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.
His record--part rebel, part reformer, part conciliator--has kept him in the limelight.
A decade ago, Gray's call for the legalization of drugs prompted the county sheriff to quip, "What was this guy smoking?" and a fellow judge openly questioned his impartiality on the narcotics issue.
But Gray hasn't backed down. And now, he finds himself at the center of two more high-profile cases that have kept him very much on center stage.
Last week, he brokered a landmark $5.2-million settlement between the Catholic Church and a man who claims he was molested during his teenage years 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 heated battle over whether to build an airport at El Toro, shocking both sides by throwing out a new voter referendum on the issue. An appeals court on Friday overturned his ruling.
Gray even played a bit part earlier 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 Orange County jails.
"The way I was raised was, you speak out if something is wrong," Gray said.
When he was first appointed judge 17 years ago, Gray immediately endured the close attention of legal peers due to 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 writing songs, said he was greatly influenced by his father's persistence and sense of right and wrong. Gray noted that his dad was a loud critic of McCarthyism while serving as president of the Los Angeles County Bar.
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 achieved much more than they would have at 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," said Gray. "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."
Gray's passion for the give-and-take of negotiating was showcased earlier 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 by authorities of killing a Villa Park woman, then faking a suicide leap off the Golden Gate Bridge. He was captured earlier this month after being on the run for four years, authorities charge.
Gray said that he twice attempted to arrange a surrender through the woman McDonald was living with. Gray also said he was ready to walk his friend into the sheriff's station.
Gray also found himself drawn into the raging debate over a proposal to build a commercial airport at the now-closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. He threw out more than 140,000 signatures on petitions calling for a vote on whether a park rather than an airport should be built there. 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 the fact that he lives in Newport Beach, a city that strongly supports a new airport.
Gray 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."
The single issue that has focused the most attention on Gray during his career is his decision to renounce the nation's drug war and his insistence that the government regulate distribution of drugs. Gray voiced this view in the face of fierce 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 says he neither uses nor approves of drugs, also has 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.
Gray's views make him a frequent target. A fellow judge has openly questioned his impartiality on the drug issue. And former Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates once lashed out to reporters: "What was this guy smoking? It's crazy. What kind of role model is he?"
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."
Gray says it's unlikely he will be appointed to a higher seat, due to 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.