Meet OLLI member: John Harris

harris2John D. Harris is a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, and a member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

John originally wanted to be a sports writer, and at Los Angeles High School he became a high school sports reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner and worked as a copy boy for the L.A. Daily News – two newspapers which no longer exist. At the Daily News, he earned $25 a week. But when he found out the city editor, a Stanford graduate and a 20-year veteran, only made $100 a week, he thought seriously about pursuing a career in journalism.

As a college freshman at UCLA, he took a political science class with a professor who encouraged him to change his goals from journalism to political science. But because he was living at home, he didn’t really feel part of the college environment, and he transferred to Berkeley where he moved into a student co-op with 300 students from around the world. One of his political science professors gave his students a choice to either write a term paper or do precinct work, and John enthusiastically chose to work for the local Democratic Party. Because his precinct had a 97.5% election turn-out rate, the highest turn-out in Alameda County in 1954, he was invited to attend the next state-wide Democratic Party convention. Not only did he attend, but he also formed the Young Democratic Club at Berkeley.

At that time, the University of California had a rule which prohibited political speakers on campus. This was during the era when academic freedom was under attack. In 1956 Adlai Stevenson was again running for president against President Eisenhower. The University Young Democrats, and the regular Democratic Club in Berkeley rented a sound truck with a microphone on it, pulled the flatbed truck up to the edge of campus and 10,000 students spread out on the grass were able to listen to Stevenson speak.

After graduating with Phi Beta Kappa Honors, John went to Boalt Law School at UC Berkeley.

“Although I was a good undergraduate student, in law school I was just average,” he said. “Everybody was so smart. On the first day of law school, the dean said: ‘Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won’t be here next year. Law school made it so unpleasant and frightening, many students would say, ‘I hate this. I’m not going to stick it out. I don’t need this aggravation. I quit.’ We’d have a class that started with 185 students and wound up with only about 100. During the first year, you’d come back from Thanksgiving vacation and ten or fifteen seats were empty. People just never came back. It was the same thing after Christmas vacation and the same thing after the semesters. You weren’t merely competing to learn the law; you were competing against your fellow classmates. Most of us, if we were honest about it, hated law school, but we stuck it out. We found later that the practice of law was so much more rewarding and gratifying than the study of law.”

After law school, he went to work for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office as a criminal prosecutor. He also was appointed as the first special prosecutor for consumer fraud cases. Ten years later, he became a civil defense lawyer, defending the city in auto liability cases, slip and fall cases on public sidewalks, dangerous conditions, and police cases involving excessive force and wrongful death.

After 13 years of trial experience and handling over 500 jury trials, he applied and was elected as a Municipal Court Commissioner in 1973. Commissioners are subordinate judicial officers who have all of the power of a judge, provided that the parties stipulate to their hearing the case. After 11 years as a Municipal Court Commissioner, he decided to “take destiny into his own hands” and run for judicial office. He was elected twice, first to the Municipal Court in 1984, then to the Superior Court in 1998. Many of the friends he had made through years in college, law school, and working in local politics supported him in his judicial campaigns. As a Superior Court Judge from 1998 to 2004, he handled both civil and felony criminal cases (murder, robbery, rape, burglary, gang violence, carjacking, arsons, and kidnapping).

“The lawyers were much better in civil cases,” he said. “There were more interesting legal issues. There was more legal research to be done. In criminal cases, the defenses were usually not that the guy didn’t do it (because there were witnesses who saw them do it, as well as the results of chemical tests, fingerprints, and scientific evidence). There were usually procedural defenses in criminal cases, such as: was his confession coerced? Did the police have probable cause to detain him? Was there an illegal search and seizure which resulted in finding the drugs?

He tried medical malpractice cases, in which he thought a doctor was negligent in treating the injured plaintiff, and he would’ve awarded damages to the injured plaintiff, but when the jury decided in favor of the doctor, the plaintiff got nothing, and was stuck with the court costs.

“But in the vast majority of cases, the jury does get it right,” he said. “Being a judge is a great job, I loved it, and I looked forward going to work. The longer you do it, the easier it is to make decisions. When I first started out, another judge told me my job was not to be right. ‘Nobody’s right all the time. You’re going to be right most of the time. Your job is to make decisions. That’s what the appellate court is for. If you made a serious mistake, they will review it.’ Somebody once said, ‘An appellate judge sits on top of the mountain. A trial judge is down in the trenches fighting in hand-to-hand combat, in the middle of the dirt, blood, sweat and tears. Then after the battle is over, the appellate judge comes down in to the valley and shoots the wounded.’”

His wife was and still is an OLLI member and introduced him to classes. When John perused the OLLI brochure, he said he just had to take the course, Baseball: The All American Sport in Our Culture.

“The teacher was a nice guy,” he said, “and I told him I still play softball every Saturday, and I invited him to come and play softball with us, and he did for a while until he had to have hip surgery and he dropped out. I’ve also taken International Cinema Series: Italy 1940-2000; New American Cinema: 1960s to Present; and Nazis, Propaganda, and the Jews with Steve Sohmer. Currently I’m taking The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I enjoy instructor-led, because it’s nice to not have to do any preparation for class. You can relax and great lecturers are laying it out for you, and they’re fun.

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