Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bernard J. Kamins spoke at the Gould School of Law on Tuesday as part of “Spirit of the Law,” a guest speaker and lecture series put on by the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
The series, which is co-sponsored by the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics and the Office of Religious Life, highlights various legal professionals who have found personal meaning in their law degrees and have used their degrees in unique, innovative ways.
“Hearing the personal stories of these speakers, we can reflect on our own journey,” Varun Soni, dean of religious life, said in his introductory remarks.
Soni, who is a UCLA law school graduate, reflected on his time in law school and how he and his classmates would engage in stimulating conversation in the hallways but never had a forum to hold those discussions. He described the Spirit of the Law series as a centralized way to hold discussions and an opportunity to show students interested in the law what a law degree can provide them.
Kamins, who graduated from the USC’s law school in 1968, spent 17 years as a public defender before becoming a judge and stressed the importance of respect and character in the courtroom.
“I see my job as not having a big ego but being humble and respectful of the people who have come before me,” Kamins said.
Kamins, who presided over the Rodney King police brutality case for a short time during his 22 years on the bench, has dedicated his life to the service of others, advocating for the treatment and rehab of criminals in place of harsh punishment. Kamins cited the statistic that it costs $35,000 a year to place someone in jail but only $6,000 to offer someone a year of rehab.
Kamins also worked with a prostitution diversion project, which is aimed to help women, mostly of international descent, who are brought to the United States under the belief that they will work in massage parlors. The women are then forced into prostitution by their employers, who have control over their passports and visas.
“The criminal turns out to be the victim,” Kamins said.
Instead of charging them, Kamins ordered the women to complete a program that provided social services and the help they needed to successfully find employment outside of the prostitution rings.
“It’s better to take these people out of terrible situations and put them into ones where they can feel a sense of pride and belonging,” said Kamins, who called himself a judicial activist.
Kamins said he always opens up his classes at Pepperdine, where he is an adjunct law professor, by teaching students that the most important tool a legal professional has is his or her integrity.
“The real thing you have to bring into the courtroom is your character and trustworthiness,” Kamins said. “What I’ve learned is that when someone is in front of me, I don’t need to show how much power I have. I have to show how humble I am and how much humility I have.”
Though Kamins is now retired, he still presides over cases statewide in a program known as the Assigned Judges Program. The program allows retired or active judges to preside over cases that lack judges due to vacancies, illnesses or other judicial congestion issues.
Kamins said he wakes up every morning, looks in the mirror at himself in his judge’s robes and is excited about the work he does.
Students were impressed by Kamins’s work on the bench.
“It was a very humbling experience,” said Melanie Franceschini, a freshman majoring in political science. “The judge had many important lessons to teach us about what it’s like to be a judge, like how you should be humble and not impose your power on people.”