O.C. Rebel in a Robe Not Afraid of a Fray

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He describes himself as a conservative judge in a conservative county. But many of those who have watched the career of Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray said his approach to the job is anything but traditional.

Part rebel, part reformer, part conciliator, he has put together a record that keeps him in the limelight.

Gray's views make him a frequent target. A decade ago, Gray's call for the legalization of drugs prompted now-retired Sheriff Brad Gates to lash out to reporters: "What was this guy smoking? It's crazy. What kind of role model is he?"

And a fellow judge has openly questioned Gray's impartiality on the drug issue.

But Gray hasn't backed down. And now he finds himself at the center of two high-profile cases that keep him on center stage.

Last week, he brokered a landmark $5.2-million settlement between the Catholic Church and a teen who says he was molested by a priest. By all accounts, it was Gray's handling of settlement talks--one part delicate, one part firm--that led not only to one of the largest payouts by the church but also to a slate of church reforms aimed at preventing molestation by priests.

Gray also entered the battle over whether to build an airport at El Toro, shocking both sides by throwing out a new voter referendum on the issue. (A court of appeal overturned his ruling Friday.)

Gray even played a bit part this month in the case of a former college classmate accused of murder.

Far from the fuzzy-haired radical many expect, Gray is tall, clean-cut and lean-limbed. He'd appear much younger than his 56 years if not for a preponderance of gray hair.

Gray speaks curtly and eyes his subject intensely when listening. His single-mindedness is something he shares with his late father, another Orange County legal legend credited with helping reform the jails.

"The way I was raised was, you speak out if something is wrong," Gray said.

When he was first appointed a judge 17 years ago, Gray immediately endured the close attention of legal peers because of the actions of his father, U.S. District Court Judge William P. Gray. At the time, the elder Gray was butting heads with county officials over his rulings on jail overcrowding and prisoners' rights--a battle that would last for years.

"When you've just become a municipal court judge and your father is holding all the county supervisors in contempt of court [because of jail overcrowding], it's hard to be inconspicuous," Gray said.

Gray, an accomplished musician who enjoys singing and songwriting, said he was influenced by his father's persistence and sense of right and wrong. His dad was a loud critic of McCarthyism while serving as president of the Los Angeles County Bar, the younger Gray noted.

When announcing the settlement in the Catholic Church case, lawyers on both sides credited Gray with working out a deal by demanding repeated conferences and personally mediating discussions. Gray said the plaintiffs were able to achieve much more than they would have at a trial.

"Had the plaintiffs gone to trial, maybe they would have won more money than they got, but they would have given up a lot too," Gray said. "Here, they were able to get a settlement and other promises from the defendant. There's no way in creation that that could have been accomplished by going to trial."

Lawyers say Gray's willingness to dive into such frays is rare among judges.

"It used to be that all judges held settlement conferences," said defense lawyer Mike Trotter. "Now they just set a trial date and don't move it. Judge Gray becomes a part of the process. He says to one side, 'What do you want and why?' and then says the same to the other side. It really works. It works better than yelling from the bench, 'Settle it!' "

Gray's passion for the give-and-take of negotiating was showcased this month when he disclosed that he had sought unsuccessfully to arrange the surrender of a former law-school classmate and friend accused of murder.

Hugh "Randy" McDonald, a former Newport Beach attorney, is accused of killing a Villa Park woman, then faking his suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge. He was captured this month after being on the run for three years, authorities said.

Gray said that before the arrest, he twice attempted to arrange a surrender through the woman McDonald was living with and said he was ready to personally walk his friend into the sheriff's station.

In an interview two weeks ago, Gray said: "You don't turn your back on old friends." The judge, however, declined to comment further in an interview last Thursday. "I've said all I'm going to say about it," he said.

Gray also found himself drawn into the debate over a proposal to build a commercial airport at the now-closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. He threw out more than 128,000 signatures on petitions calling for a vote on whether a park rather than an airport should be built at El Toro. He ruled that the title and summary of the petition were misleading and that people who signed might have been misled.

The decision was a major blow to airport opponents, some of whom suggested Gray's verdict was influenced by his living in Newport Beach, a city that strongly supports a new airport.

Gray said he bristled at the criticism.

"I was wounded by it," Gray said. "It never occurred to me that where I lived would trouble people. . . . Some people basically look for conspiracies on anything."

But the issue that has focused the most attention on Gray during his career is his opposition to the nation's drug war and his insistence that the government regulate distribution of drugs. Gray voiced this view in the face of criticism almost 10 years ago. Several months ago, he published a book on the issue, "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It."

Gray, who said he neither uses nor approves of drugs, has also created a Web site and posts regular items condemning a drug war that he believes has only made drug trafficking more lucrative, violent and widespread. The Web site is http://www.judgejimgray.com.

Many attorneys who have appeared before him in court describe Gray as a hard-working, principled man who rarely suffers fools.

"He will let you have the truth with both barrels," said Tustin attorney Christopher J. Day. "People who know him know he's courageous and that he always follows the letter of the law. When you're a lawyer in front of him, all those things are in the back of your mind."

The father of three grown children, one of whom was adopted from Vietnam, Gray was born in Washington, D.C., but moved to the Los Angeles area soon after. He attended UCLA, and when he graduated in 1966, he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to work in a small town in Costa Rica.

When he finished there, he returned to Southern California and entered law school at USC. After passing the bar examination, Gray served four years in the Navy as a defense attorney and staff judge advocate. From the Navy, Gray joined the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, where he headed a unit that prosecuted housing loan fraud against the government.

In 1978, Gray went into private practice in Los Angeles and was appointed to a position on the Municipal Court bench in 1984 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian. Five years later, the governor appointed him to the Superior Court, where he is today, hearing mostly civil cases.

Gray said it's unlikely he will be appointed to a higher seat because of his outspokenness on the drug issue. That's OK with him, however, as frequent speaking engagements and radio and television appearances on the subject keep him busy.

"Talking about the nation's failed drug war and what should be done about it is really my second job," Gray said. "It takes up a lot of time."

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