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Janavs Unruffled in Whirlwind

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Times Staff Writer

To get an idea of what life is like in Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs’ courtroom, imagine several soap operas playing at once. Plots include the outcome of contested elections and labor struggles, the distribution of millions of dollars and the fate of historic buildings. Some days bring cameos from gang members; others, a battle over control of a local Little League or the goings on in a topless bar.

The stories unfold with the rat-a-tat rhythm of an action drama.

The tiny Latvian-born judge with the sharp, flashing eyes burst into the public eye last week when she was unseated by a Manhattan Beach bagel shop owner with limited legal experience, then reappointed three days later by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the aftermath, many judges and lawyers flew to her defense, calling her one of the smartest and hardest-working jurists in Los Angeles County, while others criticized her courtroom manner as unnecessarily sharp and even abusive toward those who come before her.

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Through it all, Janavs, 69, who has been on the bench for two decades and weathered a threat and what some would consider threateningly boring legal briefs, continued to preside over a whirlwind caseload that on any given day encompasses the county’s weightiest public policy issues and its most mundane disputes.

As one of two Los Angeles County Superior Court judges devoted to writs and receivers, Janavs works in arcane legalese and in the high drama of emergency motions and preliminary injunctions.

Janavs strives to remain unfazed by it all. In the disheartening days after her defeat, when her colleagues on the bench described themselves as “in despair” or “appalled,” Janavs said she was “not a person that uses those kinds of adjectives.”

Nor is she a person who shies away from conflict, as is apparent from the steely control she exercises in her courtroom as the county’s best and most aggressive lawyers argue ferociously to get their way.

One day this week, she had 10 items scheduled, but before she could get to them, she had several lawyers seeking emergency orders -- and toting inch-thick legal briefs that she had to read before making a decision.

For more than an hour, the judge retreated to her chambers, with its dozens of photographs of her grandchildren and its view of Disney Hall, and quickly read the legal papers.

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A little after 10:30, she emerged, taking her seat on the bench. More than a dozen lawyers, who had been waiting like travelers in an airport lounge, sprang to life.

A gaggle of lawyers engaged in a tangle of financial lawsuits pushed through the scuffed wooden doors separating the spectator area from the tables in front of the judge. One party sought an emergency same-day order to stop the other party from going after his bank accounts. The request -- and the dispute -- brought out some of Janavs’ infamous gruffness.

“I know what you’re seeking,” she said sharply at one point. “I have a real problem with you being in this court.”

Next.

A lawyer for a homeowners association took his place at the plaintiff’s table. A woman who owned a penthouse in a condominium complex on Wilshire Boulevard allegedly had a leaky shower, causing mold to grow in an adjacent apartment. The lawyer was seeking an emergency order for access to the apartment, which the woman opposed.

“But something has to be done,” Janavs said. When the woman’s lawyers protested that the leak had stopped, Janavs was unmoved.

“That’s probably because she hasn’t been using the shower,” Janavs said. “But mold has accumulated over a period of time.”

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Access granted.

Next.

A man representing himself via telephone from New Mexico. He had filed his paperwork improperly. Janavs sanctioned him and set new court dates.

Next.

This one was easy: An 82-year-old man who claimed that he had been tricked into signing away title to his home was seeking an injunction. Granted.

Next.

This one was easy too. It was a real estate dispute in Pasadena, but the parties said they would work it out.

Ah, lunch break.

In the afternoon she resumed her perch on the bench.

For nearly a year, parents in the Ladera Heights Little League have been battling one another over control of the league. Janavs had earlier appointed a referee to oversee the league. Now the parties were back, fighting about whether the referee was biased in favor of one side.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” she sharply said at one point. Later, she added: “It seems to me there’s not much point in doing this.”

The judge declined to remove the referee.

Next.

A county probation officer claimed that he had been fired improperly. Janavs was unsympathetic.

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“He wasn’t truthful with the investigator,” she said, adding, “I don’t see an error of law.”

By 3 p.m., the courtroom was empty save for her clerks, who bustled around entering orders and organizing files.

But Janavs, her black robe folded on her desk chair, her hair slightly mussed, was not done. Now the judge, who had been working at break-neck speed since early in the morning, had to read all the papers filed for the coming day’s hearings. “I’m swamped every day, practically,” she said.

But this afternoon, she paused to smile at the huge bouquet of flowers on her desk, given to her by her staff when she was reappointed. The outpouring of support from judges and lawyers, even those she has ruled against, overwhelmed her, she said.

Janavs came to Northern California at age 13 from Latvia by way of a displaced-persons camp in Europe after World War II. Her mother had been a lawyer in Latvia, her father a law student. In the U.S. he found work as a gardener, while her mother cleaned houses.

After high school, she went to San Jose State University, then to UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. She worked in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles before being appointed to the bench in 1986 by Gov. George Deukmejian. Her husband, an architect, took a major role in raising their children while she worked the punishing hours demanded by the profession at a time when employers made few concessions to working mothers.

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Over the years, she has handled hundreds if not thousands of cases. Striking nurses, police officers and teachers have come to her courtroom, as have dozens of gang members fighting the city attorney’s pursuit of gang injunctions. She has ruled on countless land-use disputes, involving the Getty Villa and the Ambassador Hotel, among others.

Along the way, she’s angered many. This goes with the territory in a job like hers, where all day long she is dashing hopes and rejecting requests. But some who have been in her courtroom also complain that she can be unnecessarily mean to those who appear before her.

“As soon as I saw that she was up for reelection I told everybody I know to vote against her,” said Doug Haines of the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Assn. in Hollywood; he has been unhappy with some of Janavs’ rulings on attempts at historic preservation. “She’s very pro-establishment, and she’s very rude.”

Janavs disagreed.

“I never consider specifically who the parties are,” she said. “I look at the facts very carefully ... look at the law very carefully, and I rule as I believe is fair.”

As for charges that she is rude, she said: “I don’t think there is a judge on the bench who doesn’t get that.”

Fred Gaines, a land-use attorney who says he has won and lost cases in front of Janavs, said he has “seen her be at times argumentative with counsel, but I think she’s a very thoughtful judge.... This is not a department where she’s dealing with the public, there’s no witnesses, there’s no jury. She’s dealing with lawyers.... What’s important is that she takes the time to look at the details of these cases.”

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