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Byline: Jenifer Hanrahan Daily News Staff Writer

Vickie Campbell held tightly to her painful history, a stack of battered manila folders chronicling her 10-year legal battle with her ex.

``I've got papers here that say you're the problem,'' the ex-husband's lawyer said, goading her.

``I've got 14 pounds of paper here that says he's the problem!'' Campbell shouted back.

``That's enough of that!'' said Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Juelann Cathey, pushing her chair away from her desk.

The judge wrapped Campbell in her arms, holding the woman as she raged about the trouble with single motherhood.

``I'd like to be able to tell you I can solve all those difficulties, but I can't,'' the judge said, slipping a hand on the woman's back and ushering her out of chambers.

As they walked together, the judge turned back to the lawyer. She wasn't really mad. To let him know that, she crinkled her nose, crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue until he laughed.

Cathey, 62, realizes that in family court, legalese makes about as much sense as pig Latin. Even when vexing disputes over custody and property are hammered out, litigants remain bound by memories, emotions and obligation.

``People are scared, and they're angry,'' Cathey said. ``If I can get through that and let them know I hear them, then we can solve some things.''

So Cathey doesn't address people as petitioners, plaintiffs or parties. She talks to moms and dads and children and babies.

``It's like giving a kid medicine,'' she said. ``If they understand they have to take it, it doesn't matter how it tastes. It doesn't have to be syrupy and sweet.''

In the logjammed family court system, Cathey is known for resolving disputes so effectively the San Fernando Valley Bar Association recently named her Judge of the Year.

``Her demeanor in court is very unique among judges. She is very casual and human and yet stern when she needs to be,'' said Lawrence Sobel, chairman of the bar association's family law section.

Unexpected tragedy

Maybe that's because long before she was a judge, Cathey was a mother.

She married Doug at 18. By the time she was 28, they had six children: John, Rita, Elaine, Mark, Robert and Joseph.

They lived comfortably in Van Nuys. He worked as a heavy equipment operator. She visited neighbors, minded her children as they splashed away summers in the backyard pool and called her brood in for dinners of black-eyed peas, corn bread, okra and fried chicken - Doug's favorites.

``I was happy as a lark,'' she said.

She and the kids were playing board games in the summer of '64 when an ashen-faced foreman knocked on the door. Doug had been crushed by a log while clearing land in Porter Ranch, he told her.

The next hours and days passed in a blur, a maelstrom of grief and uncertainty.

``I thought the sun rose and set by him. I thought I was going to die,'' she said. ``I wanted to die. I thought, `Why did you leave me with all these kids?' ''

Her mother came. So did friends and neighbors and the parish priest.

``It runs in the family,'' Cathey told him, a bit of black humor.

Doug's death was an eerie repeat of Cathey's father's death; her dad was killed more than 20 years earlier on the job when he slipped from a grain elevator.

When Cathey's mother went out to work, a then-6-year-old Cathey learned to fend for herself.

``I learned how to manage,'' she said. ``To lock the door and do your homework and go to school. You carry your key, and if you lose it, you stand out in the rain. You don't lose it twice.''

Faced again with the loss of the most important man in her life, Cathey slipped out alone to buy a black dress for her husband's funeral.

The saleswoman at the department store started chatting about the awful story in the newspaper, a freak accident that killed a man, leaving a poor young widow to raise six kids, 3 months to 8 years old.

``That's me,'' Cathey told her.

Holding court

Life, Cathey says, is like a picket fence. There are peaks and valleys and jagged edges that nearly tear you apart.

``I think God only gives you what you can stand,'' she says. ``I think life prepares you for what's ahead.''

From a black dress to her black robe, Judge Cathey continues to help fractured families cope. Some want her to bandage the tattered remains of kinship. Others want her to sever the ties once and for all.

More than merely presiding over court, Cathey holds court, a grand dame who doesn't need a gavel to wield authority but does so with the force of her personality.

At 5 feet, 2 inches, Cathey doesn't just walk into the courtroom. She breezes in, a whirlwind of blue-eyed enthusiasm with strawberry blond hair, greeting lawyers and litigants alike with slaps on the back and bear hugs.

``You will support your children. You will have pride in them,'' Cathey lectures deadbeat dads.

``If I catch you driving, I will send you to jail,'' she warns those who lose their license for driving drunk.

Then she'll come down from her pedestal, rest her hand over yours, drape an arm over your shoulder, lift you out of your chair and sweep you into an embrace if she thinks you need one.

``They have to come here and take their lumps,'' she says. ``But I can do it with kindness.''

Vickie Campbell was furious at the judge's decision to grant her ex-husband joint custody of their two children. But how does she feel about Cathey personally?

``I just love her to death,'' Campbell said. ``I argued with her ... She could have thrown me out of there, but she knew I needed to have her hear me.''

As the only judge in the county who handles both criminal and family law cases on a daily basis, Cathey's courtroom is always bustling.

She hands out chocolates to the defense, the prosecution, the tired moms slumped on the spectator benches. She stocks stuffed animals for the kids to take home.

She kneads her hands constantly to relieve the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome. Two operations last year left red scars etched from her elbows down her forearms.

Her doctor ordered her to write less.

``I said I could stop brushing my teeth and not work the curling iron, but how am I supposed to not write?''

The judge is in

It seems implausible that a woman as self-reliant as Cathey has the patience to deal with the endless stream of people who need her. But she does.

Even as she eats a sub sandwich and fries during a midday break, visitors stop in to ask advice. A janitor complains he got locked inside a corridor between two buildings. Another man apologizes for being late and launches into the particulars of his case.

