The flag outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles flew at half-mast Friday as the court where Judge Manuel Real spent most of his life announced his passing.
A judge who was fiercely independent and at times generated controversy, Real in essence had no fear. Among his many strong rulings on fundamental conflicts of the times, he ordered the desegregation of Pasadena’s school system in 1970, unsettling the historic and then-Republican home of the Rose Parade, which had divided its two big high schools mostly along racial lines.
That decision is tangentially related to the many debts this news service owes to Real. Early on he offered some support for the Central District Almanac, a new biweekly newsletter covering the rulings of his court with a staff of two reporters, me and another journalist. The judge sent me a note correcting my use of the term “podium,” with a little drawing of a lectern above the word “lectern.”
I asked him if I could publish the note and the drawing, and he agreed, providing an early indirect endorsement when I was struggling to gain subscribers. That little publication grew into Courthouse News Service, which now has a national reach and employs 300 people.
Ever since then, Real had insisted on paying for his yearly subscription to the Almanac. I got a call a year or two ago from the Ninth Circuit librarian saying she was cancelling the Ninth Circuit’s subscriptions but telling me that Real had insisted on continuing to pay for his.
Well before I started the news service, as a cub reporter for the L.A. Daily Journal, Real granted me an interview for a judicial profile in the newspaper, a rarity for the judge who was not covered evenhandedly by the press. It was my first important profile at the newspaper.
When I was preparing for it, I talked my way into the L.A. Times building and asked one of the librarians in the paper’s then-magnificent and richly staffed library for clippings of articles that mentioned his name. It was clear from a day reading over the clippings that he had a history of sticking up for the underdog, in civil rights cases especially.
On criminal matters, he was seen as a no-nonsense, strict-sentencing judge. So, going against the grain of most of the comments, I quoted a prosecutor who was critical of his at-times harsh temperament on the bench. I set that against a public defender who spoke positively about the judge, saying Real would meet every few months with those he had sentenced to see how they were progressing. No other judge did that, the defender told me.
The defender compared it, as I recall, to putting your head out the window of car. He said you just have to hang your head out there and take the blast.
But the history went back further. When I was working on that profile, my dad told me that he and other teachers had met with Real in his chambers after he enjoined the school district. The meeting was memorable to my father who, as a teacher at Pasadena High School, had refused to teach the advanced placement classes unless the school integrated them.
The school didn’t. So my father ended up teaching remedial classes, a hard lot for an experienced and engaged teacher. He later moved over to Pasadena City College where he taught photo for decades. He strongly supported Real’s decision.
With Real, I saw two personas, the warm and genuine person who you talked to in chambers, and the jewel-hard judge in black robes who strode onto the bench. That was how he learned the craft, others explained to me, and he embodied that strict, old-fashioned, powerful federal judge of yore.
I have heard many stories in my career as a journalist but I always remembered Real’s description of his youth in San Pedro. It sounded like a strong and tight-knit community, with big families and plenty of life’s drama, among the fishermen and dock workers who lived in that port town. As I recall, he started a successful cannery with his brother in San Pedro before work in the public sector became his full-time occupation.
On the road to the law, Real attended University of Southern California as an undergraduate and then took a law degree from Loyola in 1951. Following graduation from law school, he took a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in what was then the Southern District of California until 1955. He then moved to private practice until 1964, when he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District.
President Johnson nominated Real to a federal judgeship in the just-created Central District of California in 1966. Before assuming senior status in 2018, Real was the longest serving active federal judge in the nation and in the modern history in the federal courts, having served more than fifty years as a U.S. judge.
In that job, Real was known as a prodigious worker who required his clerks to discuss pending briefs while they drove him home to San Pedro where he continued to live. Even as a senior judge, he carried a heavy workload.
It cannot go without saying that a few years ago Real reentered the story of Courthouse News, this time with a role in the eight-year saga of litigation between this news service and the court clerk in Ventura, over access to court filings. Soon after we filed our complaint in 2011, Real kicked us out of court, pretty unceremoniously too.
He ruled that the matter was not something to be heard in his court. I knew that Real operated without fear or favor, and even at the time, I respected the ruling as a reflection of his convictions.
Real was a traditionalist in many ways, and it seemed that he loved the old courthouse on Spring Street, as I did.
When I traveled to Manhattan to set up our coverage there decades ago, I wandered into the old federal courthouse in Five Points, which was then under extensive reconstruction. I recall being struck by the architectural similarities, down to the brass panels on the wall outside the elevators, between the old federal courthouse at Five Points in Manhattan and the federal courthouse on Spring Street in Los Angeles.
The refurbished courthouse at Five Points is now back in full swing and we currently cover federal hearings there. While a similar tradition of recovering the resplendent architecture and construction of old historic buildings exists in the Ninth Circuit where the circuit’s main courthouse in Pasadena has been fully restored with a nod to the history of the American West.
So I did not understand why the federal judges in Los Angeles abandoned their beautiful courthouse downtown entirely, giving it over to the state courts. And I guess Real didn’t either.
He stayed on using the Spring Street courthouse while all the others decamped to the new cube on First Street whose interior is so blasted with light and white walls that whenever I go in there it makes me think I’ve gone to heaven. As the old courthouse was being gutted, I talked to a security guard who I knew from the old days, when I worked in the press room on the third floor, across from the jury rooms.
The guard was angry about the politics of the move, and he told me Real was too, staying on as the only judge in the Spring Street courthouse, taking slow, daily walks, assisted with a cane, along its hallways. He only abandoned the place when the building administrators told him in essence it would no longer be a federal court.
I understood that too, as an expression of his grit and determination and refusal to accept what he thought was not right.
The judge, who in many ways embodied the Central District, died on June 26th at the age of 95, of causes that were not provided in a press release from the court. In that announcement, Chief Judge Virginia Phillips expressed the judge’s deep historic ties to the court.
“I am sad beyond words at the death of our beloved friend, colleague, mentor and leader,” she said. “Judge Real has been the heart and soul of our district since it was formed in 1966, and his passing leaves an unfillable void for us, his family, the legal world and the larger community.”
In reading that press release, I remembered that after a much later hearing before another judge in our legal journey with the Ventura clerk, I went out of the courtroom doors and saw Real taking his daily walk along the hallway. I wanted to say hello, but our lawyers, seemingly terrified, steered me away.
Standing at the top of the escalators, I looked back at him slowly heading back our way and the judge looked straight at me. I nodded deeply in respect, and that was the last I saw of the man who is bound up with the federal court in Los Angeles and indeed with this news service.