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Benjamin Aranda III, Municipal Court Judge in Torrance, 58

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Benjamin Aranda III, a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge in Torrance for nearly two decades and a nationally known spokesman for minorities in the legal profession, died Wednesday at the age of 58.

According to his friend, attorney Rober Wilburn, Aranda died of insulin shock while flying from Los Angeles to Nashville to attend an American Bar Assn. conference. He had been scheduled to receive the Inspirational Spirit of Excellence Award there Friday from the association’s Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession.

Since September, Aranda had served on the California State Judicial Council, a 14-member panel that governs state courts. He was also a former chairman of the Los Angeles County Municipal Court Judges’ Assn., a co-founder and the first president of the Hispanic National Bar Assn. and a co-founder of the California Minority Bar Assn.

“He brought boundless energy, insight and dedication to his work on behalf of the people of California, both as a judge and as a leader of our efforts to promote fairness and access in the courts,” California Chief Justice Ronald George said on learning of Aranda’s death.

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Aranda was known for his family and community leadership as well as his innovative administration of law.

He and his wife, Emma, a chemist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Los Angeles, had seven children and adopted four more. They were selected as the Hispanic Family of the Year in 1986 and a year later were one of six families presented with Great American Family Awards by President Ronald Reagan in a White House ceremony.

“You’re supposed to come into this world and try to make it a little better before you leave,” Aranda told The Times then. “I just couldn’t see some poor kid being without a real home if we could do it.”

On the bench, Aranda could be tough when necessary, as in admitting key evidence in a high-profile preliminary hearing in 1996 that helped convict photographer Charles Rathbun of the murder of Hermosa Beach model Linda Sobek.

Yet the judge was known for taking a personal interest in defendants who came into his Torrance courtroom. In 1990, Aranda agreed not to jail a young hot-rodder who had terrorized neighbors--providing that he plead no contest to 732 criminal charges, including disturbing the peace and assault with a deadly weapon (his Volkswagen Beetle) and that he agree to stay out of that neighborhood. If the young man so much as “spit on the sidewalk . . . in that area again,” Aranda said, the defendant would immediately be sent to jail for 275 years.

The judge considered the sentence more productive for the defendant and for the victims than a quick commitment to jail.

In another kindly judicial action, Aranda on his first Christmas Eve on the bench suspended parking and other traffic fines for about 200 motorists who appeared before him that day.

“I am a small-town judge, and that is probably all I will ever be,” Aranda told The Times that day in 1979. “But I feel if I can do my share to make people a little happier, I will accomplish something to make the world a little bit better place to live.”

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Born in Brawley, Calif., Aranda decided at age 6 to become a lawyer, focusing on role models Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s contemporary president of Mexico, Benito Juarez.

Aranda worked his way through Loyola University and Law School as a state insurance claims adjuster, and practiced law in Marina del Rey. He was elected a regent of what is now Loyola Marymount University in 1993.

Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. named Aranda to the Municipal Court in 1979, and over the years he served several times by special appointment to the Los Angeles County Superior Court and the Los Angeles-based 2nd District State Court of Appeal. Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday ordered flags flown at half-staff over the Ronald Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles where the appellate court sits.

In addition to his wife, Aranda is survived by their children, Becky, Marichris, Ruth, Ben, Andrea, Danielle, David, Carlos, Tanya, Fred and Eric, and three grandchildren.

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