PINK JUSTICE—The Trial of Judge Noel Cannon
(or How I saved the Los Angeles Municipal Court)
By Paul Morantz copyright 2010
Photo Copyright 1967, Los Angeles Times, all rights reserved.
Copyright 1967, Los Angeles Times, all rights reserved.
She kept a live Chihuahua in her courtroom and a mechanical canary in her chambers. She decorated her office in pink to match her endless array of pink outfits and summoned selected defendants there for impromptu sermons by her personal preacher, the good Reverend Blackstone. She once posed for the press wearing a pink mini-dress and brandishing her weapon of choice, a derringer.
She was Noel Cannon, aka the Pink Lady. After being appointed a Los Angeles County municipal judge in 1963, she sought re-election to the bench in 1968, despite a vote of censure signed by three-fourths of her Municipal Court peers and an endorsement of her opponent, Malcolm Mackey, by the Los Angeles Bar Association. Judge Cannon “is a constant source of embarrassment to me and to every Municipal Court judge I know, “ said Justice Joan Klein, then presiding judge of the court in an interview.
None of that mattered. With her carefully-coifed platinum-blonde hairdo and flouncy pink mini-dress adorning a host of Los Angeles billboards, Judge Cannon won re-election by a vote of 485,911 to 360,092, thus ushering in a bizarre chapter in Los Angeles judicial history.
Pretty in pink, it wasn’t.
For the next seven years–before becoming only the third California judge to be removed from office—Judge Cannon often flouted the law and terrorized defense attorneys, fellow judges and anyone else who crossed her path. She once even threatened to shoot her apartment manager, a Court of Appeals opinion in one of her cases noted. She also cursed a policeman who tried to explain that the driver she was honking at was merely waiting for a pedestrian to cross. Upon returning to the courthouse, she had the policeman brought to her chambers and asked a bailiff for a gun so she could give the policeman a “.38 vasectomy.” She settled for calling him a “very naughty boy” and plying him with religious literature.
Eventually she became the presiding judge of the Municipal Court and used the position to wield power, flooding judges who displeased her with undesirable cases, like a docket of all possession of a few joints by teenagers.
But her favorite activity was jailing public defenders, those underpaid guardians of the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. In 1972, she incarcerated seven P.D.s for a variety of alleged affronts, none of which were justified. I know because I was one of them, which is how I became involved in the curious world of Noel Cannon—and in her eventual downfall.
• * *
The Criminal Courts Building existed in a medieval tangle of ancient buildings in downtown Los Angeles, the kind of buildings that still housed manually-operated pulley elevators. High up in that stolid concrete monolith, down an eerie, echoing hallway and through massive double doors resided Division 40, the lair of Noel Cannon. Cavernous and ornate, more cathedral than courtroom, all it lacked were some gargoyles leering down to mock the often strange proceedings below and a crooked sign in bold, Gothic lettering, proclaiming: “Abandon All Hope of Justice, Ye Who Enter.
I arrived at Division 40 for the first time in late August, 1972, assigned there by my boss, Paul James. “James must be out of his mind,” the court bailiff said at that initial meeting. “You can’t go in there.” Asked to explain why, she said that Judge Cannon was jealous of attorneys who looked like me—young, tan, nice dark hair and not conservative-looking. (Her words, not mine.) “She is going to try to break you,” she said. “This is going to be war.”
And war it was. We battled almost daily. Our tiffs drew crowds, as other attorneys and courthouse personnel would find reasons to drop into Division 40 during down times for a little light legal entertainment.
Arguing with Judge Cannon wasn’t a common occurrence, after all. Few attorneys dared to fight back against her publicly, as Time Magazine noted in an article on the Pink Lady. Arguing with judges wasn’t a smart career move and arguing with Judge Cannon was downright suicidal. Good lawyers knew that. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that good.
After one screaming rant directed at a deputy district attorney, Judge Cannon commented that she was giving the D.A.’s office equal time for all her “shouting at Morantz.”
