Joe Lodge was first appointed judge in 1958 and served 50 years until his death on Monday.
Paul Wellman

Judge Joseph Lodge, one of the defining personalities of the Santa Barbara courthouse scene, died in his sleep not long after reading a poem to his family on May 5, following a 10-year struggle with lymphoma.

When Lodge was first appointed judge in 1958, he was just 26 years old, making him the youngest judicial officer in the State at the time. Lodge would go on to serve 50 years on the bench-mostly presiding over preliminary hearings and misdemeanor trials-longer than any other judge in California history. “Such a judge there never was and never will be again,” said Assistant District Attorney Patrick McKinley.

Aside from his longevity, what distinguished Lodge was the unconventional and unpredictable manner in which he dispensed justice. Doug Hayes, a veteran criminal defense attorney, described Lodge as a “classic old-school judge,” unconcerned about whose feathers he ruffled. And ruffle them he did. McKinley first met Lodge as a young prosecutor in the 1970s trying to process 350 Isla Vista protestors charged with rioting. With the stroke of a pen, Lodge let them go, arguing, as McKinley recalled, “They’d suffered enough.” This made him a hero in liberal Santa Barbara and a pariah in law enforcement circles.

Admirers and detractors alike noted that Lodge could be courageous and brilliant one instant, exasperating the next. Senior prosecuting attorney Ron Zonen, for example, credited Lodge for inspiring his own career path and described the judge as a close personal friend and mentor. “But there were also days I’d leave his courtroom and vow I would never go back in,” Zonen said. He added, “There were also days when Lodge had amazing insights and absolutely hit the nail on the head.”

“Judge Lodge wanted to hear the human aspect of a case,” said defense attorney Steve Balash.

Lodge ruled his courtroom more like a philosopher king than a traditional judge, peering into the souls and psyches of those who came before him, ever in search of insight, information, and some ultimate truth. “Judge Lodge wanted to hear the human aspect of a case,” said defense attorney Steve Balash. “Most attorneys have a laundry list of legal points they want to make, but that wasn’t Lodge’s approach. He wanted to know what made the person charged with a crime tick as a human being.” If Lodge thought the defendant took responsibility for his actions, Balash said, he wasn’t afraid to be lenient, regardless of the prosecution’s wishes. But conversely, if Lodge thought the defendant didn’t take the charge seriously, he could prove more punitive than even the harshest prosecutor.

For example, Lodge recently sentenced a client of Balash’s-Jessica Binkerd-to five years in prison for vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk on Highway 154. In that case, the family of the victim had urged leniency, as did the prosecution, though to a lesser extent. (Balash has since had Lodge’s sentence overturned on appeal; Binkerd has yet to be re-sentenced.)

From the bench, Lodge could be informal and playful, almost. But on younger attorneys or those from out of town, he was hell. Back in the 1980s, two attorneys with the Public Defender Office retaliated by printing bumper stickers likening Lodge to Psycho villain Norman Bates. But today, the head of that office-Greg Paraskou-credits Lodge for displaying unusual care in cases involving defendants with mental illness. “In certain cases, he showed a tremendous capacity for compassion,” Paraskou said. “When it came to matters of psychiatry and psychology, he was unusually engaged.”

In person, Lodge often seemed animated by irrepressible curiosity. Even when discussing his own cancer, he expressed fascination at the biological mechanics of the disease that would eventually kill him. Lodge decreed that there be no memorial service, having already enjoyed one in 2002 when he staged his own “non-retirement party.” In response to the shortage of research cadavers, Lodge willed his body to the UCLA medical school, where it will be put to use by young medical students. Prior to his death, Lodge wrote his own obituary, in which he praised his wife-former Santa Barbara mayor Sheila Lodge-for being his “peace in life.” He concluded by intentionally misquoting the famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, stating, “I do go gentle into that good night.”

With Lodge’s death, the South Coast bench will have to scramble to fill the void. Retired judges will be recruited to handle Lodge’s load of preliminary hearings, some of which can run for weeks on end. Ultimately, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will have to appoint someone to fill the vacancy created by Lodge’s death, but Schwarzenegger has been moving very slowly in making judicial appointments. Court commissioner Gary Blair estimates the soonest such an appointment will likely be made is 14 months.


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