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July 11, 2005

Compton judge dispenses justice with compassion

By Jennifer McNulty

Kelvin Filer grew up in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1960s, and he says his home was always abuzz with conversations about civil rights and the struggle for racial equality.

Kelvin Filer earned a B.A. in politics from UCSC in 1977 and graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.
Photo: Hugh Williams

"My parents were both civil rights activists, and as a child, I'd listen in when the adults were talking strategy," recalls Filer. "Their discussions always ended the same way, asking 'What do the lawyers say? Let's run this by the attorneys.' That's when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer."

He was in the third grade. Today, Filer is a highly regarded judge in the Compton district of Los Angeles Superior Court, dispensing justice with integrity and compassion.

"No other profession ever crossed my mind--except basketball, and I knew that wasn't going to happen unless I grew," says the gregarious Filer, a diehard Lakers fan who stands 5 foot 10. "If I'd been 6' 3"..."

For 25 years, Filer has been making his mark in court rather than on the court, including arguing a landmark case before the California Supreme Court at the age of 27 that established the right of all defendants to wear their own clothes in court.

Filer credits his parents with motivating him to succeed. His father, Maxcy Filer, started out parking cars for the city of Los Angeles, but he went to night school, studied law, and eventually joined his son's law practice. "My parents encouraged me, and I knew if I wanted to be a lawyer, I'd need to go to college and do well in school," said Filer, who earned a B.A. in politics from UCSC in 1977 and graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

Filer was drawn to UCSC by the Narrative Evaluation System, the focus on liberal arts, and the absence of fraternities. He was one of only four African American students at Stevenson College his freshman year. The contrast could not have been greater for Filer, who came from Compton High School, where most of the 750 students were black. He recalls feeling physically and culturally isolated at first.

"I remember when I first drove up the hill to High Street, and I asked myself, 'Where is the school? Oh, no, what am I getting myself into?'" But Filer loved the school. "Because there were only 150 or so black students out of 6,000, we were tight," he says. "I really enjoyed it."

Filer thrived in UCSC's student-centered living and learning environment. "For me, it wasn't so much about the professors as it was about learning from each other," says Filer. Nevertheless, an experience during the Stevenson College core course stands out in his memory. "After the first assignment, the professor told me I had serious problems understanding Marxian concepts, and that really shook me up. No teacher had ever said anything like that to me before," he says. "I was determined to show him--and to show myself--that I could do it." Later in the quarter, Filer turned in a paper that the professor described as one of the best he'd ever read.

That drive to succeed served Filer well in law school, where he suspected many of his fellow students thought they were smarter than he was. "I wanted to show them they weren't," he says in the same upbeat tone in which he discusses his attachment to his hometown.

"I was born, raised, and educated in Compton. This is where I'm from and where my family is from," says Filer, who visits classrooms every week to encourage students to work hard and follow their dreams. "I may not be able to change the world, but I may be able to change my little corner of it."

After law school, Filer spent two years working in the state Public Defender's Office in Los Angeles before opening a private practice in Compton.

"I love the practice of law," he says. "I love the challenge of representing the underdog, having them put their trust in you as you go up against the mighty people of the state of California. It's a lot of pressure, especially in death penalty cases."

Over the years, Filer represented six clients charged with capital crimes. One is on death row, three had their cases dismissed, and two were convicted of lesser crimes. The dismissals were innocent--"Absolutely," he responds with zeal. But Filer doesn't shy away from the unpleasant reality that legal wrongdoing at times results in guilty individuals being released.

"That's the irony, isn't it? But anyone doing criminal defense work will tell you that everybody has the right to a fair trial," says Filer. "That's what makes ours the best legal system in the world. Our appeals system is designed to make sure any wrongs are corrected, regardless of who was wronged."

Filer's landmark California Supreme Court case, People vs. Taylor, established the right of the accused to wear street clothes in court, rather than "jail blues," which could prejudice jurors. The court's 8-0 decision reversed Alonzo Taylor's murder conviction, but Taylor was never released because in the interim he had been arrested and charged with another murder. Taylor ultimately was convicted and remains in custody.

Filer practiced law for 13 years before moving to the bench in 1993. He misses some aspects of criminal litigation, particularly presenting closing arguments and cross-examining witnesses. "I love catching a witness in a lie. You can hear a pin drop," he says, clearly savoring the memory. "And I love the thrill of victory!"

But Filer relishes his role as a judge and enjoys being a role model. His daughter, Kree, appears destined for a career in law. His other daughter, Brynne, is a student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Although he moved to nearby Long Beach after being named to the Superior Court bench in 2002 by then-Governor Gray Davis (it's frowned upon for judges to live in the same community where they work), Filer is frustrated by media coverage of Compton, which focuses on crime, violence, and corruption. Success stories never get the media attention they warrant, says Filer, rattling off a list of illustrious Comptonites, from tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams to Michael Hamilton, an executive with Ameritech Corporation, and Timothy Wright, a former aide to Bill Clinton.

Add one more name to that list: Kelvin Filer.

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