An Interview With the Honorable Beverly Reid O'Connell
By Kimberly Arnal
On May 11, 2013, WLALA Executive Committee member Kimberly Arnal interviewed the Honorable Beverly Reid O’Connell, Judge to the United States District Court, Central District, over coffee. Judge O’Connell was appointed to the Federal Bench on April 30, 2013.
Hon. Beverly Reid O'Connell Kimberly Arnal
“A strong sense of fairness led her to the bench.”
It was during an eighth grade field trip to the California Supreme Court that Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell realized she wanted to be a part of the legal system. She didn’t know then that she wanted to be a judge but, she just knew she wanted to make a difference. “I knew I wanted to have an impact on the litigants and integrity of the legal system,” she explained.
True to her eighth grade aspirations, Judge O’Connell attended UCLA and graduated from Pepperdine University School of Law in 1990. After graduating from law school, she joined Morrison & Forester. Five years later, she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California. She was one of 4 women to join the office that year, including Jacqueline Nguyen (now sitting on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals) and Eileen Decker (currently Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles). “We were called the affirmative action class,” she joked. When asked about the success of the other women she worked with, Judge O’Connell laughed and said “we did all right.”
As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Judge O’Connell was the Deputy Chief of the General Crimes Section and then senior litigation counsel for the Organized Crime Strike Force. She was also the lead attorney on a case that led to the indictment of the highest ranking member of a major drug trafficking organization on U.S. soil. For her work on that case she was awarded the DEA Administrator’s Award for Exceptional Service. She also received numerous other awards from the DEA, FBI, and local governments.
It was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office that Judge O’Connell realized she wanted to be a judge. She explained, “It was towards the end of my time at the U.S. Attorney’s Office that I realized I wanted to be a judge. I had risen to a point in the office where I had discretion as to what charges to bring and to not bring.” She recalled one case where she decided not to charge a man with a particular crime because it carried a life sentence. “The punishment just didn’t fit what he did” she explained. Ultimately, it was a desire to be fair and to do justice that led Judge O’Connell to apply for the bench. She explained, “I didn’t want to be an advocate; I wanted to do justice.”
Judge O’Connell Takes the Bench
In 2005, at age 39, Judge O’Connell was appointed to the Superior Court of Los Angeles County by then Governor Schwarzenegger. Given her background at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it’s not surprising that she was assigned to a criminal courtroom. As a Superior Court Judge, she served on the Superior Court’s Executive Committee, Community Outreach Committee and ultimately she became the Supervising Judge of the North Valley Judicial District.
When asked about her experiences as a judge several things became clear. Judge O’Connell is passionate about the integrity of the judicial system and the need to do justice. She explained, “Being a judge is nerve wracking, but you have control and you find comfort in the law; you treat people with dignity and you make sure they feel heard.” She went on to explain that it’s important for judges to look at the totality of the case; litigants need to feel heard and they need to understand the law. True to her beliefs, Judge O’Connell frequently took time to explain the law to the litigants who appeared before her in criminal court and to explain where she had discretion, and where she didn’t.
When asked what kind of judge she is, Judge O’Connell explained, she likes to listen. At trial, she assumes that counsel is competent and she allows them to try their case. In other matters, she engages in a dialog. She believes that you should tell people when they do well and let them know them know when they don’t.
Judge O’Connell Takes the Federal Bench.
On November 15, 2012, Judge O’Connell was nominated by President Obama to the United States District Court for the Central District of California. She was confirmed by the Senate on April 15, 2013 by a vote of 92-0, and received her commission on April 30, 2013.
Judge O’Connell took the federal bench just days before our interview. When asked why she wanted to be a federal judge, Judge O’Connell indicated that she wanted to hear a mix of civil and criminal cases. She explained that in federal court, there are no specialists. All judges hear both civil and criminal cases. Consequently, judges have to focus on matters like openness and fairness.
Advice for Litigants Appearing Before Judge O’Connell
When asked what advice she would give litigants who appear before her, she said “be prepared” and “be courteous to opposing counsel” She would remind people that given budget cuts the justice system is under siege and the court’s ability to resolve disputes is more limited. She encourages parties to agree on what you can and come to the court only with respect to matters where they really need help. Finally, do not interrupt! She dislikes it when attorneys interrupt her or each other. And, she tries not to interrupt the attorneys who appear before her either.
Judge O’Connell on WLALA
Judge O’Connell is an active WLALA member and currently sits on our Board of Governors. In the 1990’s, she was also a member of WLALA’s Executive Committee and was slated to become the organization’s President. Unfortunately for WLALA, due to her appointment to the Superior Court in 1995, she resigned her position with our organization. Judge O’Connell, however, remains committed to WLALA and its mission. She described WLALA as an organization of men and women recognizing that the glass ceiling still exists. Equally important to her is the fact that “WLALA offers role models to younger female attorneys and an ability to mentor and be mentored by other attorneys.”
Judge O’Connell Gives Back – the Power Lunch Program
Deputy Thomas Jordan, WLALA Board Member Hon. Beverly Reid O’Connell, and WLALA Past President Angela S. Haskins
As part of her work with the Superior Court Community Outreach Program, Judge O’Connell developed the Power Lunch Program as another way for WLALA to give back to the community. The Power Lunch Program is a collaboration between WLALA and the Los Angeles Superior Court to provide education and mentorship to high school students in under-served, high-crime, and ethnically diverse communities. The mission of the Power Lunch Program is to provide members of under-served communities with information about and positive access to the justice system.
Students from various schools come to courthouses throughout Los Angeles County to have lunch with judges, lawyers and members of law enforcement. During lunch, the students hear presentations about the Constitution and the legal system. Following the presentations, the students break out into smaller groups to talk with the participating judges and lawyers. The program provides students, who might not otherwise cross paths with legal professionals, to do so in a positive and informative manner. The Power Lunch concludes with an interactive game of “Judicial Jeopardy.”
When asked about the Power Lunch Program, Judge O’Connell smiled and said it is one of the professional accomplishments of which she is most proud.
Kimberly Arnal is WLALA's Second Vice President. Ms. Arnal is the administrative/managing partner for the Los Angeles office of The Aguilera Law Group, APLC.