Typically, Judge Cannon would issue a ruling, I would tell her she was wrong and continue spouting case law and statutes supporting my argument long after she told me to shut up. Some judges respected my feistiness; Judge Cannon wasn’t one of them. Eventually, she would threaten me with contempt charges, to which I would typically reply: “Sorry, your honor, no disrespect, but my job is to make a complete record of this issue in case there is an appeal. If I don’t, it can be argued that I waived this issue by not stating it for the record.”
This argument would usually get me a few more words—grudgingly—and the satisfaction of knowing I was getting under her skin. While other public defenders didn’t go to such lengths in battling Judge Cannon, it didn’t take much to irk the good judge. While cross-examining a policeman in a burglary case, Judge Cannon interrupted my friend and fellow PD Tod Ridgeway to warn him not to refresh the officer’s memory about a certain credit card by stating names on various cards. When Tod changed tactics and slipped the actual card name into a question, she pounced, ordering a marshal to handcuff the P.D. “Today’s the day,” she said. “Are you ready?” Reminded that Tod was a diabetic, the judge ordered the marshal to take away his medicine. “F—k his diabetes,” she said, and added, after the marshal returned from delivering Tod to jail: “Did they look up his asshole?” Tod was eventually released before he became ill once I notified Paul James, who took action.
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Few jousted with the good judge as often as I did, however. I remember telling one kid no defendant could get his case dismissed on merits if he was in front of Cannon and he might consider pleading guilty in order to get out of jail that day for time served. She just plain did not dismiss cases. Fortunately for him he did not have to make such a Hobson choice. Cannon wanted to leave early so she transferred us to another courtroom where the judge dismissed the action.
Then came the case that would change it all. It involved an 18-year-old black student accused of participating in a gang-related robbery and beating. Kenneth Williams, who had no criminal record, was hanging out at the alleged crime scene some time after the attack and was arrested because he fit the description given of one of the attackers by the victim. He was brought to court 10 days later for his preliminary hearing on September 25, l972 . Unfortunately, the police had neglected to subpoena the victim to testify. By law, authorities must hold a preliminary hearing within 10 days of the arrest or drop the charges. They then would have to re-file and re-arrest the defendant. The D.A. and P.D. had a gentleman’s agreement to not dismiss the charges when this happened, and then start all over, but to release the defendant without bail. Judge Cannon refused, postponing the hearing for a week to Oct 2, l972 and refusing to release the boy without bail. This clearly constituted illegal detention of Mr. Williams. By telephone (Cannon ordered P.D’s could not leave courtroom even if they weren’t involved in the case currently being heard) I notified James and dictated a declaration which was brought for me to sign.
Later, upstairs in another courtroom, Superior Court Judge Thomas Murphy granted a writ of habeas corpus brought by my cohorts holding that Kenneth Williams was being illegally confined and dismissed his case. The lead detective on the case also came to the court and said that the victim had now advised them that Kenneth wasn’t one of his attackers. The deputy D.A. present then said that they weren’t going to re-file against the defendant and Judge Murphy noted that on his order.
When a marshal subsequently delivered that signed writ to Judge Cannon in the midst of her holding another hearing, her characteristic pink darkened to a very uncharacteristic red. She slammed her calendar against the bench and ordered the deputy D.A. present to summon D.A. Supervisor Gordon Jacobson to her chambers.
Prior to joining the Public Defender’s Office, I had first interviewed with Jacobson, who said my hairstyle looked too “stylish” to be a prosecutor. I looked like I represented the “bad guys” and not “the people,” he said, before summoning another attorney and a secretary to circle me and provide me with tips on how to reshape my haircut. I decided instead to join the P.D., first letting him he know what he could do with his hairstyling demands, shoving it somewhere up his rear.
Now here I was, outside Judge Cannon’s chambers, listening through slightly ajar doors, while she screamed at Gordon Jacobson about her overturned decision in my case. A double dip. Could life get any better?
In fact, it got a lot worse a few days later, after Judge Cannon apparently figured out who was responsible for the overturned decision in the Williams case.
