An Interview with Hon. Otis D. Wright, II '80, Judge of the United States District Court for the Central District of California
Since you were a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and served 11 years as a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles before you became an attorney, service seems to be an integral part of who you are. Were you always interested in working in law enforcement and the legal profession? If not, what made you want to become an attorney?
I was telling someone recently that I've taken the oath to defend the constitution five times. Yes, I consider myself patriotic, but each move was made for a specific reason. I joined the Marine Corp because I thought the uniform was cool.
It turned out to have been one of the most important decisions of my life because it forced me to start growing up. Not all the way, but it was a start. It also gave me the motivation to start taking education seriously. I joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department because I needed a steady job and someone told me that it was a good way to work while going to school. That was a lie. With city riots in East L.A., fires and floods in Malibu - all of which required Sheriff's Department manpower - it took literally forever to finish college. No. I never wanted to be a lawyer. My brother had graduated from Hastings and a couple of close friends and my brother-in-law had enrolled in law school, but still, I had no interest. My wife got tired of me sitting in front of the TV after I finally got my B.S. degree and signed me up to take the LSAT and sent out applications to a couple of law schools. In addition, I think my wife saw me as a work-in-progress. When she married me I was working at an aircraft plant with only a part of an AA degree. She believed we could do better and thank God for that.
In a feature written about you in Wemedia (newsletter of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker), you talk a bit about taking ribbing from your fellow officers about starting law school a little later than the traditional student. What was it like to enter law school in your early 30s? Did you feel more prepared for it because you had an extensive background in law enforcement?
Yes, I was a little older than the typical student, as were a good many of us in the night program. Many of us had families who were counting on our succeeding. If something in my background prepared me to take law school seriously I'd have to say it was the Marine Corps. You are fairly well indoctrinated in the concept that failure is not an option. Then there was my wife. She was already out of my league and I needed to try to keep up. There is no way I would have been permitted to stay static. If I didn't continue to grow, I was going to be left behind in a hurry.
As a partner with Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, you spent many years as a civil litigator for insurance cases. What was one of your most memorable cases?
The one case or series of related cases actually, were the cases that grew out of the two hotel fires in Las Vegas in the 80s: the Las Vegas Hilton and the MGM Grand. Between those two cases and the two insurance cases which arose from them, we - attorneys involved - traveled all over the United States for depositions for what seemed like two years. We learned how to build a hotel, made very good friends, and generally had one heck of a good time.
How did your work at Wilson Elser prepare you for the bench?
I had occasion to work on a lot of interesting cases in a number of substantive areas of the law. In 22 years with the firm I encountered attorneys of all different personality types, which I was later to learn would come in handy. I learned to withhold judgment until I had heard all sides of the story. From Pat Kelly the managing partner, I learned the importance of building a consensus as opposed to simply imposing your will. He also taught me not to decide matters I need not decide. Some things require a decision. Other things will work themselves out if you just get out of the way.
When you mentor law students and new attorneys, what do you believe is the most important information that you impart to them?
To protect their reputations.
Describe your connection to September 11, 2001. What professional changes did you make as a result of that experience?
Back in the Fall of 2001, I was in Boston defending our client's deposition. The deposition started on September 10, 2001 and almost immediately became quite contentious. The plaintiff's attorney called off the deposition, and we returned to the hotel, each making reservations to fly back to LA first thing the next morning. We were staying in the same hotel and ran into each other in the hotel dining room later that evening. By then we had both cooled off. We decided to resume the depositions and see how far we could get.
Well, everyone knows what happened the next morning. That event got me to thinking long and hard about my life. Somehow, a deposition in connection with a legal dispute between two wealthy parties did not seem worth giving your life for. A good friend of my wife's who happened to be a justice on our Court of Appeals called me to tell me the time was right to apply to the Superior Court. I was less than diligent in completing the application. It calls for so much information on cases 10 years old, literally requiring you to pull old files out of storage to retrieve names of all counsel and the trial judge, that I drug the process out for a year and a half. Besides, I was still waiting for some sign from above to guide me as to the path the rest of my life should take.
It reminds me of that joke about the man trapped on the roof of his house in a flood, praying for God to save him from the ever-rising flood waters. He refused help from someone who came by in a boat, saying "No, God will save me." He did the same thing when a helicopter appeared overhead. Having rejected all earthly help, he ultimately drowned. When he appeared before God in the afterlife, he chastised God for not answering his prayers. God said, "I sent you a boat and a helicopter."
You recently spoke to Southwestern's Black Law Students Association (BLSA) students about the importance of reputation. What do you believe to be the best way for lawyers to protect their good names?
It's really quite simple. If you give your word, you keep your word. I recall as an inexperienced lawyer I once made a commitment I hadn't been authorized by my client to make. It wasn't a situation where the client and I had specifically addressed the issue, I simply hadn't checked with the client before making the promise. Naturally, when the client learned what I had promised, he wasn't pleased and wanted me to retract the promise. That wasn't going to happen. Cases come and go, as do clients. In a few short years, sometimes months, you can't remember one case from another. What lawyers in this town do remember, however, is another lawyer they've had a bad experience with. And they like to share the news. I remember being at a conference in San Francisco and heard two lawyers raking a former associate of our firm over the coals. You may never outlive a bad reputation. I advise young lawyers to be professional, skilled, and honest. Under the headings "professional" and "skilled" are a whole range of other things that they build seminars around. While your skill set will improve over time, there is one thing the youngest lawyer can learn: never give anyone reason to doubt your word.
