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Saturday, Jan 05 2013 10:02 PM

Judge remembered as a tough litigator and a 'wonderful guy'

BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

He didn't become a lawyer until age 44, and yet he excelled as both a trial attorney and as a Kern County Superior Court judge until his retirement in 1992.

Lewis E. King, who friends say skillfully negotiated the tightrope between persuasive, determined litigator and all-around nice guy, died Friday in Bakersfield.

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Lewis E. King | 1922-2013

He was 90.

King "was a gentleman on the bench, a highly ethical defense attorney and a wonderful guy to be around," recalled Ed Jagels, who served as Kern County District Attorney from 1982 to 2010.

King's wife, Mary Anne, could not immediately be reached Saturday night, but friends said the couple had been married since the early 1970s. They had no children together.

"The man was a very good friend of mine," said John Ulman, who worked with King at the Kern County Public Defender's office for nearly a decade before King was appointed to the bench by California Gov. Jerry Brown in 1979.

Despite being more than 20 years his junior, Ulman said the two became fast friends and their families even vacationed together.

In the courtroom, Ulman watched his friend with great interest.

"When he was with the Public Defender's office, he had a real knack for getting jurors to, as they say, eat out of his hand," Ulman remembered. "He had a sense of what people would buy and what they would not buy. He was a very effective trial attorney."

King quickly rose up the ranks in the office to become chief deputy, meaning he was in charge of or supervised all major cases.

"A good trial attorney has to be able to do two things," Ulman said. "He has to know the law and he has to be able to present a convincing case.

King "had a tremendous ability to do the latter."

He knew the law quite well, Ulman said, but his personality, his varied background and his ability to connect with people of all stripes served him well as a litigator.

Born Dec. 17, 1922 in Kentucky, King grew up in a religious household. His father was a church minister, Ulman recalled.

After receiving a bachelor of arts degree from Pepperdine College in 1945, King served in several government jobs before working as a real estate agent from 1955 to 1967, according to Californian archives.

He earned his law degree from Southwestern University in Los Angeles and operated a general law practice in Southern California for three years before he was hired as a deputy public defender in Bakersfield around 1970.

Skip Staley, who served on the bench in Kern County from 1982 until his retirement in 2009, also served at the Public Defender's office, beginning in 1977.

Staley remembers being a "brand-new lawyer," working low-level misdemeanor cases when King was supervising all the major cases.

And yet, Staley said, King regularly made himself available for questions and to dispense advice whenever asked.

"He was very interested in helping all the lawyers in the office, including the ones working misdemeanors."

It wasn't until later that Staley realized how unusual that was.

"Despite his level of his achievement, he had an open door to anybody in the office," Staley said.

After King was elevated to a judgeship in 1979, Ulman replaced him as chief deputy attorney. Despite the promotion, he was sorry to see King leave the PD's office.

Especially in those days, Ulman said, many judges took care not to socialize too closely with attorneys who were likely to argue cases before them in the courtroom. So after King's appointment, the two friends drifted apart.

But Ulman still feels a debt of gratitude for the skills and experience King shared so generously all those years ago. And he believes their bond of friendship transcended time and space.

"We didn't socialize much after his appointment," Ulman said. "But we remain friends forever."

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