My judicial robe has a frilly satin braiding around the neck, it's a little too heavy, and its shoulders are padded. It's not my style. I prefer your basic lightweight black robe with no ornamentation and natural shoulders (the Ivy League look). But this robe pleases me for a reason that has nothing to do with style or comfort. When I put it on, I notice the initials on the label inside the collar: LMF. Those are not my initials. They, like the robe itself, belonged to the late Leonard M. Friedman, justice of the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District. His widow, Joan, gave me the robe after Leonard died a few years ago.
Leonard was a scholar?a serious student of history, literature, philosophy, music, and the law. And he wrote like an angel.
Sometimes it seems as if I've been compared to Leonard?or been comparing myself to him?for most of my life. My parents didn't actually say, "We want you to be just like Leonard Friedman when you grow up." But they implied it. He was "brilliant" and, more important, "a fine man." Even I, shallow and obtuse as I was, could understand that here was someone to emulate. He became for me the Gold Standard. He and baseball great Hank Greenberg.
In 1964 my wife, Linda, and I went to dinner with two other couples. We men were freshly minted attorneys. One of us posed the question, "What's your career goal?where do you want to be in 20 years?" One man said he wanted to make a lot of money. Another wanted to become chief counsel for a government agency. I said I wanted to distinguish myself as a litigator, then become a judge.
Someone said, "Oh, you want to be Leonard Friedman." I demurred. I was no Leonard Friedman. Nor would I ever be. Still, I thought to myself, it couldn't hurt to try. So I did. I set out to become Leonard. It was a noble ambition, but it was hard to do.
Early in my career, after I had filed one of my first appellate briefs, a research attorney from the court of appeal called me. Justice Friedman had noticed that I had misquoted a case. I should be more careful in the future.
When I became a judge in 1979, Leonard swore me in. (My parents were present, beaming.) In his remarks at the ceremony, a friend commented that it was fitting that Justice Friedman would be doing the honors because he had always been one of my "idols." I resisted the urge to sustain my own objection: Strike "idol" and substitute "role model." We Jews do not worship idols. My friend's sentiment nevertheless was on the money.
Leonard stayed on the bench with me after that. He became my invisible higher court, peering over my shoulder. "What would Leonard do?" was a question I asked myself often. The phantom Leonard curbed my worst instincts and summoned my better ones. "Don't cut that corner," he would admonish me. Or, "Don't jump to that conclusion." Or, "Hold the sarcasm." "Be a mensch," I would hear him implore.
My prosecutor friends, knowing I was close to Leonard, would complain to me about his bench demeanor. He was cantankerous?a tough questioner, confrontational. I would defend Leonard with what, it seems to me, could have been his epitaph: "The man loves justice. He's brilliant. His knowledge of the law is Witkinesque. And, he wants?always?just one thing, to get it right. He should be on the Supreme Court."
Although Leonard never presumed to instruct, I learned five important lessons by watching and listening to him: 1. Read well, write well. If you want to be a good writer (and you do), read the best writers and pay attention. 2. Write to inform. The important thing in judicial writing is to carefully justify your decision, though style does matter too. 3. Don't be a comedian. Lawyers laughing at a judge's joke is as meaningful as canned hilarity on TV sitcoms. 4. Don't sweat the 170.6s. The affidavit of prejudice typically tells more about the integrity of the affiant than of the target. 5. Respect the defender. Defending accused criminals is the law's highest calling. We owe those who do it a huge debt of gratitude.
After Leonard died, I could no longer say to him, as I used to, "I'll see you in court." But I expected to keep hearing from him. And I have. He's still on my case, in my mind, and, as it happens, wrapped around my shoulders. I have only to probe the frayed sleeve of my/his robe to be reminded of what it is I'm supposed to be doing.
Ronald W. Tochterman (TochteR@saccourt.com) served for more than 20 years as a municipal and superior court judge. He is currently an assigned retired judge in Sacramento County Superior Court.