Paul Egly: Lawyer, judge, educator and La Verne Law School founder holds court on his life.
by Elsie Ramos
photography by Zachary Horton
He grew up during the Great Depression, fought on the front lines in Germany and France during WWII and has seen 15 presidents get elected; he has gone from lawyer, to judge, to college founder. Judge Paul Egly has seen it all, and although he says his 91 year-old memory lacks some sharpness, he still tells stories like they happened days ago instead of decades.
From war to the bench
“It was nice to know we got through the war without dying,” Judge Egly says in the plural, but that is all that he will say about his time on the front lines. The memories seem painful, “It was a long time ago, and I prefer not to go there.” As the war wound down in Europe, Judge Egly, who served five campaigns, was presented a choice to remain in Germany or continue fighting in the Pacific. “I didn’t want to go to Japan, so I decided to stay in Germany,” and that is where he got his first taste of being an attorney. Judge Egly worked with German attorneys for a year and opened his first practice in occupational law. He helped people facing challenges between German law and U.S. occupational law. “That was interesting to do for about a year, but then it was time to come back home to California,” Judge Egly says. Back home, he resumed his history graduate program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Judge Egly laughs at the memory of realizing that maybe law school was a viable option. “One day I met up with a friend, and he told me he was going to law school. I told him ‘You can’t get into law school with a history degree,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yes you can.’ So in that moment, I decided I wanted to go to law school. My very first day at George Washington University, I knew that it was for me. After that, I didn’t have an intention of wanting to do anything else, except be a lawyer. I loved it.”
Following law school, Judge Egly returned to California and opened his first United States practice in his Covina hometown, then an orange grove covered area. “My first partner was a good lawyer and woman named Prudence Thrift. We would take anything that paid the fees,” he says. “It was different than it is today. The kids today pick the kind of law that they want to practice. In those days, people expected you to know what you were doing regardless of the kind of case. It was fun. There was a case that came in at four in the afternoon,” Judge Egly recalls with a chuckle and a smile. “A woman wanted a will, and I had no gas for the car ride home. She asked me how much I would charge her, and I said $2. In that time, gas was 17 cents a gallon, so that $2 got me far.” Judge Egly also helped criminals who could not afford attorneys. “I didn’t make any money, but I enjoyed every minute of it.” After 10 years of practicing California law, Paul Egly made the leap and became Judge Paul Egly in November 1963.
The questions continue, and Judge Egly recoils. “You’re asking a lot of questions to an old man whose memory has faded,” Judge Egly says. The playfulness and joy from his voice fades, and sternness takes over, as he recounts the case that made him, as he says, “the most popular four-letter-word in the Los Angeles area.” The affable Paul Egly disappears, and the judge comes out. His hands are folded, resting on top of his stomach. At first he has trouble speaking. His eyes are closed, so the light does not irritate his eye sight, afflicted by macular degeneration. Finally, he gathers his thoughts, lets out a sigh and asks, “Do you really want to hear this story?”
Crawford vs. LAUSD
The story is one where Judge Egly desegregated Los Angeles’ schools with a sweeping ruling. In 1961, Mary Ellen Crawford tried to enroll in South Gate High School but was denied because the Los Angeles Unified School District Board’s policy did not allow student integration. Crawford traveled farther to get her education because of her skin color. In a lawsuit filed against the LAUSD, her parents stated that the school district had discriminated in attendance boundaries, which created a dual school system based on race. In 1954, seven years before the Crawfords filed their lawsuit, Brown vs. Board of Education was implemented with the intention of ending public school segregation. The desegregation effort had not made it to California or to many other states.
Forward ahead to May 12, 1970, when Judge Gitelson, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, concluded that LAUSD was segregated, and that Mary Ellen Crawford was entitled to relief by a mandate that required the school district to desegregate. “This judgment was a sonic boom heard all over the county,” writes Judge Egly in a 2010 article in the University of La Verne Law Review. Legal maneuvering ensued, and “during the six-year period between the appeal of Judge Gitelson’s order and the California Supreme Court’s decision, the case hid itself from public view,” writes Judge Egly. But it landed February 1977 on Judge Egly’s docket. In those 16 years, Judge Egly says that race relations had changed, which made the cases tougher to rule on. “It was the wrong time,” he says. “The NAACP and ACLU were too slow to get the case going.” He says when he received the case, the majority of Caucasians had moved away from the South Gate area. What was once the majority race, had turned into a minority. Judge Egly admits that he was not too familiar with the case when he got it, but this was the kind of case that could not be turned down. “What could I say but, ‘yes,’ ignorant as I was about what I was getting into?” Judge Egly writes. “I knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy all the parties or enforce the mandate.”
