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Los Altan of the Year: Leonard Edwards: A compassionate judge
by Los Altos Town Crier
|Los Altan of the Year: Leonard Edwards: A compassionate judge|
|Written by Bruce Barton - Staff Writeremail@example.com|
|Wednesday, 04 January 2012|
It used to be that a judge’s courtroom was a cold and unforgiving place. The judge simply weighed the evidence, made a ruling and moved on. The lives impacted by his ruling were not his or her problem.
That changed mightily with Leonard Edwards, Superior Court of California County of Santa Clara Family and Juvenile Court judge. Since his appointment to the bench in 1980, Edwards, 70, a Los Altos Hills resident, redefined a judge’s role, bending and even breaking previous rules in the process.
In numerous ways, Edwards showed a judge could have a far greater positive impact on the lives of those who passed through his court. As a result, he has made the Santa Clara County court system a trailblazer that is just starting to impact other areas of the country – even around the world.
Because he has made – and still is making – a difference in the world’s court systems and lives of countless at-risk families, the Town Crier has named Edwards its 2011 Los Altan of the Year. Modeled after Time magazine’s Person of the Year, the annual honor salutes local residents whose work and good will make Los Altos the desirable community it is.
From the beginning of his judicial career, Edwards, born Michigan but raised in California, wanted to work in juvenile court. While some of his peers looked down on that court in terms of prestige and pay, Edwards saw an opportunity to make a difference. He wrote: “It is my belief that in the court system, if you want to have an impact on the next generation, if you want to change lives for the better, go to juvenile court and work with those children and their families.”
His childhood memories of his own parents’ bitter divorce left Edwards determined that children in his court would not go ignored.
“So I set out to change things,” he said.
Among his innovations, he drafted rules permitting judges to appoint counsel to represent children. He teamed with lawyer Pam Hulse to draft a court rule describing the duties of the attorney for the child in custody cases. He worked with the California Judicial Council to increase the terms of juvenile court judges to a minimum three years to achieve better continuity and efficiency.
He worked with county supervisors to create the Santa Clara County Domestic Violence Council to offer better service to victims. With Nora Manchester, he co-founded Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, introducing the idea of caring volunteers serving as advocates for children in the courts. He resolved tensions and improved communications between the courts and social-services workers through the founding of an annual “Behind the Bench” conference, thereby reforming the handling of court clients.
Communication, passion, innovation and empathy are among Edwards’ main ingredients for success. He’s well-liked and respected by courtroom clients as well as judicial colleagues. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like him.
Edwards’ influence is so widespread that when he retired in 2006 after 26 years on the bench, the new position of consulting judge was created for him. He now travels throughout the world spreading the gospel of improving court systems to create better outcomes for children and families.
A prolific author and filmmaker, Edwards has frequently used media to get his messages across. One film prompted a presiding judge of the London Family Court to work four years to convince Parliament to fund the first drug court in England.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of social action,” Edwards said, looking back on his life. “I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to help improve outcomes for other people.”
Edwards’ parents were influential in different ways. While father Don became a well-respected congressman, it was Edwards’ mother, Nancy, who had the greatest impact on how he led his life. His mother, who grew up in Kentucky, was upset over the way her stepfather treated African-Americans in the community.
“That made a big impression on me,” he said. “I found out early in my life that I care about what happens to other people.”
Being raised in California after the outbreak of World War II, Edwards couldn’t understand the American principles of equality and justice for all alongside what he saw as “the remnants of slavery” still existing in the 1950s and 1960s.
He got involved early. Edwards, at 14, protested a Woolworth’s in Mountain View over its alleged discriminatory practices in the South. In college, he met faculty who participated in Freedom Rides in the South during the early 1960s. He met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was inspired by his book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” While in law school in Chicago in 1964, Edwards accepted an invitation to travel to Mississippi to help African-Americans register to vote. The day he arrived, three fellow voter-registration workers went missing. Months later, their bodies were discovered.
