Judge Lawrence Mira doesn’t usually wear casual clothes to work. But this week marked a new chapter in his life: preparing for retirement after 26 years as the judge at the Malibu Courthouse.
Last Friday, May 31, Mira sat on the Malibu bench for the last time. State budget cuts marked the courthouse for closure, along with nine other Los Angeles County courthouses that could no longer be sustained under the cutbacks.
“If it was up to me, I would never close this courthouse,” he said.
Dressed in a vibrant Hawaiian shirt and khakis, Mira seemed out of place in his chambers this week, where shelves are filled with hundreds of case law and history books and dozens of awards.
Retirement was not a part of the 70-year-old Mira’s plan this year. But presented with the option of transferring to another courthouse in the county system, Mira said he could not fathom serving on a Superior Court bench that was not in Malibu.
“I’ve been in paradise,” the judge said softly. “It’s tough following paradise.”
Appointed in 1987, Mira’s firm presence on the Malibu bench has become a fixture of the local legal landscape. With the closure of the courthouse, Malibu and its surrounding towns are losing an essential local-level service, Mira believes.
“With local processing you have bench officers who are familiar with the communities and what issues are important in the community,” Mira said. “That familiarity is lost in big courthouses.”
“Government serves best when it serves locally,” he added.
During his tenure he dealt with many high-profile Malibu defendants, including Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte and Charlie Sheen, and praises each of them for bouncing back from legal trouble.
“My whole approach was to hopefully get them out of whatever gutter they were in,” he said. “Now they’re all doing great it seems. Charlie’s a little different, but still fine.”
Mira largely credits his predecessor, Judge John Merrick, for helping shape his career as Malibu’s judge and learning to deal with defendants who needed help.
“People addicted to drugs or alcohol are very difficult to deal with … and [Judge Merrick] felt the same way as I do,” Mira reflected. “Your decision-making gives people who don’t think anybody cares about them at least a perception that there’s one person that does. It’s the hope of every judge that by making a decision it takes someone down a path which brings them back to health both psychologically and personally.”
Merrick, a renowned figure in Malibu’s cultural and political history, advised Mira to balance “deterrence with compassion” in dealing with cases.
“He was everything,” Mira said. “He was the mayor, the judge, the face of Malibu.”
A portrait of Merrick, who passed away last year at age 93, hung in Mira’s courtroom for most of his time there. Mira said he commissioned the pastel portrait in the 1990s from local artist and friend John Kelly. Mira cleared the air this week and said Merrick’s family will get the portrait after the family expressed concern over what would become of the portrait.
“It’s served its purpose here,” he said. “And [Kelly] always intended for it to go to his family.”
At some point, though, Mira hopes the portrait will be on display at Pepperdine, where Merrick taught at the law school and where Mira continues to teach a course on trial advocacy.
“It made for a long 15-hour day when I had to go teach after being in court all day,” Mira reflected. “But it’s such a different environment, and the kids these days are so smart. I don’t think I would have gotten into law school today competing with them.”
Mira earned his B.A. and law degree from Loyola Law School, “before it was Loyola Marymount,” and was admitted to the California State Bar Association in 1970.
Before being appointed to the Malibu Courthouse in 1987, he worked as a county criminal prosecutor, a private practice attorney and in criminal investigations.
Mira, although saddened by the court closure, said retirement will likely provide an exciting chance to toy more with a prized collection of cars—a 1934 Ford hot-rod and a 1999 Ford Lighting.
“I’m a gearhead,” he said.
The father of two (a boy and a girl), and grandfather of twin girls, said he also hopes to fulfill a lifelong goal of learning to play the trumpet. He began lessons a few weeks ago. His wife of 25 years is also working on getting Mira to learn how to ride a horse at their Malibou Lake home.
Retirement may not be permanent, though.
“If they ever reopen the courthouse, I’d come back.”