Culver City Observer -

Judge Harold ("Hal") I. Cherness

 

March 24, 2016

Judge Harold Cherness

Somewhere a very special high court is in session and the case being heard involves Judge Hal Cherness, a prolific purveyor of wisdom, justice, and humor, who has been charged with being a genuine honest-to-God mensch. Permit me to offer my testimony.

One of my earliest stories in 2005, my first year as a journalist, was about him, and when I learned that he died March 10 at the age of 93 I recalled how challenging it had been to conduct that interview and take notes while laughing non-stop.

Going through those quote-laden scribbles convinced me that Cherness could have made a living as a standup comic. His steady stream of anecdotes underscored his fond recollections of almost 20 years as a Judge of the Municipal Court in the Culver Judicial District.

He began by sharing that he had "always wanted to be a lawyer, even when I was a little kid. I like to speak. The idea of arguing cases before a jury was very appealing to me. Little did I know until after I passed the bar that I had to know how to write too!"

Making that dream come true wasn't easy.

"I was in my senior year at UCLA in the early forties and had enlisted in the reserve corps with the understanding that I wouldn't have to go until after I graduated in about six weeks, but I was called up and didn't get to graduate," Cherness said.

"I went into the service and was in the infantry overseas in New Guinea and Indonesia as a staff sergeant. While in the service I married Trudy. After my discharge I went back to UCLA and received my BA in 1946. UCLA didn't have a law school so I went to USC to get my LLB. In my second year of law school my daughter, Janel, was born. So there I was. No money, no time to spend with my family, busy studying, and that's when I became a chicken flikker to pick up some money. Fortunately my father was in the retail poultry business so, in between everything, I'm plucking chickens. In 1949 I passed the bar, said goodbye to the chickens, and started learning what life was like in private practice – and it was rough."

Although he hated law school, he loved the practice of law. "I was a good lawyer but a terrible businessman," he added. "How do you charge a friend a fee? I had plenty of business because I knew a lot of people and I got by, but I never really made big money."

In 1953 Cherness and his family, which now included his son Darryl, a toddler, moved to Culver City and he joined the recently founded Culver City Democratic Club. He became President, was instrumental in forming the California Democratic Council, and was chairman of the speakers' bureaus for both. Proudly recalling his active involvement in these organizations, he stated, "We became a strong force, culminating in a big victory when we elected Pat Brown as Governor in 1956."

His role in the Culver City Democratic Club brought him numerous letters from attorneys asking to be recommended for judicial appointments. Perhaps it was time to begin promoting himself.

"A lot of people went to bat for me, including Trudy, who worked very hard on this," Cherness recalled. "So one day I get a call on the phone: 'Are you ready to go to work in Culver City?' I thought someone was playing a joke but it was Governor Jerry Brown, and in 1975 I was appointed Judge of the Municipal Court, Culver Judicial District, and spent many wonderful years presiding in the courthouse in Culver City on Overland, which is now closed."

One case involved a woman he knew very well who came before him on a traffic ticket and insisted that it be heard. They started going back and forth; he kept telling her he couldn't hear it and she kept insisting he must. "Finally I lay it out for her that I can't hear it because we're friends," Cherness said, "so she comes back with, 'I'm not that good a friend!' Of course I recused myself."

Another dealt with a prostitute who had been arrested and kept overnight. When she was brought before him he asked if she could make bail because, due to the paperwork that needed to be processed, her case wouldn't come up for three or four weeks. "You let me out and I'll make bail!" she proclaimed. He and the bailiff had to exert all their control (not entirely successfully) to retain a professional demeanor.

Cherness, who had kept his seat unopposed since his appointment in 1975, decided to throw himself a non-retirement party when he was 70 and follow it up with an official retirement party when his term ended and the position was up for election.

He retired at 72 in January, 1995 on a Friday and went back to work the following Monday in a different court as an assigned judge with assignments that were often for 60 days. His new workload occupied about 60 to 70 percent of the year. It was a very different experience because the civil cases he'd previously heard had been for up to $25,000, but he was now dealing with non-limit cases and "going from $25,000 to $1,100,000 with a jury was quite a change." He finally retired in 2013, concluding a prestigious career that had brought him many accolades and honors.

Following his wife Trudy's death after a marriage of over half a century, "a mutual friend wore me down by insisting that I meet Carolyn, who had been recently widowed." They hit it off. "She's very direct and tells me how it was and the way it is," Cherness said, smiling. "The more I know her, the more I appreciate her qualities."

After seeing each other for awhile he learned that he needed major surgery, and decided it would be a good idea for them to get married first. A friend was a Commissioner in the Culver court, so "I invited him and his wife to dinner with Carolyn and me at Joe's, a restaurant in the Valley, and announced at the table that Carolyn and I were getting married now. What they didn't know was that we had already taken care of getting the marriage license and all the necessary papers. So he asks me, 'Now? How? Who's going to do it?' 'You are,' I said. 'I've got all the papers.' His wife was our witness. The restaurant was full to capacity and no one knew that a wedding was being performed at our table! So he starts out, 'Hal, do you' and I jump in and say, 'I do!' Then he says, 'Carolyn, do you' and she quickly says, 'I do!' And he just looks at us and says, 'You're done!'"

Toward the end of the interview Cherness, then 83, described how his second Bar Mitzvah ceremony had been held the previous month at Temple Akiba, which he'd joined in 1953. "And Carolyn, who had never had a Bat Mitzvah, went through extensive preparation and had her ceremony that same day," he added. "It was quite an occasion, very special, and everyone in our families participated."

The final scribble in my notes was his statement: "It's important to celebrate life every chance you get." And his life was an inspiration and an occasion of celebration for many.

Oh, and in response to my opening statement, the jury is now in and the verdict has been rendered: Guilty as charged.

 

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