Two years ago, after a heated, whispered argument in a brief discussion at the judge’s bench between a defense lawyer and prosecutor during a tense murder trial, Judge Charles S. Crandall grinned slightly as the attorneys returned to their counsel tables.
“Emotions are running high,” Crandall said. “Let’s try to tone it down, okay?”
The simple remark seemed to relieve tension between embattled attorneys contesting a case involving a slain 20-month-old girl.
Since his appointment by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, Crandall has presided over “gut-wrenching” criminal cases and time-consuming, document-heavy lawsuits.
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Known for his decisiveness, insistence on respectfulness and ability to expedite the tedious aspects of civil litigation, Crandall combines his intensive legal study with a poised approach.
His judicial style helps him thrive, according to local attorneys and court administrative colleagues, in a job that demands emotionally trying, painful and sometimes life-changing decisions.
His rulings have involved prison sentences that take away people’s freedom for the bulk of their lives, compensation for injuries and the legalities of large-scale infrastructure and recreational planning issues.
Crandall, like 11 other county Superior Court judges, has immense power. He’s tasked with using it wisely, fairly and in a manner consistent with the law.
As presiding judge — Crandall was elected by his peers to a two-year term beginning January 2010 — he is responsible for overseeing a dwindling court budget while trying to avoid a courthouse closure. The Grover Beach branch already was considered for possible closure last year.
The roughly 6-foot-tall, bespectacled man with straight brown hair combed to the side offers a welcoming grin, inviting people to speak their minds.
“He insists on everyone being uber-polite in court,” said Jeffrey Stulberg, a longtime San Luis Obispo attorney who has argued cases in his court. “He believes in the idea that people can disagree forcefully but civilly.”
On the bench, Crandall has a way of leaning back in his chair, glancing toward the ceiling with an amused look.
His expression appears to evoke a fondness for the challenge of overcoming legal problems.
Colleagues point out that he’s not one to dither when he’s aware of the applicable laws in a case.
“He’s not afraid to make important decisions on the spot because he’s so confident about what he knows,” said Susan Matherly, the court’s executive officer. “He’s very decisive. That’s the mark of a great judge.”
His 25-year career as a lawyer included litigation against Exxon in the nation’s largest oil spill at the time near Alaska.
And while the former environmental attorney acknowledges an ethos of protecting the earth’s plants, animals and natural resources from human destruction, he has vowed to not allow personal opinions to cloud his legal judgment.
“No judge walks into this job without bias,” Crandall said. “The key is to recognize it and stay as neutral as you can. Trial work is very emotional, draining; it frays nerves. As a judge, you can’t get personally invested. It’s not your fight. You’re presiding over it.”
A former lawyer
Like most judges, Crandall spent years cutting his teeth as a lawyer, which has helped form his strong base of knowledge.
But unlike many other local judges, Crandall’s background is primarily out of the area and strongly based in environmental law.
And he had the unique experience of handling one of the more memorable class action lawsuits in U.S. legal history.
Crandall started his 33-year legal career as a federal prosecutor for 11 years in New Jersey and San Diego, which led him to the prosecution of environmental crimes.
He joined San Diego firm Milberg Weiss in 1989, where he became a partner before starting his own practice in 1994 in San Diego and then again in San Luis Obispo in 1999.
It was during his time at Milberg Weiss that he was a key member of the team that litigated Exxon after the 1989 oil spill. The oil marred ocean waters off the Alaskan coast. His advocacy helped to persuade a jury to vote in favor of more than 30,000 plaintiffs.
The case resulted in a $5 billion jury award in punitive damages before the U.S. Supreme Court reduced that amount to $500 million.
Many of the litigants — fisherman, property owners and indigenous Alaskans — lost their livelihoods and income after the disaster.
Crandall, who was head of the pre-trial team and handled some trial work as well, spent hours upon hours with scientific experts — pouring over the effects of the spill on fish populations and the environment.
The divvying up of the payout among thousands didn’t seem to adequately compensate the deeply felt losses, however.
“It was a heartbreaking loss for the victims,” Crandall said. “The justice system let everybody down in the end. There were so many people involved, and after 20 years, some of the victims and lawyers had died. It was a crushing defeat.”
Coming to SLO
The specialization that Crandall developed in trying environmental law as a prosecutor and as a civil litigator in the Exxon case continued with a major lawsuit he handled in San Luis Obispo.
After Crandall and his wife and two children settled into the community, he took cases including an oil leak lawsuit in San Luis Obispo against Unocal, co-representing the Holdgrafer family — which owned property on Tank Farm Road — with fellow attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu.
Funke-Bilu said Crandall won motions for summary judgment, which would have ended the case if the plaintiffs had lost. Summary judgment is an early determination made by the judge in the case without a full trial.
“As a lawyer, he is without a doubt the best writer I’ve ever seen in my life,” Funke-Bilu said. “Preparing for trial, we worked morning and night.”
