Judge fights on (in song)

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version.

NEWPORT BEACH — Retired Superior Court Judge James P. Gray doesn't really know the meaning of the word retirement.

After retiring from close to three decades on the Orange County bench, instead of living the good life in Newport Beach, Gray, 65, is keeping busy with his Sunday column in the Daily Pilot and writing pick-me-up Broadway-style musicals for schools to perform.

Lately he composed the fight song for Chapman University, which will debut at the campus' homecoming football game on Oct. 23.

On Tuesday, after a pensive half-hour interview at his Newport Beach home on topics ranging from the death penalty to government policies that seek to prohibit instead of regulate drugs and prostitution, among other things, Gray pulled out the lyrics to the fight song and started singing them.

"We excel in the classroom. We triumph in the field. We strive for excellence, to defeat we never yield," he sang, pumping his fist for emphasis in his living room, the piano a few feet away. "We are leaders in life, and to all it's clear to see: We're second to none. We're Chapman University."

His may not be as popular (yet) as the University of Notre Dame fight song, but the lyrics come from a judge and former prosecutor whose passion in life, next to meting out justice, lies in the art of song, which he picked up from his parents.

Gray loves Broadway musicals, for example. And he can't get enough of folk songs.

"I can sing any 'Peter, Paul and Mary,' song," said Gray, who is also fond of "The Mamas and the Papas."

But his latest production, aside from his weekly column in the Pilot and a new book, "A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions to America's Problems," is a compilation of optimistic songs that can be found on a CD. Its purpose, he said, is to inspire students to think well of themselves when things are looking down and out.

Called "Americans All," some of the songs include "You gotta have style" and "Do you know their names?" — the latter being a commentary on how we know very little about the people who surround us daily, whether it's hard-working immigrants or even your next-door neighbor.

He's been distributing the songs around the nation, and just recently a high school in Hawkinsville, Ga., performed one of them after listening to his demo.

"It cost me $35 to make and it cost me $500 to fly out and see the show in Georgia," said the judge, before adding a punch line: "I guess you could say I wouldn't make the best financial advisor."

But it's all good, he says. Mostly, because life is good, and it's been good for Gray, who attended UCLA for his undergraduate studies, then USC for law school before he eventually became a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, then a Superior Court judge in Santa Ana for 25 years.

And so after years of working, he's finally settled down to write about many of the cases that he presided over and which ones affected his life and opinions on many matters. One of the more frustrating scenarios as a judge, he said, would be to sit through a trial and hear the attorneys trying to argue their cases and often fail to ask the right questions of their defendants or plaintiffs on the witness stand.

"As a trained litigator, you just want to say, 'Hey, ask this!'" the judge recounted.

But he didn't. He remained silent, leaving his opinions to himself. After retirement, he chronicled some of them in a trio of books he authored, including "Wearing the Robe," and "Why Our Drug Wars Have Failed and What We Can Do About it: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs."

"I believe that the most patriotic thing I can do is do away with the drug policy and the prohibition," he says, referring to the federal government's refusal to legalize marijuana and tax it in order to regulate it and therefore control it.

Although he's known as a libertarian, the former judge says the concept is often misunderstood. While, yes, libertarians want government out of their lives for the most part, they also accept that government is a necessity, if only to establish important authorities, such as the military, the police force and the judiciary.

Gray carries around a passport-sized book containing both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He loves the Constitution and his country so much that he makes it a point of handing out copies of the book to the many who simply haven't read up on one of the world's greatest documents.

"Everything should be left to the states and the people," he said.


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