An otherwise unassuming career jurist, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer found himself thrust into semi-celebrity last week when he sentenced Paris Hilton to jail.
Hilton and her spokespeople have since decried the 45-day sentence as unfairly harsh and out of step with her crime of repeatedly driving with a suspended license. Bloggers and celebrity watchers across the country have weighed in, alternately criticizing the ruling and applauding Sauer for standing up to Hilton’s reckless ways and consequence-free lifestyle.
“I don’t care to be the DUI judge to the stars,” Sauer told The Times on Monday. “I’m amazed about the amount of talk about this case. I’m amazed at the amount of publicity.”
Those who know and work with the 69-year-old Sauer said he’s one of the last people they can imagine grandstanding for the cameras, or altering his judgment for a famous defendant.
“He’s not the type of individual to make an example of anyone,” said Mark Rafferty, an attorney who said he’s argued hundreds of cases in front of Sauer, most of them DUIs. “He’s not the kind of guy who likes the limelight. He’s a hardworking judge and has been for a long time. He’s not worried about what other people think, good or bad.”
Another attorney who has appeared multiple times before Sauer speculated that the judge may have been annoyed by Hilton’s repeated violation of her license suspension and her late arrival for her hearing.
“I think in this case she must have gotten under his skin ... basically she thumbed her nose at him,” said Mark J. Werksman. “There’s a limit to a judge’s patience.
During the two-hour hearing Friday, Sauer seemed well aware of the defendant’s celebrity, at one point joking with the prosecuting attorney that “I don’t want to deny you your 15 minutes of fame.”
Making references at points to Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and the Watergate scandal, Sauer repeatedly questioned Hilton on her understanding of the restrictions of her license suspension -- stemming from a September 2006 alcohol-related reckless driving charge. Hilton claimed she mistakenly thought she was still allowed to drive as long as it was for work. Sauer, referencing Watergate, said he sought to understand what Hilton knew and when she knew it.
His ruling, forgoing lighter sentences that wouldn’t have involved jail time, indicates that Sauer didn’t fully believe Hilton’s claims. Since the original incident last fall, Hilton has been pulled over three more times, and each time warned or cited by the officer for driving with a suspended license.
A native Angeleno, both Sauer and his wife, Marianne, were born at St. Vincent Hospital -- the same hospital where Sauer’s parents, a doctor and a nurse, met. He and his wife live in the same Windsor Square neighborhood where Sauer grew up.
After graduation from Loyola Law School, Sauer worked for eight years for the city attorney’s office. In 1971, as deputy city attorney in charge of appellate cases, he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Cohen vs. California -- an obscenity case stemming from a defendant who appeared in a county courtroom wearing a jacket decrying the draft.
Appointed to Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1972 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, Sauer was elevated to the Superior Court bench in 2000 when the two courts combined. In 2003, he was moved from criminal court cases to misdemeanor arraignments -- a posting heavy on traffic violations and DUIs. The move, which paved the way for the fateful meeting with Hilton, came as a surprise to the veteran judge. But in a January 2006 profile published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, Sauer said he had adjusted to the unexpected transfer.
“Now that I’m here, I like it,” he said. “I get along with the attorneys. I’ve done this kind of work before. You just fill in the dots.”
In the Daily Journal article, Sauer waxes nostalgic about the Los Angeles of his youth, recalling watching midget racers in Gilmore Stadium and riding the merry-go-round in Griffith Park.
Now, after 35 years on the bench, Sauer’s name will forever be linked with Hilton’s.
The urban legends have already begun to crop up; celebrity gossip website TMZ.com, citing “sources inside,” reported that Sauer received a standing ovation from his fellow congregants Sunday at St. Brendan Catholic Church.
“The church story is completely false,” he said.