* …………………………………. * ………………………….. *
Rebecca Sandborn looked like a typical, 19-year-old California surfer girl—trim, blonde, blue-eyed—until she started to talk and revealed her New Jersey roots. Like many an Eastern girl, she had journeyed west in a futile quest for fame. Instead, when finally without funds, she found the wrong friends, ones who convinced her to use her innocent good looks to get forged checks cashed. When caught, she agreed to testify against her cohorts in exchange for immunity from the charges she faced. I was assigned to guide her through the Municipal Court portion of the process.
Unfortunately, my new client needed immediate advice for an upcoming hearing and I was one of the prisoners of Division 40 (public defenders couldn’t leave the courtroom). So I asked my new client to come to Division 40, where I could brief her. Unbeknownst to me, Ms. Sanborn had been arraigned earlier before Judge Cannon. When the judge spotted me chatting with an attractive young female defendant who wasn’t on her calendar, she promptly summoned me to the bench. “Mr. Morantz, more than one attorney has been disbarred for amorous conduct with a defendant,” she said before ordering her bailiff to lock me up.
I was released before the day ended after Paul James was again notified. It was nearly Christmas, and while shopping for gifts, I found my dream holiday card. “NOEL, NOEL” it proclaimed in glittery letters on the cover. Inside, it read: “One of the nice things about Christmas is knowing that there are people like you in this world.” It took a while for me to convince Tod Ridgeway to sign the card with me ( I think I said either his signature or his brains would be on the card) and when Judge Cannon called my boss to inquire about the curious card she received, James assured her that we weren’t being facetious. I laughed and told Paul he should have guts to tell the turth; still, his decision to transfer me to Inglewood, far from Noel Cannon, was undoubtedly a wise one.
But Judge Cannon and I weren’t yet done with each other. There was still the matter of Kenneth Williams. In the midst of all this chaos, the young defendant was never informed that his case had been dismissed. He dutifully reported to Division 40 on the date newly scheduled for his preliminary hearing to resume. Upon spotting him in the courtroom, Judge Cannon ordered him before the bench and had him jailed without an explanation, despite repeated inquiries from the befuddled deputy PD., who didn’t even have a file on a Kenneth Williams. When the day ended, Judge Cannon brought Williams back, informing him that his case had been dismissed and he was free to go.
When I learned what had happened, I went ballistic. I started getting witness statements from those involved in the case and traced the chain of possession on the writ that freed Kenneth Williams from Superior Court to Cannon’s hands. I wrote up a full report and took it to Gordon Jacobson, demanding that he arrest Judge Noel Cannon for false imprisonment. He refused, citing the futility of such an effort in light of the all-encompassing protection provided judges by judicial immunity. I got a similar reaction from an attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Nobody wanted to take on a case that could launch a media frenzy and nobody wanted to risk the wrath of Cannon.
Finally, I met with Kenneth Williams and his mother, recommending that they contact an attorney or the ACLU about filing a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations. But they couldn’t get assistance.
The public defender motto is to do everything possible to get guilty free in order to force the D.A. to do his job so skilled that the innocent aren’t convicted. But not long after the Williams case, I began having problems with that credo. I got assigned to Judge Leland Gieler who had just been tried and was about to become the first judge ever removed from the bench. In my presence, he tried to order the arrest of his former clerk for having a glass of wine during lunch with her newly assigned Judge. She had testified against him in the removal proceedings.
I got a client freed who had robbed a man while holding a gun against the back of his head. Fortunately for him, the police bungled the case with an illegal search. My grateful client asked if I could get his gun back. Cases like that—and worse—started piling up; I could no longer be a public defender, and left for private practice.
I didn’t know it then, but I still had one shot at Noel Cannon left. In l974 the California Attorney General launched an investigation that led to a state Judicial Commission inquiry of the judge. That year, Kent L. Richardson, a young A.G. deputy, found the report on her that I had written two years earlier. He called to ask if I would testify; he didn’t have to ask twice.
