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Answering Summons to Service : New Municipal Judges Bring Assortment of Experiences to Bench

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enrobed in basic black, the seven Los Angeles Municipal Court judges sworn in Friday will be impartial arbiters in the most mundane trials, the stern face of justice to countless drunk drivers and car stereo thieves.

But the four women and three men picked by Gov. Pete Wilson bring to their ordinary jobs an extraordinary set of experiences.

Joanne B. O’Donnell, 46, was an editor for the food magazine Bon Appetit before she became a corporate lawyer.

Judith A. Rasmussen, 54, quit her studies at Cal State Long Beach when she married. She went to work as a legal secretary and never returned to college. But in her forties she was admitted to Southwestern University law school and finished in two years.

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Frank J. Johnson, 43, a veteran prosecutor, worked his way through college delivering newspapers.

Several have taken large pay cuts to join the court and will give up high-profile practices. Alice C. Hill, 39, an assistant U.S. attorney before her appointment, was one of the lead prosecutors in the federal trial of Lincoln Savings and Loan plunderer Charles H. Keating Jr.

Glory may not come with a municipal judge’s job, but former magazine editor O’Donnell, who holds a master’s degree in Victorian literature, said there are great rewards. “I’ve never had a job I’ve liked this much. I like being one who decides what the right thing to do [for society] is, rather than doing what’s right for my client.”

For late-bloomer Rasmussen, the judgeship is the latest accomplishment in a lifetime of gradually rising aspirations. The daughter of a Long Beach postal carrier, Rasmussen said she never considered becoming a lawyer, much less a judge, when she was growing up.

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“My mother was a nurse and her sister an executive secretary. They were the only working women in my family. I saw them as very successful, and those [experiences shaped] my goals at the time,” she said.

Friends and co-workers at the law firms where she worked had suggested that Rasmussen apply to law school, and she finally did in 1983. She eventually became a partner in the firm where she once worked as a secretary.

In law school Rasmussen also befriended fellow student Matthew Fong, now California treasurer. She has contributed $4,050 to Fong’s campaigns since 1990, according to campaign finance records.

James C. Chalfant, 43, a former federal prosecutor and most recently a private lawyer, studied science before going to law school. A zoology graduate of Pomona College, he attended graduate school in biochemistry before starting law school.

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Chalfant’s wife, Michele, has made $8,350 in campaign contributions to Wilson since 1990. His father, Read Chalfant, gave Wilson $1,000 in 1994, finance records show.

New Judge John P. Doyle, 47, had also worked as a federal prosecutor, and Lisa Hart Cole, 40, was a deputy district attorney for 14 years.

Five of the seven judges replace jurists who were elevated to the Superior Court. Two replace retired judges.

The Los Angeles Municipal Court has 89 judges who are elected to six-year terms.

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Ming Chin, a recently appointed California Supreme Court justice, presided over Friday’s ceremony.

Chin admonished the new judges to “treat everyone with respect, regardless of whether they are rich, poor, well-dressed or not, or speak English well.” He told the new judges of a jurist in his hometown of Klamath Falls, Ore., who “spent hours in conversation with a man who didn’t speak English well and had not gone to school.”

“That man was my father,” Chin said. “If you are fair and keep an open mind, the son of an immigrant who does not speak English well might be impressed with your demeanor, and inspired to do great things.”


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