Judge Egly realized that the case was going to be very controversial. “With 600 schools and 600,000 students geographically, it was going to be hard to come to a conclusion.” Judge Egly attempted to educate the public on the case, but he soon realized that the public did not fully support it. “I understood at that point I had better get back on the bench and be a judge, and it would be up to the parties to educate the public in their efforts to oppose or promote desegregation efforts,” Judge Egly writes. “I came to the sad conclusion that it simply was not my job to act as the self-appointed public relations politician.” The trial was set for March 23, 1977, just one month after he received the case.
He says he had trouble keeping up with the neutrality of the case. “It was very emotional. The whole thing was emotional. Why should we differentiate people who are poor and rich, when it comes to education?” Judge Egly says with passion and conviction. “Aren’t they entitled to the same public education? The children shouldn’t be denied because their parents don’t have a lot of money. It’s not their fault.”
After more than a year of court dates, appeals, expert opinions and backlash, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. It ruled with Judge Egly and stated that the LAUSD was ready for desegregation. Busing began on Sept. 17, 1978. “I used to get lots of hostile mail, and I thought it was necessary, as a public servant, to answer each of these letters,” Judge Egly writes. “At least 95 percent of the mail was against busing and the ‘dictator’ who required it. I still do not really know why I took the case at all, except I believed in the principles of Brown.”
Founder and professor
In between hearings and witnesses, Judge Egly served as founder, professor and dean of the University of La Verne College of Law. The Crawford case anointed him as a public figure. Despite this, he says, “I enjoyed nothing more than teaching.” In the late ‘60s, then La Verne College launched the concept of off-campus extension centers, central to most universities today. President Leland Newcomer wanted La Verne to be more than just a small liberal arts campus nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Judge Egly was enlisted to help the University grow, and with his experience at the California College of Law in West Covina, he became the founding dean of the University of La Verne College of Law in 1970.
“I did everything, and they didn’t know what to do with me,” Judge Egly says. “I was the dean who said, ‘Yes, you can come,’ ‘Yes, you can be an instructor.’ I interviewed all of them, every damn one of them.” Judge Egly taught constitutional law, his favorite subject as a student and professor, for 36 years. “It’s like a blossom blooming into a flower, seeing them begin to understand the cases,” he says. “You enjoy it with them; you learn with them and try to make it more interesting.” He tried to stay away from combining his life as a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge and a professor. He says he spoke to his students about Brown vs. Board of Education but never about Crawford vs. LAUSD.
The Law School had a rough beginning; it was a night school only for the first five years. It did not have full-time faculty, it did not have its own library, and Judge Egly did not even have his own office because there was not enough funding for it. “The Law School gave the University a hard time,” he says. “It was not an easy relationship with the University. We wanted more. We needed more.”
The College of Law still does not have an easy relationship with the University. In spring 2011, it lost its provisional American Bar Association Accreditation and had to pay millions of dollars to make concessions and re-apply for provisional accreditation status. Included in the accreditation mandate is the charge to significantly increase its Bar passage rate. “You have to have a high Bar rate,” Judge Egly says. “If you don’t, then that’s a problem. I hope it makes a comeback. I trust that the Board of Trustees and the president feel the same. Maybe it will break away, but I hope not because that would be bad for both.” Judge Egly says that all major universities have signature colleges that heighten the foundation school. “UCLA has its medical school, and USC has its own law school,” he says. “Without the College of Law, there is no University of La Verne.”
Judge Egly says that the Law School also is of great importance to the Inland Empire because it is the nearest one for almost 40 miles. With a somber tone and a deep breath, he says, “Either they come together, or there will be many without a job, but we’ll know pretty soon. I would always do things differently than everybody else.” His somberness fades and happiness enters, as his best friend, wife of 28 years and what he calls “the luckiest thing to ever happen to me,” enters the room accompanied by their two dogs. “Janey, do you remember any former students turned into judges? ‘I’m sure there are quite a bit,’” she responds. “Between you and me, I’m sure we taught them all,” he laughs. “They let me talk for too long. They should have cut me off five years earlier; I couldn’t stop.” His speech sometimes slows as he searches his memory, and the pauses between words increases as he keeps to his high level of judicial accuracy, but he does not let fatigue, diabetes or macular degeneration stop him from leading a busy life. “On his good days, he remembers cases, names, and dates,” Shannon Bishop, his three-year administrative assistant says. “He’s like a Rottweiler that won’t let go. He’s just as hungry for the law as he was 30 years ago.”
As the marine layer that covers Laguna Beach begins to burn off, and the Pacific Ocean comes into view, the sun shines over the deck he built single-handedly, highlighting the rose bushes and hydrangeas he and Shannon planted. Shannon helps Judge Egly down the stairs to his den, but it is not to rest. Where most 91 year-olds would be ready for an afternoon nap or lunch, Judge Egly has work to do. “We have to check the email,” he says. For a man who does not care about his legacy, Judge Egly has left an imprint in the lives of many. From the Europeans he helped during WWII, to the woman who needed a will at four in the afternoon to the many law students who looked to him for guidance, Paul Egly will have a legacy, whether he cares or not.