Funke-Bilu said that sometimes good legal writers can be “eggheads” in court, but he said Crandall “communicated very well with real people in court.”
“He was able to get the jury to feel the emotion of the case,” Funke-Bilu said of the Unocal case.
In 2003, the jury awarded $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages — tacking on 76 cents apparently to mock the oil company’s brand name.
An appellate court in Ventura reversed the $10 million in punitive damages on appeal, calling that amount excessive, but upheld the $2.6 million.
A faster process
Crandall’s years of close examination of the law and ability to digest massive amounts of documentation as an attorney have served him well on the bench.
As hundreds of cases push through his court each year, Crandall, like judges throughout California, deals with myriad disputes and arguments between lawyers before a final decision is made.
But his experience has taught him that one of the steps of a lawsuit — the discovery process — can be expedited and help save clients thousands while reducing time and paperwork.
Discovery is when lawyers on each side request evidence from the opposition, which can result in lengthy squabbles when it isn’t handed over.
For years, lawyers have had to file time-consuming legal motions citing their arguments regarding the evidence they claimed they didn’t receive.
Now Crandall asks lawyers to summarize their discovery disputes on a two-page form to get them to resolve their arguments informally.
Sometimes, he meets with the lawyers and gives them a preview of his probable ruling if a formal hearing is requested.
“I think his method of handling discovery disputes is very innovative and ingenious because discovery disputes are the most costly aspect of civil litigation,” Matherly said.
Another way Crandall has sought to maintain justice, and serve the public, is through his duty as presiding judge in overseeing a $22 million annual court budget and trying to avoid a court closure or reductions of operating hours.
Crandall said budget crunches have put the court on the tipping point of cuts that affect public service and “slow down justice,” which court officials are desperately trying to avoid.
“Some people think there’s a lot of fat to trim in the budget, and I can tell you that there’s not,” Crandall said. “Right now, we’re close to having to limit court hours and possibly shutting down a court.”
Crandall said he believes the court system isn’t being funded enough for the public service it provides but declined to comment on his specific views regarding state taxes and funding allocations.
“I will say that the system of justice is stressed right now,” Crandall said. “You have to have resources to treat people fairly to keep order in society.”
As the man responsible for hearing cases of great importance and knowing what evidence may be included and how to decide fact- and code-based arguments, Crandall carefully researches the law, attorneys say.
“He does almost all his own research, from what I can tell,” Stulberg said. “He doesn’t refer to (precedent) case summaries or rely on court attorneys to conduct research for him. He typically reads entire cases and applicable legislation.”
Having a firm handle on the law is vital in cases such as the trials of two Atascadero parents in the killing of their 20-month-old daughter. It resulted in a 31-years-to-life prison sentence for the father and a 20-year sentence for the mother.
“These kinds of cases are hard because of the emotional, gut-wrenching nature of them,” Crandall said. “The decisions made affect the defendants’ lives permanently. Yet you can’t bring back the person killed. You watch the whole thing play out.”
In cases that inspire public debate and in which he may rule against public sympathy, or against concerns over environmental protection, Crandall has a way of explaining why he’s making his decision based on the applicable laws.
One of his recent rulings ordered homeless people to vacate Dan De Vaul’s San Luis Obispo ranch by Aug. 5 after weeks of hard-fought arguments. Many believe the codes should be overlooked to allow transients a place to live.
Crandall wrote that “overwhelming evidence shows numerous continuing violations of codes and ordinances” that the plaintiff attorneys say jeopardize safety.
But perhaps as much as a judge can, Crandall expressed understanding in his ruling for De Vaul’s work, saying the ranch’s “concern for the plight of the homeless” is appreciated, but the code violations must be addressed.
And in the highly politicized issue regarding vehicle riding on the Oceano Dunes, Crandall ruled against two environmental groups that tried to shut down off-road riding. But he wrote that groups could legally challenge when development and coastal plans are amended.
“Although the Sierra Club is concerned that the issue concerning the legality of using off-road vehicles at (the Dunes) may forever remain in legal limbo, the court does not agree,” Crandall wrote.
This case in particular is one that Crandall cited to show that he can’t be clouded by personal bias (he believes in protecting the Earth’s finite resources).
He calls that process of trying to come to a fair resolution “an interesting branch of government.”
“Without this process, we’d go back to gun-slinging and walking 50 paces and firing, I guess,” Crandall joked. “This is where we resolve disputes. It’s a dignified forum, and you don’t get that if the judge is part of the brawl.”
About Charles S. Crandall
Favorite recent book: “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand
Favorite movies: “Casablanca,” “Groundhog Day,” romantic comedies
Hobbies: bird watching, hiking, biking, swimming, sailing
Education: Princeton University, 1974; University of Virginia Law School, 1977
Title: Presiding Judge, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court