest guy,” Loy said. “He has been ahead of the curve for years. He has demanded that certain kinds of cases not be treated lightly . . . that people be held responsible for their actions.”

But Loy would transfer his clients’ misdemeanor driving cases out of Hunter’s court.

Erwin filed a formal complaint against Hunter with the Commission on Judicial Performance in 1985, citing what he saw as a series of abuses in sentencing over 15 years. Hunter was forced to explain himself, but was not sanctioned.

“He was just so damned tough for a while that he would walk on everybody, but I wouldn’t let him walk on me,” Erwin said. “He was young when he went on the bench, and he started his smartass business right away. He went right from the D.A’s office [to the bench]. A lot of guys take a little time to adjust. . . . It took him longer.”

In his more recent role on the Superior Court, however, Hunter’s reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

Before leaving the Municipal Court he created a fast-track system that disposes of more than 97% of all new civil cases within a year, far ahead of the two-year mandate under state law.


And after being selected by Superior Court judges to put their civil cases on the same rapid track, Hunter drafted the rules for a monitoring system that resolves 85% of cases in a year and nearly all of them by the two-year deadline--a record that compares well with the best in the state.


He also heard a dozen motions a day and oversaw a full slate of civil trials. “He ranks right up there with the best [judges],” said Michael A. Morrow, president of the Ventura County Trial Lawyers Assn. “He’s pulling more than his weight. In fact, I think the Ventura County justice system would be severely compromised if he wasn’t there. We need him. We need two of him.”

J. Michael Crowe, a Santa Monica lawyer, said he lost his 1994 case before Hunter but came away impressed.

“We do work all over the state and Judge Hunter is someone we have a lot of respect for,” Crowe said. “He’s always on top of the case. Some days he was farther along than the lawyers were and coming up with new issues that we had yet to even think about.”

That Hunter’s stock has soared with his new assignment hardly surprises local attorneys.

“We all thought a long time ago that the Superior Court would be the place for John,” Loy said.

Hunter, 59, is a large, amiable man--6-foot-3 and beefy. He walks with a slight limp because of his amputated leg, the result of diabetes he contracted a decade ago.


His face virtually shines with a pink whiteness. His blue eyes are piercing.

And as he peered imposingly from behind a courtroom bench recently, he said he wanted no part of another newspaper story about him.


“I’m retired,” he insisted, even though he has sat as a $397-a-day temporary Superior Court judge since the day he left the Municipal Court in 1992.

He’ll probably abandon the public bench for good at the end of this year, he said, to become a private rent-a-judge.

“Twenty-seven years is enough,” he said.

In the end, however, Hunter discussed not only his recent successes on the Superior Court but his failings as a judge. Under the crush of time, he has made plenty of errors. “You just have to fix them,” he said. And, for a man not known to express regrets, he had a couple.

“One of my failures in life is that I say what I think, and that’s got me in some difficulty,” he said. “If I were judicious, I would not do that. It’s one thing to be a judge, it’s another to be judicious . . . That would have been a nice trait [to have], but it’s one that I don’t possess.”

Hunter can’t estimate the number of attorneys he has instructed on the proper practice of the law under the bright light of his courtroom.

“It’s a lot easier to preside over a trial than to be an attorney for a litigant,” he said. “So I try to give the trial lawyer an assist, one way or another. Sometimes they don’t like it.”


Jeff Bennett, a chief deputy district attorney, was one of those to learn a harsh lesson from Hunter. In his first misdemeanor trial, Bennett asked the wrong question only to be tongue-lashed by Hunter, who told the jury of the young lawyer’s ineptitude and declared a mistrial.

That experience motivates Bennett to this day, he said. “The lesson was, ‘Be prepared.’ ”


Hunter said the courthouse is full of attorneys with “a Judge Hunter story to tell.” In many of those cases he would act the same way again, he said. But not in others.

“Like Jeff’s incident, I probably didn’t have to say anything,” he said.

Hunter said he is not sure just where his municipal courtroom demeanor and stiff sentencing came from. But his tenure as the district attorney’s chief trial prosecutor probably had an effect, he said.

“I think people should recognize their errors and pay for them. I think it’s my responsibility to send a wake-up call,” he said. “I get a lot of letters from people who say, ‘At the time I thought you were awful, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.’ ”

His tough sentences had nothing to do with his religion, he said. And he laughs at attorneys’ assumptions that he might mentally link sentences and salvation.

“I’ve had [attorneys] come to court and say, ‘My client has repented, judge,’ thinking that would have some influence on me. I don’t laugh out loud, but I do laugh at that.”


He is less amused by assumptions that his stiff sentences grew from frustration that no California governor saw him worthy of elevation to the Superior Court. Judicial appointments are all politics, he said. And he has had no gubernatorial pull since the term of Ronald Reagan, who appointed him to the lower court.

“Frustrated? That’s what people think. But I don’t think it had anything to do with it,” he said. “It’s bad enough to sentence people for their own sins, much less my own. You’ll find I was a tough sentencer from Day 1.”

Hunter said he never felt frustrated on the Municipal Court. He liked the work, the issues and courtroom milieu, he said. Still, he said he is clearly better suited to his current position.

“I do like civil. I’ve always been interested in practicing civil law,” he said. “This really is nice . . . I enjoy what I’m doing now the best.”


Profile of John J. Hunter

Age: 59

Residence: Ojai

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and English, Brigham Young University, 1960; master’s in political science, BYU, 1960; juris doctorate, USC, 1963.

Experience: Deputy district attorney, 1963-67; civil attorney, Thousand Oaks, 1967-70; judge, Municipal Court, 1970-92, six years as presiding judge; assigned to Superior Court, civil judge and coordinator of fast-track, case-reduction program, 1992-present; lecturer, civil law to new judges, state Judicial College, 1981-present.


Family: Wife, Louine, homemaker; eight sons and two daughters, ages 16 to 37; father, Howard W. Hunter, was president-prophet, the highest-ranking position of Mormon Church, until his death last year.

Community Activities: Past president, Ventura County Council, Boy Scouts of America; trustee, Ojai Valley Community Hospital; former bishop and stake president in Thousand Oaks, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; current president, young men’s programs, Ventura stake, LDS.