Judge Takes Leave From Bench to Join Senate Race

Times Staff Writer

Jim Gray, rigid as a judge’s gavel, stood at the front of a high-ceilinged tavern here and ran through a list of political positions he hoped would appeal to Mendocino County’s famously idiosyncratic voters. Pot should be legal. Genetically modified foods should be labeled. The Patriot Act should be gutted.

“We are galloping, racing toward a police state,” said Gray, his voice curt and direct. “This Patriot Act is the most recent, but our civil liberties are in jeopardy.”

These are not political views normally associated with a 59-year-old Orange County Superior Court judge, a self-described “conservative dude” who left the Republican Party less than two years ago over its stances backing the war on drugs and the Patriot Act, and joined the more doctrinaire Libertarians. But in a life marked by anomalies -- Gray once led an anti-Vietnam War protest while enrolled in USC’s Navy ROTC program -- the judge is engaged in yet another incongruous act: a yearlong leave of absence from the bench to challenge two-term Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate.

With a three-person staff, pocket change in his war chest and a campaign based mainly on legalizing marijuana, Gray’s path to the Senate is steeper than the traditional uphill run. It’s more like standing at the base of El Capitan, looking skyward and wondering just how high he can scramble before gravity drags him back to earth.

But Gray sees his campaign as an act of personal responsibility. He might be a pragmatist on an impractical mission, but he believes current government policies are wrong and should be changed. And he believes you change things by example.


“How can I expect anybody else to come forward unless I do more than my share?” Gray told the crowd.

So Gray has been making small forays like this one, going out for a few days to talk to supporters, troll for fresh votes and try to get himself interviewed by local media. Then he returns to Costa Mesa to map strategy from his office near John Wayne Airport, a rented first-floor space wedged between two fast-food joints and downstairs from a tanning parlor.

Like most minor-party candidates, Gray doesn’t really expect to win in November. With Boxer anchoring the Democratic left, challenger Bill Jones on the Republican right and no one from the Green Party on the ballot, Gray hopes to galvanize enough support from the political margins and the independent center to send a message to the mainstream.

“Even if we just make a strong showing, the Republicans and Democrats are going to see our votes as the difference between winning and losing future elections,” Gray said.

To be considered by any voters, Gray has to get heard.

Late on this cool May afternoon, about two dozen people had gathered in the Ukiah Brewing Co. as the judge took the stage. It was unclear how many came to hear him talk and how many just stopped in for a beer and stayed.

Tough Road

Mendocino County is not what you would call Gray -- or Libertarian -- country. In the March primary, Gray placed second, picking up 64 votes to perennial Libertarian candidate Gail Lightfoot’s 98, a reversal of the statewide results. The Libertarian vote was barely an asterisk to the major parties: Jonesreceived 3,164 votes and Boxer, running unopposed, outpolled everyone with 13,034 local votes.

Yet Gray, a little over 6 feet tall with drilling hazel eyes, has more in common with Mendocino County voters than those numbers would suggest. The redwood-covered hills and vineyard-carpeted valleys about two hours north of San Francisco are home to all manner of recalcitrant hippies and back-to-earthers at the forefront of the medical marijuana movement. County voters decided in March to require genetically modified foods to be labeled -- the first such local mandate in the nation.

That progressive unpredictability extends to local elections. Libertarian Norm Vroman -- a convicted tax-evader -- has twice won election as district attorney largely because he backs legalizing marijuana. And Sheriff Tony Craver is a renegade Republican who also thinks the drug war has been a failure. Both men, popular political figures here, have endorsed Gray.

Gray may have found sanctuary with the Libertarians, but he’s an indifferent member of the tribe. Part of his appearance in Ukiah, for instance, was spent arguing for mandated labeling of genetically modified foods, something most Libertarians would say amounts to the government sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong.

“I am not a purist. I am not doctrinaire,” Gray said. “I believe in responsibility. I also believe in anti-trust laws.... [Libertarians] have no place for antitrust. I part company with them there.”

The differences aren’t likely to cost Gray support among hard-core Libertarians, though, since as a sitting judge he lends credibility to the party mainstream.

“He’s got the background to at least make an impression on people,” said Kenneth D. Allen, a Libertarian and president of the Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Mendocino County. “Then maybe somewhere along the way people will stop thinking we’re weird.”

Marching out of step is a trait Gray proudly shares with his late father, U.S. District Court Judge William P. Gray. The elder Gray, a Republican, was appointed to the bench by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and became a controversial defender of prisoners while overseeing legal challenges to overcrowded jails in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

After graduating from UCLA, the younger Gray spent two years in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer, then entered USC Law School through the Navy ROTC program.

Two months after leading the anti-Vietnam War protest, Gray went to war himself on a training mission, assigned as an ROTC midshipman to a landing craft plying the Mekong River. He earned a combat ribbon, and after the summer tour returned to USC for his final year of law school, then joined the Navy’s judge adjutant general’s office.

Gray worked as an assistant federal prosecutor in Los Angeles before entering private civil practice in Newport Beach. He lives in Newport Beach with his wife, Grace Gray, who runs a physical therapy clinic in Orange.

In 1983, Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Gray, who had worked on his campaign, to Santa Ana Municipal Court, where he served as a no-nonsense conservative jurist with a deep conviction that a criminal owes society penance for his sins.

But not every crook. One class of criminal, he believes, shouldn’t exist at all: pot-smokers, both recreational and medicinal. Gray believes deeply that the U.S. has lost a “hopeless” war on drugs, a conclusion he reached in the 1980s after seeing the heavy flow of drug cases through his courtroom.

Personal Choice

Gray said he believes that the decision to take drugs should be a matter of personal responsibility, not law, and that drug users should be given access to drug treatment, not jailed. But he said radical change also should begin with moderate steps.

“Let’s start with marijuana and see where we go,” Gray said. “I don’t think people are ready for anything other than that.”

Since 1989, when Deukmejian elevated Gray to the Orange County Superior Court, he has handled civil matters almost exclusively, in part to head off complaints that he had displayed a bias on the drug issue.

But Gray said he also had tired of criminal cases and was drawn to the complexities of civil suits. One of his more notable cases was overseeing a 2001 legal settlement in which the Catholic Church agreed to pay a molestation victim $5.2 million and promised deep reforms aimed at preventing recurrences. Both sides credited Gray for his role as conciliator.

That year, he published a book, “Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs.”

Gray’s platform has more planks than just legalizing marijuana and opposing parts of the Patriot Act, the anti-terror device that critics argue has eroded civil rights.

Gray also believes that federal agencies should periodically justify their existence to Congress or shut down, and that the federal government should reimburse local governments for costs associated with illegal immigration -- which administrations of both parties have refused to do. Gray touched on many of those issues during his 45-minute appearance before the small crowd in Ukiah.

But he seemed ill at ease, as if uncertain about exactly how one asks strangers for help. Ever the reserved courtroom figure, he asked for votes with a formal “I request your support.” And, almost as an afterthought: “I actually need money, too. If you are in a position at all to give $5 to $500 to more, we need that and we’ll put it to good purpose.”

Afterward, Gray moved through the room shaking hands and posing for photographs with the few voters who hung around, and sipping from a pint of beer. They chatted about marijuana laws and genetic engineering, small talk about large matters as Gray sought common political ground.

A few minutes later, the party over, Gray left, walking past the local courthouse and into the evening.