The Honorable Paul W. Egly 

Story by MARRIE STONE

“Honorable” was the word conferred on Paul W. Egly in 1963 by Governor Ronald Reagan when he was appointed to the Superior Court of Los Angeles. But being declared honorable by judicial appointment is one thing. Being an honorable man is quite another. It comes from within. The decisions Judge Egly has made throughout his life, both on the bench and off, are consistently one thing…honorable.

Born in 1921 in Covina, a small town then ripe with oranges and discrimination, Judge Egly remembered the days of segregated swimming pools – no Latinos or African Americans allowed. The town had an ordinance making it illegal for black people to stay over night. 

Growing up steeped in racial intolerance and well-versed in history (he obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA), Judge Egly had strong opinions about discrimination. Those opinions would become the subject of excruciating controversy later in his career. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The sacrifices required of war

Judge Egly was drafted into WWII and sent to Germany during the war’s climax, though he rarely speaks of his time there. “A few days ago I asked Paul, ‘Don’t you want to tell me more about it?’” his wife of 34 years, and former Mayor of Laguna Beach, Jane Egly, tells me as we all sit together in their north Laguna home. “He was sitting in his chair. He bent way over, faced the floor, and said, No.” Jane pats her husband’s arm. “You can stick with that, dear.”

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Photo courtesy of Jane Egly

Paul Egly – a handsome young man in uniform

There was, however, one war story that stood out. Judge Egly was tasked with evacuating all the Americans from an East German hospital shortly after the war ended. A Russian general in charge of the operation ordered that no American would leave the hospital until everyone else had been evacuated. “He didn’t even raise his head when he said it,” Jane says. It took Paul nearly four weeks, working alone, to get everyone out. By the time he finished his job, Russians were outside, hanging people from the lampposts. He told Jane there was nothing to do but walk away.

Judge Egly listens to his wife tell this story before saying, “It’s more fun when we get back to California.”

But it took Judge Egly a while to return to California. First, there was law school at George Washington University (GW). Then he returned to Europe after the war, working in the US Occupation Courts in Germany, before opening a practice in Covina.  

A heart for justice, a mind for law

Judge Egly’s superior reputation on the Superior Court was no surprise. He took to the law instantly, knowing within two days of arriving at GW he’d landed on the right career. Jane says Judge Egly was known for his ability to distill massive amounts of material, absorb all the arguments made by opposing sides, and quickly hone in on the central issue. He applied his legal mind to a variety of cases, as he was willing and able to tackle anything that came through his door.

In a 2013 interview for La Verne Magazine, Judge Egly recounts a story from his early years practicing law. “In those days, people expected you to know what you were doing regardless of the kind of case. It was fun. There was a case that came in at four in the afternoon,” he said. “A woman wanted a will, and I had no gas for the car ride home. She asked me how much I would charge her, and I said $2. In that time, gas was 17 cents a gallon, so that $2 got me far.” Judge Egly even took criminal cases on a pro bono basis. “I didn’t make any money, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”

After a decade practicing law, Paul Egly was appointed by Governor Pat Brown to the Municipal Court in 1963 and, later that year, by Governor Ronald Reagan to the Superior Court of Los Angeles. He would serve on the bench until 1981.

The bus stopped here:

Crawford v. Los Angeles Unified School District

 Arguably the most seminal, and tragic, case of Judge Egly’s career came nearly a quarter of a century after Brown v. Board of Education. He was about to embark on a painful life lesson: doing the right thing would not always be rewarded. 

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Photo courtesy of UCLA/Photo by Joe Kennedy

Paul Egly seen through a school bus window

In the early 1970s, Egly successfully ordered the San Bernardino school district to align itself with the Brown decision and desegregate its schools. Several aspects of Judge Egly’s desegregation ruling in that case still stand: magnet schools, incentive pay for bilingual teachers, and year-round instruction were all part of that order. 

But a decade later, and 60 miles away, things wouldn’t go so smoothly. White Angelinos were loath to put their children on buses. As Patt Morrison wrote in an LA Times article in 1997 reflecting on the case: “It was an unlovely time in this lovely place, the shrieking suburbs vs. the shouting city, aggrieved white vs. angry black vs. out-of-the-loop Latino, armed school guards put on patrol the first day that thousands of kids stepped aboard buses, death threats and recall threats, the tragicomic effort to halt busing as a pollution risk.”

