Robert J. Sandoval, 56; Openly Gay Judge, Ex-City Prosecutor

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert J. Sandoval, one of the city's first openly gay prosecutors, died Feb. 28 at City of Hope Hospital in Duarte. He was 56.

Sandoval died of a heart attack while undergoing treatment for leukemia, said Bill Martin, his partner of 23 years. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in January, after successfully battling lymphoma.

A Glendale native, Sandoval specialized in consumer fraud cases after he joined the city attorney's office in 1978. In 2001, after serving as a commissioner in Municipal Court and Superior Court, he was appointed to the judgeship by then-Gov. Gray Davis. He was believed to be the first openly gay judge to be appointed by a California governor in 20 years.

"He was a pioneer in the sense of being open about being gay and enjoying his work and not suffering any discrimination," said Deputy City Atty. Matthew St. George, who had known Sandoval for 20 years.

Described by colleagues as an exceedingly even-handed and efficient judge, Sandoval believed that he had insights as a gay person that could improve the judicial process.

One of the changes he initiated in his courtroom was to ask whether prospective jurors had a domestic partner or a spouse, a question that could provide attorneys with information crucial to the outcome of a case.

He also was concerned about the treatment of defendants infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"There was a period of time in the late 1980s when deputies would wear plastic gloves when someone arrested for lewd conduct as a male prostitute was brought in from custody," St. George said. "There was a great fear of infection, but there was just not any medical reason to be that silly about it. Rob thought it was quite humiliating ... and made a point of telling the deputies not to do that."

As a Municipal Court commissioner in Hollywood, Sandoval also ended the practice of announcing in open court the results of AIDS testing required for people charged with prostitution.

"It was really awful announcing it in the courtroom like that," Sandoval told the Los Angeles Daily Journal in 2003. "Rather than do it in public, we took everyone into my chambers, including a counselor, and told them there."

"He was totally respectful of the rights of everyone in the process. That was one of the reasons everyone thought so highly of him," said Superior Court Judge Michael Nash, who supervised Sandoval when he was a commissioner in Children's Court in the late 1990s. "Everybody felt they were getting a fair shake in front of him."

Nash noted that Sandoval's selection as a court commissioner was a measure of his standing among judges. Commissioners, who have the same authority as judges, are elected by the judges in the court, while judges may be either elected by voters or appointed by the governor.

Sandoval was elected a commissioner of the Municipal Court in 1984 and served until 1997, when he was elected a commissioner of the Superior Court. He was the No. 1-ranked candidate the year he was chosen as a Superior Court commissioner, Nash said.

Among Sandoval's high-profile cases as a commissioner was the 1995 prosecution of British actor Hugh Grant, who pleaded no contest to a charge of having lewd contact with prostitute Divine Brown. Sandoval handed down a $1,180 fine, two years of unsupervised probation and a requirement that the actor attend an AIDS education program.

Sandoval was a graduate of San Gabriel High School who earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Cal State L.A. in 1972 and a law degree from McGeorge School of Law at University of the Pacific in Sacramento in 1976.

He worked briefly as a deputy district attorney in Santa Barbara before being recruited by the Los Angeles city attorney's office in 1978, a period when many professions still barred people who were openly gay. Then-City Atty. Burt Pines made a concerted effort to increase the representation of gays and other minorities on his staff and found Sandoval through the efforts of his assistant, Rand Schrader, who later became one of the first openly gay judges in California.

More than two decades later, Pines, who was then Davis' appointments secretary, recommended Sandoval for the Superior Court judgeship.

He was sworn in with Martin and their adopted son, Harrison, now 13, at his side.

Friends described Sandoval as a devoted father who set aside time every evening to help Harrison with homework, even while undergoing treatment in the hospital. According to St. George, Sandoval and Martin were one of the first gay male couples to adopt a child in Los Angeles County.

In 2000 Sandoval received the Outstanding Judicial Officer Award from the Juvenile Courts Bar Assn. He also was a member of the Hispanic National Bar Assn. and International Assn. of Lesbian and Gay Judges.

Sandoval also is survived by his mother, Gilda Sandoval of Rosemead; and two sisters, Francie Turner of Coto de Caza and Claudia Davis of Reno.

A funeral service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale. Memorial donations may be sent to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, P.O. Box 6001, Albert Lea, MN 56007-9949.

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