“Working on voter registration and taking cases to federal court was inspirational work – but it was also dangerous,” he said.
Edwards was arrested five times, followed by police wherever he went, had his car firebombed and spent a night in a house, blown up the day after he left. But he was grateful for the experience.
“I felt that I was a part of an important part of my country’s struggle to provide equal opportunity for all of its citizens,” he said. “What can be more meaningful than that?”
After surviving Mississippi, Edwards spent two years on the island of Borneo with the Peace Corps, teaching school in a small village. He was pleasantly surprised years later when two of his students – now a dentist and a nurse – paid him a visit at his Los Altos Hills residence.
Career in law, outreach
On returning to California, he passed the bar exam and became a public defender, which he was for much of the early 1970s. Edwards met a like-minded Stanford student, Inger Sagatun, whom he married in 1971. Sagatun-Edwards also was active and innovative as a researcher, pushing for reform of the criminal justice system to protect domestic violence victims and abused children. They co-authored “Child Abuse and the Legal System” (Wadsworth Publishing, 1995).
From 1976-1980, he was in private practice specializing in juvenile and criminal law before his appointment to the bench. He presided in family court for five years before getting his long coveted juvenile court position in 1985.
The achievements Edwards amassed during his career are awe-inspiring: He founded or co-founded 36 different organizations or groups that help children; more than 50 awards at local and national levels; three books and dozens of published articles; four educational videos; 10 different teaching positions; and more than 500 presentations across 47 states and 11 countries on issues related to juvenile and family courts.
“He’s one of a kind,” said colleague and former Judge Eugene Hyman. “He has a broad understanding of collaborations – he was good at getting resources to our court.”
Hyman said Edwards “was the principal in Santa Clara County’s (response) to domestic violence being taken seriously.” As a result of Edwards’ efforts, the law now requires a domestic violence council in every community.
“He galvanized a movement,” said Hyman, who has known Edwards for more than 20 years. “The abuse and neglect system is different not only here, but across the entire country.”
“Len has a very good way of telling someone, ‘Go on, get it going and I will help,’” said Manchester, who started Child Advocates in 1986 under Edwards’ guidance. “It was sort of unheard of to allow a volunteer to represent a child in foster care. Everyone thought it was risky to volunteer in the courtroom. … Now it’s the most popular program in Santa Clara County. Thousands have been trained.”
Manchester, who served as executive director from its founding until 1998, said the one-on-one relationship between the volunteer and the child feels special to a child who has been neglected or abused, and helps with the child’s self-esteem. Edwards made children feel valued in his courtroom.
“He was always asking kids to talk about what happened to them,” she said. “He’s always been respectful to everyone in the courtroom.”
“Most judges stay (in juvenile court) for a few years and go on,” said Bud Oliver of Los Altos, who with wife, Ann, has been a child advocate for more than 20 years. “He stayed because he felt he was doing some very good things. … I really give him credit for deciding to stay in the juvenile court system. He was doing more than just being a judge.”
Family life, golf
As one might expect, Edwards’ major passion outside the courts is family life.
Recalled son Erik: “One of our favorite traditions that we still continue is our family reunions. Every year, about 30 to 40 family members get together in late July up at a place called Gold Lake (an hour’s drive north of Lake Tahoe). It’s a place that has been in the family for about 150 years, and we all stay in small cabins for four to five days and hike, eat, swim, fish, play Frisbee and sing songs around the campfire.”
Erik said his dad made watching his two sons’ high school basketball and football games a priority.
Golf also is an important pastime for Edwards. Said Erik: “As a kid … about once a month, my father would force me to get up with him unbelievably early in the morning to drive to San Jose, pick up my grandfather and drive down to Carmel to play golf. The whole time, I would complain and whine about how early it was and it made no sense to drive so far to play golf. We kept doing it for many years until my dad ultimately gave up on making the drive because I was such a pain. I look back now and can’t believe my stupidity.”