Katherine Mader spent two decades as a judge in Los Angeles Criminal Court, before retiring early in 2020. Before that she was the LAPD’s first Inspector General, prosecuted two murder-for-hire trials and served as a defense attorney who convinced a jury to spare the life of the Hillside Strangler. In August of this year, Judge Mader published Inside the Robe: A Judge’s Candid Tale of Criminal Justice in America, which best selling author Michael Connelly called: “a perfect book: engrossing and telling at the same time.” The Judge has granted Crime Story permission to excerpt the entirety of her book over the coming months. You can find previous installments of Inside the Robe here. This is Part 10.
Today I taught an all-day class to twelve new judges to orient them in criminal law. I was delighted to see so many women and minorities.Eight of the twelve new judges were female. When I began practicing law in 1973, there were ten women in my law school class of 140 students. Most women were channeled into family or probate law. Only rarely did a woman practice criminal law. Most of the new female judges in my orientation class today had a criminal law background.
The diversity of our new bench officers is a strong reflection of the philosophy of Governor Jerry Brown. Prior governors in a “tough on crime” era almost always appointed prosecutors. The public gravitated toward judges whose background was locking people up. Things have changed.
When I passed the bar, my dream was to become a public defender. It was the early 1970s, and I felt close to the underdog. I could never see myself representing “The Man.” I had long, braided hair and wore small round gold wire-framed hippie glasses. Yet, when I applied in 1973 to be a Sacramento County assistant public defender, the front desk wouldn’t accept my application. The woman at the counter said that they didn’t hire women. “We tried one once and she didn’t work out.”
I was hired after locating the two head public defenders at their regular steak and drinking tavern. I barged into their space, introduced myself, and volunteered to work for free. The surprise of my presence and request must have startled them into accepting my offer. It took several months of volunteering, but I was finally hired. Older male public defenders delighted in suggesting, “Kathy, I’ve got this guy coming to court charged with ten counts of oral copulation on an eight-year-old. Could you please visit him in the lockup, and tell him you’ll be appearing for him today?” They thought that assigning me to represent defendants accused of forcible sex acts was hilarious and would make me quit. They didn’t appreciate my affinity for criminal law and likely didn’t envision that forty years later I’d still be in the mix.
Public Defender supervisors never said that women had no place in their office. They gave lip service to equality between the sexes. Supervisors had been heard to advocate that women should be allowed to lunch at the Drake Club, an all-male establishment. Each had stories to tell about a successful woman lawyer they knew. But they would entertain others by reporting, “She just turned those baby-blue eyes on the judge and it was all over—old Joe doesn’t have her kind of ammunition,” or “That jury couldn’t resist when she cried wet tears for the creep she defended.”
Even after doing my time for several years as a public defender in the early seventies, I was not assigned a murder trial. Perhaps the supervisors didn’t believe that a woman in her twenties could handle a murder trial as well as a man. “Client control” was a phrase that supervisors liked to throw around. It was rumored that in-custody defendants wanted a female attorney in the beginning to look at her, but when it came time for trial, they insisted on a man. Numerous stories went around about male defense attorneys who screwed up. Those stories were told once and forgotten. Tales about women attorneys never got stale.
I never understood why women lawyers were excluded from anything. I was always one of the boys. My Viennese dad and German mother were adamant that their only child have a profession. “We are not complaining you are getting married at nineteen. But you never know if your marriage will fail. And then you’ll need a career to fall back on. Get a teaching credential. Become a lawyer. Just make sure you’re financially able to take care of yourself.” At the time, I saw it as one more bit of Jewish doomsday advice—life as you know it can fall apart at any moment. Prepare for the worst. Always have one skill you can fall back on—it can save your life.
At the time, I argued furiously with them. “Norman and I will be together forever. Don’t be so negative.” Norman and I both wanted to become journalists. “Journalism is not a reliable profession like the law. And you don’t want to be traveling around the country writing articles while Norman is left alone at home, do you?” Predictions about the future of journalism at that time were rosy. Ultimately, Norman and I went to law school at University of California at Davis together. We are still married.
I’ve always thought that I veered toward criminal defense because I could please my parents and at the same time stick a finger in their eye. They would have to explain to their social friends that their daughter represented criminals and their friends would be horrified. My interest in criminal law, however, predates annoying my parents. I wanted to become Nancy Drew, my female heroine of mystery novels. For my junior high school journalism class interview project, when others were interviewing their grandparents, I interviewed the gangster Mickey Cohen, whose sister owned the Carousel Ice Cream Parlor in my neighborhood. My journalism teacher, Mrs. Jordan, called my parents in a frenzy. “Do you know who your daughter is associating with? Mickey Cohen, the gangster!”
When I returned to Los Angeles from Sacramento with Norman in 1980, it was unusual to be a female attorney with six years of criminal defense experience. That’s how I ended up as the token female on the defense team representing Angelo Buono, one of the two accused “Hillside Stranglers.” I sat next to him, smiled at him, and touched his bony arm when we talked. I also handled motions and investigations and cross-examination in court. But the public and the press kept fixating on the same question: “How can a young woman have any relationship with a monster charged with raping and strangling ten women?”
Although the field of law gradually added more women (today, more than half of law school students are women), there’s a gap between my experiences and those of today’s women. For example, one day I learned that Betty Friedan died. While I wouldn’t call her my hero, she did raise my consciousness and that of thousands of other women about inequalities in the manner women were treated in society. She is widely credited with sparking the women’s revolution, along with Gloria Steinem.
The day she died, my entire courtroom was female: the attorneys, bailiff, clerk, and court reporter. I told them that Betty Friedan died. “Do you know who she is?” I asked. “I think I had to read an article she wrote once when I was in college,” said the female public defender. The others in court had “heard the name” but couldn’t place her.
Returning home that night, I was annoyed that an icon of the women’s movement, without whom many of the women might not even have their jobs, would be so irrelevant to the women in my court. My teenage son put it into perspective for me: “Isn’t this what you wanted, Ma? It’s good that they don’t ascribe their success to any one person. It sounds like you want these women to thank you. They take it for granted that they can do anything and be anyone they want. Isn’t that what you wanted anyway?”