Beverly Reid O’Connell:
A Revered Jurist, Exceptional Teacher, and Dedicated Public Servant
by Eileen Decker
On October 8, 2017, the Honorable Beverly Reid O’Connell, a long-time WLALA member, Board Member, and revered judicial officer, passed away as a result of a ruptured brain aneurysm. News of her sudden passing spread quickly throughout the legal community and was met with a universal outpouring of sadness combined with a great appreciation for her exemplary service and dedication to justice.
Since 2013, Judge O’Connell served as a judge in the United States District Court for the Central District of California following her appointment by President Obama and unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate. As a member of the federal judiciary, she periodically sat by designation on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Prior to her federal appointment, she served as a judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court following her appointment by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005. She was the Supervising Judge of the North Valley District, supervising three courthouses and 26 judges. As a sitting judge, Judge O’Connell tried over 150 cases. The trials included special circumstance murders, gang, fraud, employment, ERISA, mentally disorder offender commitments, and civil rights cases. In 2010, she sat as a Justice Pro Tem for the California Court of Appeal, Second District Division. Prior to being appointed to the state bench, Judge O’Connell served over a decade as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Central District of California. She began her legal career as an associate at the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, specializing in litigation matters.
Commenting on her exceptional skills as a jurist, the Honorable Virginia Phillips, Chief Judge of the Central District of California, said:
“Judge O’Connell justly earned her reputation as a brilliant and exceptionally hard working judge. Those who appeared before her appreciated her wisdom and fairness, as well as her innovative use of technology in the courtroom. Her judicial colleagues and all members of the court family were vastly enriched by her generosity, energy and dedication to justice.”
As noted by Chief Judge Phillips, Judge O’Connell’s major impact on the court stemmed, in large part, from her strong advocacy for the adoption of technological tools in the courtroom. She viewed technology as instrumental to the fair and expeditious administration of justice. In furtherance of this effort, she chaired the Central District’s Technology Committee, served on the Ninth Circuit Technology Committee, and was recently appointed to the federal court’s national Information Technology Advisory Group.
She served as a faculty member at the B.E. Witkin Judicial College, teaching new judges on the topic of admissibility of electronic evidence. She also served as an instructor for the Administrative Office of the Courts, where she created and taught classes on computer skills, trial management, and electronic evidence. She also taught for the California Judge’s Association, where she created and taught classes in the use and significance of Facebook, Twitter, and the World Wide Web to lawyers and the judiciary.
She was a passionate teacher of law students, lawyers, and judges, and she was renowned for her teaching skills. Presiding Judge David J. Buckley, Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, said:
For years Judge O’Connell has been the most beloved judicial officer in our county – actually, in our state - no matter the jurisdiction, level or assignment . . . Few have contributed more to our Court, . . . She touched us as a colleague, leader, exemplary judge and teacher. She may have been the best teacher any of us experienced, . . . When she was with us outside the classroom, she continued to be a teacher; she gave us daily lessons on how to be a better person.
Judge O’Connell pursued her mission as an educator at each point in her career. As an Assistant United States Attorney, she served as the Deputy Chief of the Office’s General Crimes Section for 5 years where she was responsible for training all new Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the Greater Los Angeles area. In this role, she worked late into the night with many AUSAs as they prepared for their first trials. Drawing on her many successful years in the courtroom, she taught them how to shine in court. In this process, she provided each AUSA she trained with the confidence they needed to excel. She was so popular as a training supervisor that the AUSAs jokingly bought her a machine that generated numbered tickets, so that they could take a ticket to wait their respective turn to speak to her and get her advice. At the end of her tenure as a supervisor, she was credited with having trained well over 100 AUSAs to be trial lawyers, over a third of the entire office.
For many years, she lectured as an adjunct professor of law at both Pepperdine University School of Law and Loyola Law School, teaching basic and advanced trial advocacy skills. Upon her passing, one former student wrote: “I’ve always suffered from much insecurity, but it was much worse in law school. . . .Professor O’Connell helped me believe in myself and consider that perhaps I could be a lawyer and maybe even a good one.”