It had been three years since I had seen Noel Cannon. Now in l975 seeing her, not in pink, but in somber black, chirping into her attorney’s ear like any other criminal defendant, I felt a surprising sense of remorse. This was justice on trial, a tragedy that existed for far too long and caused so much needless suffering, because nobody wanted to deal with it. If I felt good at all, it was because I had contributed something that helped change that dynamic. She was found guilty of 21 acts of willful misconduct and 8 other acts constituting conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
The only negative from the experience was at the time of her removal from the bench, she was defended publicly by Los Angeles Police Chief Edward Davis who said Cannon was a victim of a vendetta by vindictive public defenders because Cannon had a “belief in God. ” He accused PD’s of systematically plotting to destroy her. I knew then that while in life you might have moments of justice there is no victory ever over human psychology nor ability to guarantee the best in the positions of legal power.
* * *
The issue of judicial immunity remains controversial. The Commission on Judicial Performance, established in 1960, is the independent California state agency responsible for disciplining judges and investigating complaints of judicial misconduct and judicial incapacity. In November 1976, California voters passed Proposition 7, renaming the agency the Commission on Judicial Performance and adding provisions for the removal or retirement of a Supreme Court justice. Private admonishment, a sanction to be imposed by the Commission rather than the Supreme Court, was added.
In 1988 Proposition 92 gave the Commission authority to open hearings and. Public reproval (reprimand) was added as an intermediate sanction, between censure by the Supreme Court and private admonishment by the Commission. Proposition 190 in 1994 mandated open hearings on judge’s misconduct, conferred the authority for censure and removal on the Commission, rather than the Supreme Court, and transferred the authority for promulgating rules governing the Commission from the Judicial Council to the Commission. The membership of the Commission was increased to eleven members and its composition changed to three judges, two lawyers and six citizens, increasing the power of the commission over judicial conduct.
In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Mireles vs. Waco, that an attorney couldn’t sue a judge for battery and personal injury after he was beaten by police who had been ordered by the judge to find him and bring him to court. But, the court continued, if there was evidence a judge authorized and ratified the police officers’ use of excessive force, such judge acted in “excess of his authority.” The ruling would seem to open up judges to civil lawsuits in cases where they exceed their authority, as in the Kenneth Williams case.
* * *
I never heard again from Kenneth Williams but somehow believe he had a good life. Becky Sanborn, a decade later died, in New Jersey of cancer. We had stayed in touch over the years and she had called to say goodbye when death neared.
Malcom Mackey was elected to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1978, serving as presiding judge in 1985, and was elected to the Superior Court in 1988. He had an extinguished career and I have been before him many times.
Tod Ridgeway went on to become mayor of Newport beach and served six years on the Newport Beach Planning Commission and eight on the City Council before stepping down in 2006 due to term limits. His reign was marked by allegations of conflict and questionable acts. One reporter wrote: “Tod, as a prominent journalist in Orange County once told me, newspaper writers love colorful characters and you were as colorful as it comes.” He is now a real estate developer.
By 1975 Gordon Jacobson became the Assistant District Attorney, capable of becoming the head man if anything happened to the elected DA.
I wrote Paul James in the early 80’s thanking him for being my first boss and for all that I learned from him. He wrote back that it was nice I was a “corporation” now. It was our last communication. He eventually retired, the public defender office being his life time career.
Kent Richland became a founding partner in the premiere appellate firm of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland. We remain friends to this day, Ken being the advisor on most appeals I was ever involved in. He arranged for me to write a paper for and give a presentation on behalf of the American Bar Association on Religion, Torts and the Law. Kent was recently named a Los Angeles Super lawyer.
I went on to be known for my decade-plus fight with Synanon and a career of litigating against “cults” and psychotherapists who had sex with patients. I was pro bono appellate counsel in Molko vs Superior Court, where the California Supreme Court in l988 established the right to sue for brainwashing. Illness force my retirement in 2004.
Not much was heard from the flamboyant Noel Cannon in the legal world after her removal from the bench. She died a recluse in 1998.