Old Judge, New Bench

By Holden Slattery

A young man wearing a spotless suit and a tie walks into the courtroom. He looks confident and poised. He could be a lawyer—only he’s too young.

The teenager, Javier, is at the Juvenile Court in Compton, California because of a mistake he made some time ago. Now he’s standing behind the defendant’s table, full of hope, looking forward at the white-haired Judge Michael Nash.

“Javier, you’re looking pretty sharp,” Nash says.

Javier’s mother, caseworker and a court-certified interpreter all sit in the back row of the court. Javier has been attending a school for troubled youth in San Bernardino County, and the school has given him a “very positive report.”

Javier is hoping to go home to his family today, but there’s one thing that might hold him back. He’s still trying to get his GED certificate. He recently fell four points short of passing the test. Now he needs to wait 60 days and retake it. Until then, he’s legally required to stay in school, and the school he’s at is far from his family.

“If he went home today, what would his education situation be?” Nash asks.

A court employee questions the feasibility of commuting from Los Angeles to the school. Nash announces that he will reconvene the hearing in a few weeks to discuss a plan for the boy’s education.

“Can you hang in there a little longer?” Nash asks.

“Yes,” Javier replies.

“This is really a close call at this point,” Nash says.

“You’re doing really well where you are. I think it’s important that we have a structure in place for you when you go home.

“Keep up the good work. You look great. I hope the next step is college,” Nash says. Then he looks at Javier’s supporters in the back row and says, “I really like this report. Congratulations to you, mother.”

It’s late March, and it’s only Nash’s fourth week as a sitting judge in the Juvenile Court. But in this court system, Nash is a vet. He was the presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s juvenile court system for almost 30 years before retiring on January 15.

He had shown interest in taking a lead as the county’s Director of Child Protection, a new office created after recommendations by a blue ribbon commission established to overhaul L.A.’s child protection system. But when the Board of Supervisors dithered on hiring him, he recalibrated his sights.

For a couple of months, he enjoyed relaxing at home with his puppy, doing projects, and watching TV shows that had never fit his schedule in years past.

But Nash wanted more than a cozy seat on the couch. He applied for California’s Assigned Judges Program, which assigns retired judges to benches where they are needed. Nash was appointed to the Juvenile Court in Compton. He now sits in Judge Donna Groman’s courtroom on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays while Groman does administrative work.

As presiding judge, Nash was responsible for all of the delinquency courts and dependency courts in Los Angeles County—more than 40 courtrooms in total. In delinquency courts such as Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court, a judge determines whether children have broken laws and takes corrective action. In dependency courts, a judge decides whether children have been victims of maltreatment. Before being elected as presiding judge, Nash worked in a dependency court. This is his first time working on the delinquency side of the county’s vast judicial system for minors.

“This is a new experience for me, and it’s great,” Nash says in Groman’s office during a break. “This court is really a hybrid between two systems.”

“On the front end of this process, it’s like a criminal court because kids are charged with crimes and you have to deal with that. But once you get to resolve that issue, it’s the same thing we do on the dependency side. We have to work with these kids and their families to ensure that they’re in stable settings and getting the services they need to become productive members of the community.”

In three decades as presiding judge for the county, Nash formed new protocols for the juvenile courts, such as the types of reports probation officers must submit about kids. One aspect of this job that Nash enjoys is the opportunity to see to what extent those have been implemented.

“On some of these, it’s clear that they’re not, and I’m not letting them off the hook,” Nash says. “That was my [mode of operation] in my years that I sat in the dependency court. I drove them crazy over there. And some of them appreciated it, some of them didn’t. But if you’re going to do this job there’s no point in doing it in a half-ass way.”

While being stringent on lawyers and probation officers, Nash is trying to set a friendlier tone with children and their families.

“One thing you like about this job in this court, or even in the dependency court,” Nash says, “is the opportunity to talk to kids and families and hopefully scold them as necessary, encourage them when you can, and hopefully you get through to some of them and make a difference.”

Nash first launched his law career in a different lane. He was a criminal prosecutor who spent two years co-prosecuting the Hillside Strangler in the longest U.S. criminal trial that led to a conviction of the defendant.

Criminal trials gave Nash prominence, but not fulfillment.

“I could prosecute a heinous murderer and at the end of the day that murderer would be put away for life, and I can feel satisfied for having done my job right,” Nash says. “But at the end of the day, there’s nothing to celebrate there because it’s human tragedy all around.”

When Nash became a superior court judge, he told the presiding judge of the superior court that he wouldn’t mind a juvenile court assignment because he thought it was possible to get more done there. Nash became presiding judge of the juvenile court in 1990.

“It was like being a kid in a candy store because I immediately said ‘wow, we have incredible potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people in this place,’” Nash says. “And quite frankly this system still has a lot of potential. It’s never lived up to its potential, which is what I’ve been battling…But still we end up helping a lot of people.”

Nash has been outspoken and at times critical of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and its director, Phillip Browning, with whom he would have worked closely if given the position of Director of Child Protection. He once wrote a letter to Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks dismissing Browning’s complaints about social workers feeling “hamstrung” and describing DCFS’s problems as a “leadership issue.”

“I have been pretty open and I have been at times outspoken,” Nash says. “I have been critical of various aspects of the system, which I thought was all part of my role as presiding judge of the juvenile court.”

Nash added that his accomplishments as presiding judge were all a product of his efforts to improve communication and collaboration among all of the entities in Los Angeles County that work with children and families.

“I think I’ve done as much to foster collaboration in L.A. County as anybody,” Nash says. “And I think that is far more significant than the notion that I might be an open, frank, outspoken individual.”

Note: The names of some of the people covered in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

Holden Slattery is a graduate student of public policy at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. He wrote this story as a student in the school’s Media for Policy Change class.

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