Judge O’Connell graduated from UCLA, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. She was unapologetically a Bruin. Few who met her could escape learning this fact. Those who dared to mention their affiliation with “that other school” would soon find his or her office boldly redecorated in UCLA’s distinctive shades of blue and gold. As a state court judge, in a case where she needed to simultaneously empanel dual juries, she distinguished the two juries by assigning them each a color. They were thereafter referred to as the yellow or blue jury.
The Judge received her Juris Doctor, magna cum laude, from Pepperdine University School of Law in 1990, where she served as the managing editor of the Pepperdine Law Review. Judge O’Connell held the distinction of being the first graduate of the Pepperdine University School of Law appointed to the federal bench. In 2015, Pepperdine awarded Judge O’Connell its Distinguished Alumnus Award. Following her passing, Pepperdine University School of Law developed an annual scholarship in her honor designed to recognize a Pepperdine law student who exhibits excellence in education, a great command of trial advocacy skills, an exemplary character, and impeccable integrity - all characteristics personified by Judge O’Connell.
Her contributions to the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA) were innumerable. She served on the WLALA Board of Governors for over a decade, most recently serving as the liaison to the federal bench. In 2014, Judge O’Connell received the WLALA Distinguished Service Award for her commitment to public service. The Distinguished Service Award was established by WLALA in 1990 to honor members of WLALA who have brought honor and esteem to the organization by their commitment to public service.
In 2015, the South Asian Bar Association awarded Judge O’Connell its Judicial Appreciation Award for her creation of the “Power Lunch” program. A collaboration between WLALA and the Los Angeles Superior Court, the program is geared to exposing high school students to the justice system. Students from local high schools are invited to courthouses throughout the county to have lunch with judges, lawyers, and courtroom professionals, and are encouraged to consider careers in law or in the many professions that support the court system. After hearing from many courtroom professionals, the young students play a game created by Judge O’Connell called “Legal Jeopardy” – much like the game of Jeopardy but where all the questions and answers are based on the justice system. The students always loved playing the game with Judge O’Connell, and they were transformed through the process. Students would arrive not knowing why they were in a courthouse, but would leave full of new possibilities for their futures. Since its inception, well over 2000 young people have participated in the program. Each and every one of those students left the courtroom knowing and appreciating the legal system a bit better than before. Significantly to Judge O’Connell, each and every one of those students also left the courtroom knowing exactly who in the courtroom had gone to UCLA and who had gone to “one of those other schools.”
Upon the passing of Judge O’Connell, the National Association of Women Judges issued the following statement:
Judge O’Connell was a brilliant, hard-working and fair judge who was dedicated to the cause of justice. She loved educating her fellow judges on various topics, including use of technology in court, which was her passion. She was an incredible educator with the most wonderful sense of humor. She taught new judges at the California B.E. Witkin Judicial College for nearly 13 years and also taught many law students at various law schools in Los Angeles. Few judicial officers have contributed to the California Justice system and judicial education as much as Judge O’Connell. . . . . She was loved by all who crossed her path. She was truly a beautiful and compassionate human being with an immense energy. She also touched many during her lifetime with the generosity of her soul. We will all greatly miss her.
Judge O’Connell’s ability to effectively mentor and teach was grounded in her infinite faith in young people. She believed in them, and believed in their potential to improve the world. She translated this belief into a passion for mentoring and teaching that influenced them greatly. This is perhaps her most significant and lasting legacy – the large number of young people she touched and inspired.
As a result of her passion for teaching young people, her belief that they should be mentored and inspired to enter the legal profession and public service, WLALA established the Beverly Reid O’Connell Scholarship Fund. The scholarship will be awarded annually to a woman high school senior who is interested in the field of law or public service, and who was inspired in this career choice by the Power Lunch Program, the WLALA organization, or by a WLALA leader.
Mentor, teacher, innovator, admired jurist, fierce Bruin: with the passing of Judge O’Connell, the California legal community has lost one of its shining stars. Judge O’Connell’s many friends and colleagues can take solace in the fact that her influence and spirit will continue to live on in the lawyers and judges she taught, the young people she guided and inspired, and her fair and wise legal decisions. She will be deeply missed.
Eileen Decker is a WLALA Past President and Life Member.