Photo by Sam Hodgson
Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor
A handful of lawyers sat in the gallery of San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor’s courtroom last Friday, waiting for their hearings to begin. After a few minutes, one attorney stood up to ask Taylor’s clerk if the judge would arrive at 9 a.m., the scheduled start time.
“He’ll probably come out sooner than that,” the clerk replied. “He’s very timely.”
Taylor emerged at 9:03, but his reputation for punctuality was still intact. In fact, he was early. The judge sets the clock in his courtroom five minutes fast.
Taylor doesn’t have a lot of time to waste. He conducts himself with an awareness that judges help shape history.
San Diego’s present and future have changed because of decisions he’s made in the last few months. His rulings handed new Mayor Bob Filner key leverage in his current fight against the tourism industry, effectively killed a $45 million plan to remake Balboa Park’s core and forced the region to devote more attention to global climate change through its transportation blueprint.
In each decision, Taylor channeled its historical significance. He even began the Filner ruling by quoting Marbury v. Madison, the case that enshrined the court’s role in protecting the rule of law.
He wrote that his determination that the city broke the law by passing the Balboa Park plan represented “a sad day for San Diego.”
He referred to climate change as “the signal issue of our time” in the case involving the regional transportation plan.
Taylor’s historical perspective comes, in part, from his voracious reading and writing. Friends say he always has a book in his hands — Churchill and Hemingway are favorites. He’s written book reviews for various publications over the years, including one of a Hemingway collection. Lawyers say he reads everything they put in front of him. Taylor’s known for detail in his written rulings.
His research gives him a sense of command on issues, which informs his commanding presence in the courtroom. At times, Taylor’s recitation of laws and court rules makes attorneys stammer to respond. He rarely changes his mind once it’s made up, and didn’t alter the substance of his tentative rulings in the three cases after oral arguments.
“When Tim is right, and he knows he’s right, he’s not embarrassed to tell you,” said Mike Weaver, who worked with Taylor at Sheppard Mullin.
Taylor, 54, declined to be interviewed, but he’s not embarrassed to talk about himself on his website, judgetaylorsandiego.com, which details just about everything he’s done since he graduated from Georgetown University’s law school in 1984.
He lists big cases he litigated over more than 20 years at Sheppard Mullin, major decisions he made after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to the bench in 2005 and links to news articles, including some detailing a brush with fame last year.
Last fall, Larry Wright and his 14-year-old grandson were hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains and found a rusted film canister atop a 12,000-foot peak. Inside was a handwritten note: “Tim Taylor climbed to this peak, Thursday August 17, 1972. Age 13 years. Anyone finding this please write.”
Wright, with the help of a local newspaper, eventually found Taylor in San Diego.
Soon NPR, the Los Angeles Times and others interviewed Taylor about the discovery of the note after four decades. Taylor explained he was on a backpacking trip with his Boy Scout Troop when he climbed the peak, specifically because it wasn’t named on his map (it still isn’t named). It was his chance to make some history, he said.
“I’m probably the first to climb that peak, and I think [Larry Wright] and his grandson are probably the second,” Taylor told the Times. “Maybe we can name it the Taylor-Wright Peak — after the first two people to climb it.”
Taylor also notes on his website that his first two law review articles examined Rastafarians’ freedom of religion. He titled them after Bob Marley songs.
He remains a reggae fan — he’s seen Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh in concert — despite his very un-Marley close shave, short hair and penchant for bowties.
Taylor grew up in Los Angeles suburbs. His wife, Laura Stuart Taylor, serves as a federal bankruptcy judge. That’s not his only familial tie to the bench: Soon after Taylor’s birth, his grandfather began playing a judge on the crime drama “Perry Mason.” As Judge John Davis, Nelson Leigh held court over the cases of the Gallant Grafter, Lavender Lipstick, Garrulous Go-Between and others.
There’s a similar element of performance in the way Taylor presides.
A courtroom observer at the climate change trial said Taylor’s demonstrative listening reminded him of a judge in a silent film.
When I observed him earlier this month, Taylor peered sternly over his glasses at an attorney whose argument he didn’t buy. He bit his lip and raised his eyebrows at a beeping noise on a teleconference before telling the attorney on the phone to cut it out. A lawyer’s request for a weeklong trial for a $50,000 dispute was met with a deep frown.
“Do you want taxpayers to spend $50,000 to resolve a $50,000 case?” Taylor asked the attorney. “Saner heads have to prevail.”
Taylor’s courtroom demeanor has turned off some who find him too domineering. An attorney in a lengthy family business dispute formally requested Taylor recuse himself from the case last year in part because the judge’s gestures of displeasure and exasperation forced a witness to break down in tears. (Taylor denied he did anything wrong, and said it is his job to point out when he believes a witness has given false testimony. He recused himself anyway.)
In a major class action before Taylor last year, Los Angeles attorney Heather Peters represented herself and a few other Honda Civic owners in a dispute with the auto company. She said Taylor wouldn’t let her speak in the courtroom at one hearing because she couldn’t provide immediate proof she had recently reactivated her law license, and made it difficult for her to access the court file to build her case.
“He was the most arrogant of anyone I have ever appeared before,” Peters said.
But others who have argued in front of Taylor said his candor, consistency and decisiveness speaks to his thoroughness. It helps them focus their thoughts for hearings and lets them know where they stand.
“Judge Taylor is never ambiguous,” said Ed Cramp, an attorney at Duane Morris, who received a mixed verdict from Taylor a few years ago.
Taylor didn’t receive the Filner, Balboa Park and climate change cases by design. Most of the time, Taylor and his 10 Superior Court judicial colleagues are assigned their dockets randomly from a computer, and each judge is now handling between 700 and 900 cases.
Though he’s not shy about revealing his feelings during cases, Taylor seems attuned to the idea that he’s ultimately judged on the legal rigor of his decisions, especially in cases that attract the public eye.
Weaver, his former colleague, spotted Taylor eating lunch shortly before February’s oral arguments on the Balboa Park plan.
“He had this long look on his face,” Weaver said. “Like he was about to do something he didn’t want to do.”
Taylor ultimately found the city violated its own laws for changing historic properties when it approved the Balboa Park plan.
But he wrote an unusually personal decision, saying he wished the park’s redesign could go forward.
“A wonderful opportunity may be lost; [preservationist's] opposition to the project seems short-sighted, as the project appears to offer many net benefits in terms of restoration of historic resources,” Taylor wrote. “But the law is the law, and the court is bound to follow it.”
The Balboa Park plan, like the other big issues Taylor decided, had passionate supporters and opponents. But in the aftermath of all the rulings, few picked apart the judge’s legal arguments apart or publicly criticized him.
The Balboa Park and Filner versus the tourism industry debates have moved from the courtroom back to City Hall. Regional planners have appealed Taylor’s decision in the climate change case, but have also been involved in settlement talks. For now, history will note his decisive role in all three.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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