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Hon. Arthur L. Alarcon - A "Student of the Law" at 87

 by Allison W. Scott


The distinguished Senior Ninth Circuit Judge was offered some questionable career advice prior to his entrance in the       legal field.  His high school counselor suggested he become a park ranger. Years later, a military representative   recommended that his experience in WWII as a sharp-shooter and scout made him poised for a career as a walrus hunter.  However, Judge Alarcón’s father, an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, with only one year of education, preempted their  advice and always encouraged his son to become a lawyer.  "I must have only been three or four, so I didn't display too  many qualities. But any time people talked profession I thought law should be fun."  

 Becoming President Jimmy Carter’s “Oh Shoot” Appointment 

Judge Alarcón's path to the law took a slight detour after he graduated from high school. His parents could not afford to send him to college, so he enlisted in the military, and served a 27-month tour in World War II with the infantry.  Back from Europe with his sights still set on becoming a lawyer, he utilized the opportunities offered by the GI Bill, and received a scholarship to attend UCLA for undergraduate courses. Before his senior year, he crossed town to enroll in a program at USC Gould School of Law for veterans with high grade point averages, which allowed the first year of law school to count towards the final year of an undergraduate degree. "So I have an undergraduate degree from USC that is really phony," he explains. 

After graduating law school in 1951, Judge Alarcón was hired by the District Attorney’s Office for Los Angeles.  Appearing before judges ignited his interest in pursuing judicial office. He recalls thinking, "I've got to find out how it is that people become judges." 

Meanwhile, his successes as a Deputy DA earned him the attention of Governor Pat Brown, who hired him to be a legal advisor. Problems with California parolee recidivism rates motivated the Governor to offer his trusted advisor, Judge Alarcón, the position of chairman of the parole board. Judge Alarcón recounts how the Governor sweetened the offer, adding, "You have never said that you want to be a judge, but I'm sure that you do. I don't make this commitment to people, but I will make this commitment to you now. You accept this appointment and the first opening on the Superior Court, you'll get a phone call from me." 

Judge Alarcón did not have to wait long to reap the benefits of his deal with the Governor -- a position opened up on the court only 90 days after he became chairman. True to his word, Governor Brown appointed Judge Alarcón, who was 38 years old and had been practicing for ten years, to a position on the Los Angeles Superior Court. 

Then, at 51, Judge Alarcón received another call, this time from Governor Jerry Brown, elevating him to the California Court of Appeal. His ultimate goal, a spot on the California Supreme Court, was within his reach.

Not long after, an advertisement ran in the Daily Journal requesting applicants with at least ten years experience practicing law to apply for a position on the United States Court of Appeals. Although he saw the ad, Judge Alarcón ignored it, stating, "I had never wanted to be a federal judge." The presidential search committee in charge of the application process sought out Judge Alarcón directly, writing him a letter specifically requesting that he interview for the position. After some convincing by a friend, Judge Alarcón agreed to throw his name in the ring, overlooking the last sentence of the letter, which said that an application commits the applicant to accept the nomination, contingent on approval by the Senate. That oversight landed him in his current position on the Ninth Circuit, which he has held without interruption since his appointment in 1979. 

Politics as Usual?    

Peculiarly, most of the significant promotions in Judge Alarcón's career were made in spite and not on account of his political alliances. When first asked by Governor Pat Brown to be his legal advisor, Judge Alarcón suggested that the Governor might be better served by hiring someone who shared his views. To this the Governor responded with, "I know that you're a Republican but I also know your reputation. That you're a very honorable person, and you will tell me what your views are and you'll give me good reasons for your views. I don't have to accept them but I trust you."

Judge Alarcón has been a member of the Republican Party since his undergraduate years at UCLA. He detested the policies of the Southern Democrats, who at the time were advocating policies that infringed the civil rights of minorities. "I decided to become a member of the party of Lincoln," he says. In explaining why all of his promotions came from Democrats, he hopes that instead of his politics, "people looked at my background and said, 'This is an OK guy for the job.'"

Political allegiances did however nearly derail his appointment to the Ninth Circuit – in a phone call with the chair of the commission, Judge Alarcón, who was assumed to be a strong Democrat based on his ties to the Governor Browns, told the committee the truth about his politics. After a long silence, Judge Alarcón remembers hearing President Carter murmur in the background (and he modified one word) “oh shoot!” Judge Alarcón now proudly touts his status as President Carter’s “oh shoot” appointment. 

Life as Ninth Circuit Judge and Husband

Since earning a position on the Ninth Circuit, the "most fun" case for the Judge was his dissent in a case involving whether the federal government could conduct surprise drug-tests on railroad workers without probable cause. The Judge found, contrary to the majority, that the interests of society balanced against the interests of the individual in this specialized industry justified an exception to the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit in a 7 to 2 opinion, with Justice Kennedy citing Judge Alarcón's dissent at length. 

Unfortunately, this moment of pride came at an inconvenient time for the Judge – the Supreme Court's opinion came down at 4 p.m., and the Judge had promised his wife, Sandra, that he would be home by 5 p.m. to help her prepare for a dinner party. Engrossed by the opinion, Judge Alarcón made it home at 6:40, minutes before guests were planned to arrive. The Judge burst into the kitchen to tell his wife the good news, to which she countered with directions to, "clean out the cat box and take out the trash." "Brought me back to earth," he laughs. 

“There’s More Women Than Men Here”

In spite of his great successes, Judge Alarcón has maintained a humbled and grounded perspective. Indeed the Judge has used his position to lift up others, especially in terms of promoting the advancement of women in the legal field. 

Emblematic of this was the judge’s prominent role in having the criminal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles named after the first woman admitted to the California bar, Clara Shortridge Foltz. Foltz, without any formal legal training, litigated a series of cases that ultimately recognized women’s right to attend law school and sit for the California Bar. In 2000, the Judge was spearheading a project to have important buildings named after lawyers of modern importance, and Foltz was his first recommendation. After hearing about her story from the Public Defenders’ Office, the Judge was determined to have the courthouse bear her name.  And he succeeded.

Women have played a strong role in the Judge's legacy on the Court, starting with his first law clerk in 1979, Florence Marie Cooper.  When the Judge and Cooper were preparing an opinion, the Judge had to inform Cooper that the panel was going against her recommendation. Visibly unhappy with the panel’s decision, the Judge responded simply with, “I have the power.” In 1999, Cooper was nominated to the federal district court, and at her swearing-in ceremony she told the story of the decision that did not go her way.  She turned to Judge Alarcón and said, “now I have the power.”

In fact, the Judge can only cite one time in the history of his tenure on the Court in which all of his clerks were men. I found this to be true when I externed for the Judge this past summer, as the women far outnumbered the men: all of the Judge’s four law clerks were female, as were three of his externs, compared with two male externs. Nonetheless, the judge maintains that the gender disparity in his chambers is unintentional. "I select people from looking at their resumes…and I'm not concerned about their ethnicity, I'm not concerned about their gender -- I just want the best. And fortunately or unfortunately, there are more women than men here."  

Judge Alarcón has always been ahead of his time. His contributions to the advancement of women is only one example of many in which he has contributed to the profession. These contributions are rooted in his commitment to judicial integrity, and that every opinion that comes out of his chambers will be an improvement from the last. "I consider myself a student of the law and will as long as I'm alive. And everything I've learned up to last night I hope to put in this opinion, to demonstrate that I've progressed." 

Allison W. Scott is a law student at USC.  She is also WLALA's USC Student Liaison.