In addition to your interaction with BLSA, what are some things you do to reach out to minorities in the legal profession?
Not enough. So far, I've merely responded to any request. That, I fear is simply an inadequate effort on my part. I am now asking to be invited to speak to law students instead of waiting to be contacted.
Why is it so critical to continue to increase the presence of minorities at every level of the legal profession?
For the most part, this profession is about the lives of people, all people. Society is becoming ever more diverse. Not only should the lawyers representing members of our diverse society be competent, but they must also be able to relate to the various cultures represented. For example, when I was practicing law, we had a group who defended accountants and another group who defended engineers. The lawyers defending these professionals were themselves CPAs and engineers by education. Not only did the professionals better relate to and feel more comfortable with these lawyers, and vice versa, the lawyers were more attuned to the special needs and problems characteristic to each profession. The same is true of cultures. The same applies to the bench. I honestly believe that minorities who come into our courts feel a greater confidence of being treated fairly when they see someone on the bench who is a member of a class which itself has been oppressed to one extent or another, whether or not they are members of the same class as the judge. In other words, African Americans are apt to feel a greater sense of the fairness of the process when a woman or any other ethnic minority is on the bench.
Without question, we need to continue to foster a strong faith in the integrity of our courts. When people stop taking their grievances to court and begin resolving them on the street, we are all in trouble. The public expects the courts and the judicial officers to be fair and impartial. If, by appearance, the courts appear to discriminate against and exclude minorities from their own ranks, just how fair minded can such an institution be?
Describe the work you did as a volunteer attorney with the HIV AIDS Legal Services Alliance (HALSA)? When did you work there? How much time were you able to devote to it? And what would you say to young attorneys who worry that they have to make money and pay off their student loans, so they don't time for this kind of pro bono work?
First last. Law school loans are a fact of life. But God willing, life may be long. There will be time to make a good salary to pay off those loans, buy a house, decent car, educate your kids and take nice vacations. Somewhere in there, or after, then its time to give something back. I had been practicing over 10 years before I got involved in HALSA. It was right around the time Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive. The Los Angeles County Bar sent out a request to the bar for volunteers to work for the terminally ill. The turnout was unbelievable. I recall it was standing room only.
Naturally, when so many people are involved, the load isn't so heavy. For the most part I was called upon to draft wills and powers of attorney for people, many of whom where in a hospice. Obviously with people who are terminally ill, time is of the essence. Actually, it never required much time. What it did require however, was the willingness and ability to simply drop what you were doing to take care of the problem. You are able to resolve a pressing problem for someone in need, with little or no effort on your part, and it means the world to them.
When Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed you to Superior Court Judge for the Substance Abuse Court in 2005, what surprised you most about becoming a judge?
First it was how much power a judge has. Then it was how little power a judge has. I think most people have a pretty good sense of the power a judge has, so no need to get into that. What I found frustrating at times was my inability to eradicate illness and poverty affecting so many of the people who appeared before me. We really have no appreciation of how many people around us are struggling every day to just survive. Sure, we've all seen the homeless - barely. But in my courtroom I saw a lot of it. I also saw a lot of mental illness. Your troubles are really compounded when you are without family, poor and mentally ill. So what surprised me? I never expected that there would be days when my heart would break.
What do you think is the biggest public misconception about judges on the federal bench?
By public, I assume you mean non-lawyers. I frankly don't know. I've got friends who now want to know what I do. They have no idea what federal judges do or what kind of cases are handled in federal court. One person asked me if the federal courts handle small claims matter, which of course they do not. From what I've read, the general public thinks federal judges make a lot of money, or at least more than state court judges, which of course is incorrect. Generally, people seem to think federal judges walk on water - which of course is correct - but other than that, the institution seems to be shrouded in mystery.
As a judge, how do you separate your personal philosophies from your judicial responsibilities?
Now that's a good one. There are a lot of issues which come before you where the law is clear and you simply apply the law. There are also a lot of cases that come before you that are a close call where the law is not so clear or where you are given wide discretion. My attitude is this. I have been investigated, examined and all but autopsied, and my friends and associates interrogated at length. Every aspect of my life has been turned inside out. For whatever reason, the government determined that I am fit to do this job. They know that there will be times when the decisions I reach will be largely based on who I am and the things I believe in. The powers-that-be have decided that they can live with that.
As a Southwestern alumnus and member of the Board of Trustees, talk about your relationship with the law school and why you have remained so actively involved with the institution.
Actually I am amazed at how fond of the school I am. Whenever the school asks me to do something, if time permits, I will always agree. I've never been asked to do something that I didn't feel was somehow constructive or in some way served the interests of the students in a practical way. Yes, I have a great fondness for the school. I think it taught me well. All three of my law clerks and all but one of my externs are from Southwestern. Is that favoritism? Yep.
Who are some of the other Southwestern alumni with whom you keep in touch?
I've kept in touch with James Link '80, my study group partner all the way through law school and the bar exam. I've tried to stay in touch with Lynn Thompson '80, who is now the Director of Employee Relations at UCLA. Deb Leathers (Associate Director of Institutional Advancement) just recently provided me with contact information for Mark Allen '80 who is now in Washington State. Shinaan Krakowsky '81 sent me a letter of recommendation upon which I based my decision to hire one of my law clerks. And of course, Professor Ira Shafiroff. Every now and then I run into Stanley Williams '79 who is still with the District Attorney's Office.