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Jurist opens courtroom doors for deaf, low-income and minorities

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

James LambdenJames Lambden’s mother was a waitress with a limited education whose knowledge of the law came from serving lawyers and judges at banquets. But she gave him a bit of advice that served him well on the bench: See everyone in the room.

Stella Lambden wasn’t the only family member to influence the retired associate justice’s legal career. His sister Judith Leasher suffered lifelong hearing loss as the result of a childhood illness, and Lambden learned from her experiences how language limitations can exclude people.

As a lawyer, Lambden applied that knowledge, helping interpreters for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to formalize the training and certification for courtroom interpreters. He also served as legal adviser to the Bay Area Center for Law & The Deaf and taught classes through the Alameda County Bar Association designed to help hearing lawyers better serve their deaf clients, understand deaf culture and appreciate the obstacles they face in court.

During his years as an Alameda County Superior Court judge and an associate justice with the First District Court of Appeal, Lambden also served on the California Commission on Access to Justice, among other groups, working to eliminate physical and economic barriers to justice. Lambden was recognized for his efforts on Dec. 12, when he received the Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award.

Given by the Judicial Council, State Bar and the California Judges Association, the Aranda award recognizes those who have shown a long-term commitment to improving access to justice for low and moderate-income Californians. Lambden is the 16th recipient of the award since it was established in 1999.

In one of the letters submitted in support of his nomination for the award, First District Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary and Associate Justice Maria Rivera wrote that Lambden has been “tireless, heartfelt, unassuming and very effective.

“Justice Lambden has been a beacon for access and fairness, illuminating the dark places where our courts must improve the delivery of services to those who encounter the greatest barriers to justice,” wrote O’Leary and Rivera, both former Aranda award recipients. “He is also a brilliant jurist, an obedient servant of the law and a gentle soul.”

Lambden, 63, who joined the private alternative dispute resolution firm ADR Services Inc. in September after retiring from the court of appeal over the summer, said he was “very pleased” to have received the award, noting that the prior recipients are all friends.

“What can you say? It’s a great honor. I am very flattered,” he said.

Early in his legal career, while he was a business trial attorney at Fitzgerald, Abbott & Beardsley in Oakland, Lambden filed a federal action on behalf of deaf California State University System students seeking to establish the right to American Sign Language interpretation in their classes. Lambden also represented a deaf-from-birth professor at the California School for the Deaf. As a result, he got to know a whole community of people with limited hearing and gain an appreciation for the difficulties they experienced in a courtroom setting.

In the early days of Lambden’s career, many judges expected deaf litigants to either lip read – which is not only difficult to do, but can be inaccurate – or have their children or other family members translate for them, he said.

“I was surprised the courts weren’t better at serving people that way and there was a superficial view of what was required for people to participate in court,” he said.

Lambden also turned his efforts toward improving access to justice for other groups, including non-English speakers and court users of limited means.

“Once you begin to see excluded people, you become sensitive to exclusion everywhere,” he wrote in a recent email.

In 1997, shortly after his appointment to the court of appeal, then-Chief Justice Ronald M. George appointed Lambden to serve on the newly formed California Commission on Access to Justice, charged with finding ways to ensure Californians can have their day in court.

“The lesson I learned about opening up the court to the deaf translated very easily to everyone else,” he recalled. “That appointment to the commission really broadened my perspective.”

From the beginning, the group focused on reducing economic barriers to justice, most notably the fact that California was one of only a couple of states that provided negligible funding for legal services. A group of six commission members used to pile into Lambden’s GMC van – normally used for backpacking trips – and head up to Sacramento to lobby. One of the most effective tools in their arsenal was a map that showed states in relation to the amount of money they spent on legal services.

“Alabama was huge, and California was small,” he said. “Pretty rapidly, we got the votes.”

After the Legislature agreed to fund $10 million in legal services the first year, commission members kept their fingers crossed in hopes the funding wouldn’t go away, Lambden said.

“Every year after, we held our breath to hope nobody noticed it,” he said. “We lobbied every year to make sure it stayed in … until it became solid.”

Their efforts persuaded the Legislature to establish the Equal Access Fund, which since 1999 has provided more than $170 million for legal services for the indigent.

State Bar Office of Legal Services Director Mary Lavery Flynn, who served on the commission with Lambden, described Lambden’s lobbying efforts as “masterful,” calling him “an incredibly gentle person, very kind, considerate, but effective.

“He considers himself part of the access world,” she said.

Lambden served as chair of the commission from 2000 to 2001 and continues to be involved as an ex-officio adviser. Among his many contributions has been to serve as a member of the Limited Scope Legal Assistance Committee, which explored ways to unbundle legal services to try to make them more affordable. He also helped to draft rules and forms to implement limited scope legal assistance.

In 2003, Lambden was appointed to chair the Judicial Council’s Access and Fairness Advisory Committee, a role he served in for nine years. Among the projects carried out under Lambden’s leadership was the creation of brochures for court users and court staff that explained the process for accommodating people with disabilities.

More recently, Lambden helped found California’s Tribal/State Forum, an effort aimed at improving justice in Native American communities by eliminating overlapping jurisdictional problems that leave tribal courts at a disadvantage. Historically, there had been problems with local law enforcement not recognizing tribal paperwork and local courts not honoring tribal court orders.

Richard C. Blake, chief judge of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said that after Lambden gave a speech at the National American Indian Court Judges Association last year, two states, Arizona and Michigan, reignited their efforts to launch similar groups to improve state and tribal relationships.

“It gave them a breath of fresh air,” Blake said.

Lambden said there’s no magic behind his success with access issues. He simply stays open to “opportunities to behave compassionately.

“All I have ever done is to look for the opportunity … so that more people get into court,” he said.