Let’s not rejoice at Manuel Real’s death. But his passing offers some good news: California’s most troublesome federal judge is off the bench.
While federal judges are appointed for life, the fact that it required death to retire Real is a scandal that survives him. The 53-year career of Real—the nation’s longest-serving active judge—offers ugly lessons about character, impunity, and the impotence of our political and legal leaders.
If those first two paragraphs seem harsh, it may because you read the ludicrously glowing obituaries following Real’s death this summer. The New York Times, L.A. Times, Associated Press and legal publications portrayed his career as that of a judicial giant. Appointed to the bench by LBJ in 1966, Real courageously ordered the desegregation of the Pasadena schools in the early ‘70s, and blocked President Trump’s efforts to strip funds from local police departments that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
“A towering legal figure,” the L.A. Times called him. Stories approvingly quoted a statement from Central District of California Chief Judge Virginia A. Phillips calling Real the court’s “heart and soul” and adding: “His legacy of public service is an inspiration beyond compare.”
Real’s record is incomparable, but let’s pray it’s not an inspiration.
What the obituaries missed was Real’s routinely awful treatment of people in his courtroom, and a decision-making style so rushed and lawless that he was routinely reversed by higher courts. In 2006, Congress even held a hearing about impeaching him.
I’m from Pasadena, and I’ve known Real’s name since I was a kid, given his heroic role in the desegregation cases. So it was a shock when, as an L.A. Times journalist, I covered hearings in his courtroom. I have never seen a judge as tyrannical as Real. He’s the only judge to ever threaten me with contempt. For what? I don’t know. I was quietly sitting, taking notes.
Real sometimes justified his behavior in the name of speed and efficiency. But his behavior encouraged disrespect for the law. He prevented jurors from taking notes or having courtroom testimony read back to them. He often yelled or cut off questioning of witnesses in nonsensical ways.
When challenged, he repeated a bizarre mantra: “Counsel, this is not Burger King! In this courtroom, we do it my way!”
Real “created a courtroom of terror,” attorney Victor Sherman once told the L.A. Times.
“I’m sorry, but he acts like a 5-year-old with power,” attorney Harland Braun told The Nation.
That Real was a menace was no secret, but no one could knock him off the bench. Not his fellow judges who suffered his difficult tenure as the central district’s chief judge. Not when he mishandled a trust fund containing the assets of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Not even after U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals took one criminal case away from him after he dismissed it three times despite their repeated orders that it go forward.
One analysis found he was reversed in one-third of all cases—twice the average for federal judges—and two-thirds of the time in major cases. Many reversals involved his issuing judgments without proper evidence or hearings.
To understand how unhinged Real’s decisions were, consider his 2000 decision to take over a bankruptcy case involving a woman whose probation he was overseeing. Real’s intervention, which was without any legal basis, allowed the woman to live rent-free in a home, costing creditors tens of thousands of dollars.
But the system for policing federal judges is weak—because the system is run by their judicial colleagues. Judges are almost never disciplined. Real escaped with a reprimand for behavior that should have ended his career.
At the time, Ralph K. Winter Jr., a federal appeals court judge, all but accused federal judges of a cover-up. “There cannot be public confidence in a self-regulatory misconduct procedure that allows those closest to an accused colleague to dismiss a complaint by actions that ignore statutory procedures and simultaneously render the tribunal of final review impotent,” Winter wrote.
In 2006, a House of Representatives committee held a hearing on whether to open an impeachment inquiry against Real. But in that hearing, California members of Congress argued that his behavior didn’t constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Real was unrepentant, saying he didn’t care what others thought. Interviewed for one of several L.A. Times stories about his judicial conduct, the judge said: “The best thing about being a judge is the nature of the service you think you’re rendering. The worst thing, probably, is the inability to come down off the bench and punch somebody in the nose.”
So why did Manuel Real in death get the generous judgment that he denied so many who appeared before him?
Part of it is the natural human reluctance to criticize the freshly deceased. Real also was a local boy (the son of Spanish immigrants to San Pedro) who could be charming and public-spirited outside the courtroom; an elementary school is named for him in Perris, in Riverside County, because he helped establish a school district there.
But the story of Real, and especially the whitewashed postmortem version of his career, reveal something truly horrible about the judicial system we rely upon to protect us: its unwillingness to stop impunity among its own. Appallingly, in his later years, other judges even honored him.
There are other troubling explanations for Real’s longevity. First, in these politicized times, we have the bad habit of conflating ideology—Real was a liberal—with character. Second, the American system provides no practical way to remove people who violate norms and abuse their power, be they federal judges or—as the news demonstrates every day—the president of the United States.
Even after his death, those who know better won’t challenge Real. If you’re expecting judges to protect us from tyrants, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.