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Some find O.C. judge’s wit a trial

Times Staff Writer

Inside a wire cage in the back of an Orange County courtroom, a middle-aged woman barely a smidgen taller than 4 feet stands up to answer charges of petty theft.

“She’s a little thing,” says Superior Court Judge James M. Brooks. “Is she on her knees?”

Without warning, he rises from the bench and puts his hands on his hips as he addresses her, pretending he doesn’t believe she can really be so small.

“Are you trying to fool me?” he says, unable to keep a straight face.

She smiles back at him. The slapstick plays well with the crowd. And minutes later, Brooks is at it again, poking good-natured fun at a bailiff who enters the courtroom.

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“What’s he doing in here?” the judge deadpans. “We’re not giving away Twinkies.”

The bailiff chuckles. Laughter echoes around him. Brooks is just getting warmed up as he works his way through a heavy calendar of misdemeanor arraignments on a Monday afternoon in August.

In his 21 years as a judge, Brooks has been loved, loathed and repeatedly scolded for his courtroom behavior.

His biggest critics have found his shtick infuriating, insulting and even racist, and in some cases the state judicial commission and 4th District Court of Appeal have agreed.

His biggest supporters consider him a passionate and hardworking public servant and credit him for livening up legal proceedings that can often be brutally mundane.

Like him or not, and despite the trouble he’s been in, Brooks is still going for punch lines.

“No cash,” he instructs a defendant on that same busy August afternoon, joking that a court fine could be paid only by check or money order because “there’s a lot of dishonest people around -- a lot of lawyers.”

Interview declined

Brooks, 70, declined to be interviewed about his career. His closest associates say he has been somewhat reluctant to talk to the press after unflattering portrayals of him and more guarded about his family’s privacy since the death of his youngest daughter 2 1/2 years ago.

A Midwestern native and a graduate of Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, Brooks was elected a municipal judge in 1986 after serving 15 years as a prosecutor, in Los Angeles for a year and then in Orange County.

He gained notoriety in 1991 when members of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue swarmed his front lawn. Angry that Brooks had fined demonstrators for blocking traffic during a protest at a Planned Parenthood clinic, the picketers returned over several days, sometimes 50 strong, chanting and praying.

His troubles have long been rooted in the outlandish things he has said and done inside his courtroom.

The state Commission on Judicial Performance has chastised him for, among other things, referring to Latino defendants as “Pedro,” issuing a warrant for an Asian defendant for “ten thousand dollars or twenty thousand yen” and characterizing the owners of a mobile home park as “Nazis” while comparing their actions to the Holocaust.

The 4th District Court of Appeal also has taken sharp aim at his conduct.

In one case, Miguel Hernandez had alleged in a lawsuit that his vocal cords were damaged by a pain specialist treating him for a hand injury he suffered in a food-packing factory. Brooks allowed Hernandez’s immigration status -- he was not in the U.S. legally -- to be introduced, ruling that it was relevant to credibility.

The 4th District court found that Brooks tarnished the case and the public’s view of the court with stereotypical comments about illegal immigrants that gave the appearance of preconceived prejudice and raised doubts about the fairness and impartiality of the proceedings.

In a withering opinion earlier this year, the 4th District court found that Brooks acted more like a circus ringleader than a judge while overseeing a civil case dubbed “the Soap Opera Trial” because the daily drama was being followed in legal circles.

Two employees of an electronics company alleged that they were passed over for promotions and later dismissed for complaints alleging reverse discrimination.

During the proceedings, Brooks held up a homemade sign to the jury reading “Overruled” when the plaintiffs’ attorney, Michelle A. Reinglass, made objections.

His other gaffes included keeping score of objections from both sides as if the trial were a soccer match, issuing red cards and yellow cards.

The appellate panel found his antics egregious enough to undermine the fairness of the trial, overturning the ruling and ordering a new trial and new judge.

“It is obvious that much of the judge’s conduct was not malicious, but rather a misguided attempt to be humorous,” the justices wrote. “But a courtroom is not the Improv, and the presider’s role model is not Judge Judy.”

‘Beyond the pale’

His biggest critics argue that his remarks and shenanigans have violated sacred judicial canons, undermined justice and made a mockery of the courts.

Reinglass, for one, said in a recent interview that she was stunned on a daily basis during her trial.

“He said he was bringing levity to the courtroom,” Reinglass recalled. “There is appropriate humor and inappropriate humor. When something goes so far beyond the pale, you really know the difference.”

Attorney Sharon Lowsen had a similar experience while representing three fired Disneyland employees in an age-discrimination case. She said Brooks repeatedly demeaned her in front of the jury, including asking her -- while she was cross-examining a woman who was a lesbian -- if she too would like to be alone with a woman.

Lowsen later filed a formal complaint against Brooks and said she received a three-page apology from him.

Even his most ardent supporters agree that Brooks can sometimes push a joke too far. But they reject the idea that he is racist, biased or intentionally cruel, saying he presides over his court with a sharp mind and even hand.

“He’s a very moral man. He’s a gentleman. He wouldn’t harm a fly intentionally. He’s extraordinarily honest and dignified,” said good friend and fellow Superior Court Judge Gregory H. Lewis. “He’s bright, witty and fair. Extremely fair . . . and he’s got a lot of people who think the world of him, both on the bench and the bar.”

Lewis and others say the bad publicity about Brooks has overshadowed his accomplishments. He has been named judge of the year twice by two criminal-justice groups and has long been considered a valuable mentor in the larger legal community.

Darren Aitken was fresh out of law school when he went before Brooks in his first trial, a DUI case. Aitken was working for a private firm but on loan to the district attorney’s office to help clear up minor cases. After he won a conviction, Brooks invited him to drop by his chambers for some pointers.

Aitken, now a trial attorney working with his father, Wylie Aitken, said Brooks was the only judge in his career to make such an offer.

“He said, ‘If you’ve got time, please feel free to drop by my chamber, and I’ll give you my view of what you did right, what you did wrong,’ ” Aitken recalled. “It was very valuable to me for a very experienced judge who was a very experienced prosecutor to give me that advice. . . . I thought it was very nice of him because he didn’t have to do that.”

Brooks now oversees misdemeanor arraignment court, an assignment friends and colleagues say he asked for in 2005 after one of his daughters, Jennifer Brooks, a prosecutor in San Bernardino County, was killed on her way to work when a car carrying a group of high school students crossed into her lane.

Brooks, extremely close to and proud of both of his daughters, took a short hiatus before returning to the bench.

‘He doesn’t offend me’

In his second-floor courtroom, two cages extending along the left wall are regularly packed with people accused of drug, alcohol and other small-time offenses.

On his busiest days, he handles as many as 150 cases, keeping the mood upbeat and the pace lively with -- what else? -- his signature sense of humor.

“That’s an expensive bottle of cerveza,” Brooks tells a Latino defendant, referring to the fine he faced for carrying an opening container of beer in public.

Frank Falk, an interpreter who is in Brooks’ court daily, said the judge often jokes with Spanish-speaking defendants .

“He jokes around with them and he’s businesslike at the same time. I don’t see any prejudice. He doesn’t offend me,” Falk said. “I think he’s pleasant and he’s fair.”

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

Times researcher John Jackson contributed to this report


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