Judge James Reese '46 is still active member of the bar
-By Gilien Silsby
|Read about James Reese ‘46 in the Los Angeles Times or listen to Reese on KPCC’s Offramp.
Reese has been an active member of the California Bar for 66 years, opening his law practice after graduating from USC Law and later becoming the first African-American Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner. He also worked as an attorney for music legend Ray Charles in the 1950s and ’60s.
“I came out to California while I was on active duty in the military during World War II, and I met Crispus Attucks Wright ’38, who was one of about a dozen black attorneys in Los Angeles. I talked to him and saw what he did, and wanted to do the same thing.”
Two weeks before his military duty was up in 1943, Reese dropped by USC Law Dean William G. Hale’s office the Friday before classes were scheduled to start.
“I said I wanted to go to law school,” Reese said. “The dean’s secretary looked at me, and gave me a test. She corrected it and told me to show up for classes on Monday. That was that.”
After graduating, Reese opened his own firm. In 1952 Ray Charles asked him to work on retainer and later convinced him to join Ray Charles Enterprises as in-house counsel.
Reese worked for Charles through the 1960s, though from 1965 to 1967 received a special assignment from Gov. Edmund G. Brown to head California’s Office of Economic Opportunity. In this position, Reese increased free legal aid from two programs to more than 100. “This is one of the proudest accomplishments of my career,” he says.
In 1970, Reese became the first African-American L.A. Superior Court commissioner. Five years later, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him as judge to the Municipal Court and, eventually, Superior Court. During his tenure on the Court of Appeal and in the Appellate Department of the Superior Court, Reese authored more than 30 opinions certified for publication.
At 70, he retired from the bench to work for JAMS, where he has heard more than 1,000 cases and developed a reputation as a skilled mediator. He has particular expertise in settling personal injury, medical malpractice, business, law and discovery, labor relations, real estate, sexual harassment and wrongful termination cases.
“Judge Reese is a well-respected and seasoned mediator and arbitrator,” says Gina Miller, vice president for JAMS’ Southwest Region. “His intelligence, compassion, generosity and calm demeanor make him a favorite among clients and staff alike.”
Reese grew up in racially segregated New Orleans. He says a pivotal moment came when he was about 10 years old and his father made an ugly, drunken scene at his elementary school.
“I’ll never forget my teacher took me in her arms and said, ‘Jimmy, you’re not your father. You can really be someone one day.’ I always remembered that. It carried me through,” Reese says, tearing up. “I get emotional when I think about that.”
Today, Reese is helping USC to launch an intervention program for 7 to 10-year-old low-income boys attending public schools in Los Angeles’ inner city. He has pledged $100,000 to the effort.
“Many of them are in fourth grade and can’t read,” Reese says. “If you can’t read, you can’t write and you can’t communicate. I think we have given up on these boys and eventually they wind up incarcerated. I think a case may be made that their constitutional rights to a good education are being violated. I want to create a program that will teach these boys once and for all how to read.”