Robert S. Stevens; Judge and State Legislator
Robert S. Stevens, who represented Los Angeles’ coastal communities in the state Legislature for more than a dozen years and later served as a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge and survived censure by the state Supreme Court, has died. He was 84.
Stevens died Saturday at Santa Monica-UCLA Hospital after a brief illness.
The Westwood Republican lawyer first ran in the 60th Assembly District, stretching from UCLA to Malibu and Zuma Beach, in 1962 and served four years in the lower house, working on the Assembly committees on rules, the judiciary, finance and insurance and governmental efficiency and economy.
As a freshman assemblyman, he managed to get a number of bills passed, only to have Democratic Gov. Pat Brown quietly veto five of them, including measures to require interviews for welfare recipients and waiting periods for people under age 20 wishing to marry.
Stevens countered in 1966 with a successful legislative effort to pass a constitutional amendment to eliminate the “pocket veto.”
Under the system by which Brown silently sent Stevens’ legislation to oblivion, a governor had 30 days after legislative adjournment to act on bills. If he took no action, a bill died by pocket veto, with no explanation required. Stevens’ measure changed that. Governors now must explain why they veto a bill, and the Legislature can reconvene in a special session and vote to override the veto.
Later in 1966, Stevens won one of the 13 additional state Senate seats that were granted to Los Angeles County under court-ordered reapportionment. He represented the coastal 25th Senate District, from Malibu to Palos Verdes, for a dozen years.
Asked in 1967 how he remained popular with widely diverse constituents in a district that included conservative Pacific Palisades and liberal Venice, Stevens told The Times with a laugh: “Try to keep at least 50% of the people happy. After all, isn’t politics a numbers game?”
The senator, who earned a reputation as a thoughtful moderate, added seriously, “I probably have to spend more time looking at both sides of an issue than most of the other legislators because of the very makeup of the 25th Senatorial District. But I like it that way. I’m not an automatic vote.”
Stevens, who frequently criticized actions of Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan, faced only one serious election challenge. That occurred in 1972, when Cathy O’Neill, a Democrat half his age, sought to become the first woman elected to the state Senate. It was a tight race, but Stevens won.
In the Senate, he served on committees on rules, social welfare, the judiciary, business and professions and local government. He championed legislation for the environment, particularly dealing with landslides and Santa Monica Mountains conservation, and for curbing welfare expenses.
After he left Sacramento in 1976, Stevens became the first legislator appointed to the judiciary by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
The lawyer and legislator whose “major weakness was his niceness,” according to colleagues, and who was active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and president of the Mormon Choir of Southern California, came under a moral cloud at the outset of his judicial service.
In 1979, his former Senate secretary, Beth Murphy, and her husband, Edward “Dick” Murphy, complained to the California Commission on Judicial Performance that Stevens had harassed them with obscene telephone calls for four years.
Stevens told The Times that he had engaged in sexually explicit conversations with the couple, but said the Murphys also had made statements. “It wasn’t a case of [their] sitting and listening,” he said. He suggested fantasy might be an appropriate word for the calls. “It was never a serious intention about anything. No offensive actions were ever anticipated or engaged in.”
Stevens and his lawyers contended in widely publicized hearings that his conduct had always remained “exemplary and beyond reproach.”
The accusations resulted in censure--in effect, a slap on the wrist--two years later by the state Supreme Court for conduct “prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.”
Stevens retired on disability in 1983 after six years on the bench.
Born in Salt Lake City, Stevens earned degrees from the University of Utah and Stanford University Law School. He established a practice in probate and corporate law in Westwood in 1942.
Stevens is survived by his wife, Marjorie Turner Stevens; two sons, Gary and Thomas; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Westwood Ward of Latter-day Saints, 10740 Ohio Ave.