Wednesday, July 31, 1996
My office has a great view: well-manicured gardens, mountains in the distance, and Suicide Bridge. Erected in 1913, the 1,400 foot concrete structure (otherwise known as the Colorado Street Bridge) spans the Arroyo Seco, a dry river bed that wends its way through Pasadena to the Rose Bowl, about a mile away. Some 100 people have jumped to their deaths in the bridge’s 83-year history. In 1937, a 3-year-old girl was thrown over the side by her despondent mother, who then leapt to her own death. The child survived the 160-foot drop when her fall was broken by trees and shrubs below.
Like the bridge, the courthouse where my office is located is a Pasadena landmark. Built in 1930 as a grand hotel, the Vista del Arroyo, it served the well-to-do who came west to enjoy the sun and sea of Southern California. During World War II, it was acquired by the Army under the War Powers Act and used as a hospital. The building was eventually abandoned and declared surplus. Before it could be sold to the public, my court acquired it and converted it into a courthouse. It is one of the most pleasant and serene places where the serious business of law is conducted.
The renovation maintained the building’s Spanish architecture and all its soaring spaces. The main dining hall became a placid law library. The old gift shops are now conference rooms. What had been known as the Spanish Room was turned into one courtroom, and the grand ballroom, into another. Unlike many courthouses, which overflow with activity, the public corridors here are muted even when the courtrooms are in full use.
Trial judges quip that appellate judges are warriors who come late to the battlefield and shoot the wounded. The joke underscores the feeling of many lawyers that appellate judges are too far removed from the realities of trials, perhaps life itself. There is much to this. Not only do we see cases only in terms of a cold paper record (reading what a witness said is no substitute for looking him in the eye when he says it), but we have little occasion to see life itself, except through our personal experiences. The job brings us to the courtroom only a few days a year, and even then we see only the lawyers, and for brief snippets of time. We work closely with our clerks and secretaries, and communicate with each other, but have little contact with anyone else. In many ways it is a closed and lonely existence. The serene beauty of our surroundings only emphasizes this.
Two years ago, a man jumped to his death off Suicide Bridge. He landed within sight of my window. I did not see him jump, but his motionless body lay there for quite some time as the police and paramedics did their grim duty. It was a terrifying sight, a cold infusion of reality into my otherwise detached existence. As I contemplate my cases and look out over the bridge, I think of him from time to time–a reminder that try as we may, not all human dramas have a happy ending, and real life is never as far away as we might think.