Judge Egly recounts the hundreds of threatening letters he received over the four years he worked on the case. He remembers a man who sat in the front row of his courtroom each day, wearing a sign saying, “Recall Egly.” His name, it was said, became the most popular four-letter word in Los Angeles. The turmoil claimed the health, and life, of his second wife. It took a dramatic toll on his psyche, if not his career. And the whole matter ended in a whimper, instead of a bang, as busing ceased when Proposition 1 passed, declaring his ruling unconstitutional. Segregation seeped back in. “Like some sort of embarrassing love affair: it ends—pfft—and nobody wants to talk about it,” Morrison’s LA Times article reported.

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Photo courtesy of Jane Egly

Paul Egly – Superior Court Judge

Egly came to think about the Crawford case as a kind of death, requiring post-mortems and autopsies, trying to diagnose precisely what happened. Doing what he felt was right, and being demonized for it, was difficult to accept. In its aftermath, he left the bench. “All that stuff about noble decisions. It’s BS. It’s the law of the land that changed me. Black is beautiful to me now. It’s that simple,” Egly said in a 1981 interview with the Claremont Courier

Egly sensed discomfort even among his colleagues who disagreed with him, as though their moral compasses may have covertly pointed in directions different from their stated opinions. “What does it mean, I’ve sacrificed my career? My career is in my head. Right?” 

That statement strikes me as the very definition of honor.

Making a case for service

Judge Egly’s career didn’t end with Crawford. He continued teaching, which was arguably his first passion. The U.S. Constitution, he said, had become his religion. Egly founded the University of La Verne College of Law in 1970 while still serving on the bench. He acted as its dean and taught constitutional law for 34 years. He loved nothing more than watching students’ eyes light up when they hit on some understanding. “It’s like a blossom blooming into a flower, seeing them begin to understand the cases,” he said in his La Verne Magazine interview. “You enjoy it with them; you learn with them and try to make it more interesting.”

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Photo courtesy of L. Gilbert Lopez

Judge Paul Egly with L. Gilbert Lopez

Egly also co-founded Judicial Dispute Resolution, Inc. in 1990, an independent, neutral panel of private judges hired to hear cases outside the court system. He took a wide variety of civil cases over the years. He also worked tirelessly in Laguna alongside James Dilley and others to preserve the city’s greenbelts.

Never losing sight of what’s important: 

The judge’s battle with macular degeneration

Judge Egly began his battle with macular degeneration just after retiring from the bench in the early 1980s. He lost his sight over the course of years, the world slipping away slowly over time. And, with it, his freedom. By the late 80s, he could neither read nor write, but he moved with Jane to Barcelona for a year, enjoying his final time with vision. “I know no one who adapted to that problem the way Paul did,” says Jane. “It was just remarkable.” Judge Egly sought out Braille and books on tape. “He still reads more than most of us,” says Jane. She shows me his tape recorder, saying he’s always got a book going.

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Photo courtesy of Jane Egly

Paul Egly at play

After 34 years together, their marriage still feels playful. “I think he married me because I could drive,” Jane laughs. Given that her husband has said she “was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” I’m guessing it’s more than Jane’s driving that kept them together. She remains in awe of his many accomplishments and proud of the legacy he’s leaving both on the bench and in Laguna’s greenbelts. 

Hard lessons learned from the bench

More than once during our interview, I reflected on the many battles Judge Egly fought over his storied career, and wondered aloud whether we’d made as much headway as I’d once hoped for. But Jane was quick to remind me of our country’s progress, particularly for women.

I returned home and sat with an article Judge Egly wrote nearly a decade ago, after being asked by the late Donald Dunn, dean of La Verne’s College of Law, to pen a post-mortem piece about the Crawford case. “The following pages will help with the understanding of the rocky marriage between politics and the court in public policy matters,” Egly wrote. What followed were 55 pages of long lament by an honorable man still – 26 years later – struggling to make sense of what had happened. 

He concluded the piece by saying, “It has taken me a while to understand that the best of legal principles can never become public policy unless embraced by a substantial segment of public opinion.”

I reflected on a few of the best legal principles our courts have upheld in the last decades – reproductive rights, marriage equality, immigration laws –often without the full support of public opinion. Honorable roads aren’t easy ones, but they’re unquestionably worth the fight. 

It’s unclear to me whether Judge Egly ultimately found solace in his decision. Maybe solace is less important than the legacy left behind. Progress, after all, is rarely a straight line, but more often a string of circuitous paths blazed by brave men like the Honorable Paul Egly.