Cathey grasps his hand, pats his shoulder and tells him to go get lunch. Did she know his name?

``Lord only knows,'' she said when he was out of earshot. ``He's charged with something or other.''

Does she believe every sad story she hears? Is every hand pat, hug and compassionate nod completely heartfelt?

Not exactly, she says. It's her job to help people through the court system, that's all.

``I cannot have a personal relationship with these people,'' she said. ``The job of a judge is to sit in judgment.''

And because she maintains her distance, only occasionally does she she get truly mad.

``One woman said to me, `Honey. I can't work because I have children,' '' Cathey recalled a woman saying to her when Cathey was serving as the first female public defender in Los Angeles. ``I wanted to climb over the table and punch her.

``I have no tolerance for a lack of responsibility. People need to own up and do what needs to be done.''

Against the odds

After all, that's what she did under the most difficult circumstances. Cathey hardly had time to mourn after her husband died, what with children needing scrapes bandaged and shoes tied and breakfast and lunch and dinner.

On top of all that, she needed to earn a living. She figured there were two fields where she could earn enough to support her family: law and medicine.

She took an aptitude test that enabled her to enroll in law school without an undergraduate degree and began her studies at the San Fernando Valley College of Law, which is now part of the University of LaVerne in Woodland Hills.

She went to class at night while her mother watched the kids, and she studied while they napped.

She was one of only a handful of women in the law school. One professor fondly called her his ``single mother,'' a play on words at a time when single motherhood and law school rarely coincided.

``What happened to me was an advantage, although it sounds terrible to say it,'' she says. ``Everyone thought, `Oh, the poor little widow. How can I help?' ''

When Cathey's youngest son had to undergo a hernia operation, Cathey took her first-year torts and contracts exams in the hospital with a nurse supervising.

Then chickenpox struck. In succession over a period of several weeks, four of Cathey's six children came home covered with red, itchy spots. When the last two didn't come down with it, she made them drink from No. 4's cup to get it over with.

``I did 5 and 6 by myself. Ha!'' she says, punctuating her sentence with the short burst of staccato laughter that erupts when she finds something she's said particularly funny.

Midway through law school, 5-year-old Robert needed to spend six months in bed to heal a degenerative bone disease in his hip.

So the family fashioned a board with wheels and took turns pulling him back and forth to school, even trick-or-treating. At dinnertime, they'd prop him on a coffee table so he could eat with everyone else.

When it finally came time for Cathey to take the bar exam, three days of testing that would allow her to practice law, she wasn't nervous.

``I had to pass,'' she said. ``I had six children waiting.''

One of her early jobs was as an assistant district attorney in rural Colusa County, an area with a housing shortage so severe that she and the kids camped out for several months.

``We had a ball!'' she says.

Still, the transition from easygoing housewife to a steely, resolved supermom didn't come without a price, Cathey admits.

``I think I should have been more patient,'' she said. ``I think I should have read to them more. I should have stopped worrying about who spilled the milk and walked in it with them and stopped and smelled the flowers and had more fun with them and appreciated them more.''

Her son John remembered the change.

``It was like childhood ended that day,'' said John, now 42 and an engineer. ``We had to help with the brothers and sisters and changing diapers.

``My mother was very tender before it happened. After, she hardened quickly to keep from getting walked all over.''

So many things to do

It seems only fitting that a fighter like Judge Cathey would choose to date a man like Art Aragon, a bail bondsman and a retired boxer known as Los Angeles' original ``Golden Boy.''

They met in court years ago. Cathey can sometimes convince him to bring his pet parrot to court when he meets her for lunch. Another day, he stopped by with his face swollen and purple - from liposuction. Cathey put a bag of frozen peas on his chin.

``We're getting married,'' he says, winking at her.

``I don't think so! Ha!'' she says.

Cathey does have a wish list of things she most definitely wants to do. She wants to go to Ireland. She wants to ride in a blimp. She wants a great-grandchild. She wants to see the Indianapolis 500 and Olympic gymnastics.

Her judge's salary is $107,000, but she lives alone in a two-bedroom Van Nuys condo. She drives an '89 American-made car. She wears matching permanent-press pants and tops in bright pastels so she doesn't have to waste time ironing.

``I'm past the trappings of a fancy house,'' she said. ``I'm not pleasured by material things.''

She spends every other weekend in Las Vegas, visiting her mother in a nursing home. She dotes on her 15 grandchildren, something she was not able to do with her own.

Her husband's death was a ``staggering burden,'' and she will miss him forever. If he hadn't died, would she have become the woman she is today? Would she have gone to law school and become a judge?

``I can't answer that,'' she said.

Being a judge ``is not my success or my gift to the world. My success is producing six swell kids who had kids of their own.''

People who know Cathey say listening to other people's problems is her calling. In fact, it is more like a role, a part she has agreed to play as matriarch of a large family and the star in the theater of the courtroom.

``There's an exhaustion that comes with it,'' she said. ``But if I didn't like it, I suppose I wouldn't do it.''


3 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) WILL OF IRON, HEART OF GOLD

Personal tragedy launched her career; others' struggles taught her compassion

(2) Judge Juelann Cathey gives Annie Beckel a stuffed animal when the girl, born with twin sister Elizabeth to a surrogate mother, was in court with parents Graham and Elizabeth Beckel to make Mrs. Beckel the girls' legal mother.

Hans Gutknecht/Daily News

(3) This picture of Judge Juleann Cathey's 1969 law school graduation sits in her courtroom. The child on the left wasn't in the original picture, but she had his photo pasted in to create a complete family portrait.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 5, 1998

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