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Justice Norman L. Epstein, 1933 — 2023

By David Houston | Mar. 24, 2023


Mar. 24, 2023

Justice Norman L. Epstein, 1933 — 2023

"Scholar in residence" of 2nd District Court of Appeal believed law was the "noble profession"

Retired Justice Norman L. Epstein, widely regarded as an intellectual giant on the 2nd District Court of Appeal, died Friday. He was 89.

"He passed away in his own home in his sleep without pain after a long and meaningful life," his son, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark H. Epstein, said.

The only son of a Los Angeles pharmacist and an amateur artist, Norman Epstein revered education and even thought about becoming an academic before opting to go to law school. He served as vice chancellor and general counsel of the California State University system for 13 years before becoming a judge.

On the bench, he taught at the California Judicial College and co-authored several legal treatises with Bernard E. Witkin, founder of "Summary of California Law," and taught with Bernard S. Jefferson, who wrote "Jefferson's California evidence benchbook."

"Norm became the scholar in residence of the court," said Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert of the 2nd District, Division 6. "Like E.F. Hutton, when Norm spoke everybody listened."

Epstein retired as presiding judge of Division 4 of the 2nd District in 2018. He had served 28 years on the Court of Appeal and 45 as a judge.

"Justice Norman Epstein represented the very best of our judicial branch. He dedicated nearly 45 years to judicial service at every level of our branch. Justice Epstein received judicial appointments from four Governors - Governors Reagan, Brown, Deukmejian, and Schwarzenegger - a testament to his fidelity to the law irrespective of ideology," California Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero wrote in a statement.

"Justice Epstein shared his legal brilliance with the next generation of scholars by hiring one-year term law clerks and later inspiring other justices on his court to do so," she added. "Justice Epstein will be remembered as one of our most exceptional jurists."

Presiding Justice Elwood Lui of the 2nd District, Division 2, began his judicial career around the same time as Epstein and worked closely with him throughout the years.

"Justice Norman Epstein will be missed," Lui said in a statement. "He was a brilliant colleague who dedicated himself to a lifetime of public service. He was respected for his commitment to his judicial duties. The work on his many judicial education projects was exceptional. A kind and sincere man who was devoted to his family and friends."

Epstein was born on April 9, 1933 in Los Angeles. His father had a pharmacy at Third and Hill streets in downtown Los Angeles. Andre Previn was a neighbor and Previn, already a prodigy, tried unsuccessfully to teach Epstein to play the piano.

"I have no performing talent whatever," Epstein told the California Appellate Court Legacy Project in 2016.

Epstein was a good student, though. He was valedictorian of his senior class at Fairfax High School. Then he graduated from UCLA and UCLA School of Law.

"I am the recipient of what I still regard as a phenomenal gift. The citizens of Los Angeles and then later the citizens of California provided me with an excellent and free education all the way from the first grade through law school. I'll never forget it," he told the California Appellate Court Legacy Project. "My feeling about public service, which is what I've done for a career, stems, I think, in large part from that recognition."

After law school, Epstein worked as a deputy state attorney general for three years then went to work for the California State University system. The governor chaired the board of trustees, traditionally a ceremonial role. But this was in a time of campus unrest and Gov. Ronald Reagan took a more active role and got to know Epstein, who was the university system's first general counsel.

"The job did have its problems, but dullness was never one of [them]," Epstein quipped in 2016.

In January 1975, hours before he was set to leave office, Reagan appointed Epstein to the Los Angeles Municipal Court.

"I get the call on Friday, the last working day of his office. He goes out of office at midnight the following Sunday. So remembering Marbury versus Madison that if I don't pick up the document and it's still sitting there when the next governor comes in, Jerry Brown, they can do just what Madison did with Marbury's appointment, which is to tear it up. So I flew up to Sacramento on Saturday, picked it up, came back and that's how I became a muni judge in L.A.," Epstein recalled in 2016.

On the municipal court, Epstein held several leadership roles and founded the landlord-tenant division.

In 1980, Gov Jerry Brown elevated Epstein to Los Angeles County Superior Court. He served in several leadership positions and was running in an election to become assistant presiding judge in 1990 when he got the call from Gov. George Deukmejian that he was being nominated to Division 4 of the 2nd District. Fourteen years later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named him presiding justice of Division 4.

Throughout his long judicial career, Epstein took a special interest in continuing education. He lectured at the California Judicial College, serving as dean from 1981 to 1983. He lectured at USC Gould School of Law, and lectured and wrote for the Rutter Group and the California Judges Association. He wrote with Witkin seminal treatises on California criminal law that were published semi-annually, and lectured with Jefferson at the California Judicial College.

"He was like a professor. He lectured on cases. He was known for that," Gilbert said. "I joked that when Norm mentioned a case I wrote, I finally understood it."

Judge Mark Epstein, who was a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP before joining the bench, said people might assume his father pushed him into the legal profession. "It's not true in the way people think it is. He never pressured me. He never pushed me in that direction.

"I saw how much he loved the law... and that love for the law influenced me," Mark Epstein continued. "He loved the law and believed that...when it is used properly can be a great equalizer."

"In his view, the law was always a noble profession and still is."

Epstein was preceded in death by Ann Epstein (Snyder), who he met at UCLA. He is survived by his second wife, retired Judge Ann H. Rutherford of the Butte County Superior Court; daughter Carole of Phoenix, son Mark, a judge on the Los Angeles County Superior Court, daughter-in-law Laura; and grandchildren Rebecca, Madeline, and Adrienne.


David Houston

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