Family Man

His traditional upbringing in a tightknit Boyle Heights neighborhood instilled in retiring family law Judge Richard Montes his nurturing approach and his fierce commitment to future generations.

By DUANE NORIYUKI, Times Staff Writer, May 23, 2000

Four lawyers stand in a row before the Honorable Richard Montes. The two at opposite ends used to be married to each other and now are at odds about transportation of their child from school.

Together once when they became a family, their differences and attorneys now stand between them. A family divided.

The father claims that work sometimes prohibits him from picking up their son from school and taking him to after-school care and other appointments. He would like the court's permission to hire a transportation service to fill in when he is not available.

His ex-wife is opposed. If he can't pick the child up, she would rather do it herself, but she needs advance notification to arrange her schedule, and there will be times when she, too, is not available.

Such an arrangement would require communication between the two, and that appears unlikely. "I don't have her phone number," the father says.

"Part of the problem here," Montes begins. He then pauses and glances at the bailiff seated against the wall. "What's the name of the movie?"

The bailiff's response is a smile expressing uncertainty.

" 'Cool Hand Luke,' " Montes says. "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

He asks the four of them to go somewhere, sit down. Communicate.

"I'm suggesting that reasonable people who have the best interests of the child can sit down and speak to each other. This shouldn't be causing a problem between two mature adults."

But, then, there is the more complex matter of child support.

Since 1976, when Montes was appointed to the bench, he has been hearing such stories. He used to be presiding judge over Los Angeles County Juvenile Court. He also has handled adult criminal and civil cases, and now he is a family law judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

From the bench in juvenile court, he saw children whose lives seemed a series of tragedies. Now he sees families ripping apart, keeping score. Five days a week, they come before him, families that, in their unraveling, seek custody or money or rights as a measure of justice.

"I have a myopic view. I haven't done longitudinal studies of how families are doing in society or whether there's a change in the views of society as a whole toward family," he says. "But I feel that the core unit of society is the family unit."

It's difficult, he says, to see families, one after the other, split apart.

He read a book once about an indigenous Mexican tribe.

"They had no word for punishment," he says, and there was a communal attitude toward parenting, much the way it was in the Boyle Heights neighborhood where he grew up.

He remembers walking in the rain one day. Neighbors saw him getting soaked, so they opened their windows and told him to go home.

He has left family law twice because he needed to get away from it. The first time, he left to go to criminal court, then to civil court. Now there are moments when he feels drenched once again. After 24 years on the bench, it's time to go home, he says, and so when he leaves Superior Court on Wednesday, a day after his 60th birthday, pension in place, it will be for good.

A Heritage of Perseverance

Montes arrived in Los Angeles at age 3 on a Greyhound bus from El Paso. His father was a casket trimmer, lining the inside of coffins. His mother worked in a pickle factory and eventually as a salesclerk in a department store.

Montes didn't learn until later in life that his father and three aunts were orphaned in Texas. They were shuffled between relatives in Mexico until the oldest sibling turned 18 and returned with the other three children to Texas.

Even though Montes' father had little education, he demanded that his children study hard. They were not allowed to play until their homework was finished. His wrath and love shaped many of his children's decisions.

In time, his waning vim and constant faith allowed a softer side to emerge. He would often quote 19th century Mexican statesman Benito Juarez: "El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz" (in English, "The respect for the rights of others is peace").

After graduating from Cathedral High School in Los Angeles in 1958, Montes attended Loyola University, then withdrew to enter the monastery to become a monk. He left there to enter the seminary to become a priest. He left the seminary to become a lawyer with aspirations of becoming a judge.

"I didn't know any lawyers," he says. "I had never even met a lawyer, and I'd never been in court, but I felt that it was a way to help people."

There was another reason for leaving the seminary. His family was such an integral part of his life growing up, he found it difficult to foresee a future without one of his own.

"As a minister or priest, you find yourself in a very artificial social setting. You're confined to a rectory, and you don't have interaction with family."

He left the seminary on a Saturday. A week later, he met Elizabeth, now his wife. She had left the convent that Friday, the day before he left the seminary, because she, too, decided life would be more fulfilling with a family. Her first glimpse of Montes was of him on his knees speaking to a child.

They were married in 1967, two days after Montes took the bar exam after graduating from Loyola Law School. They have four children: Joseph Montes, 31, and Christi Gotvald, 29, are lawyers. Rebecca Montes, 25, is working on her PhD in history at the University of Texas. David Montes, 20, is a junior at New York University, where he majors in English with a minor in Spanish.

"We wanted our children to have three things," Elizabeth Montes says, "a solid family structure based on faith and spirituality, music, and a very good education. . . . If you are consistent and loving and set limits, I think you save yourself a lot of problems down the line."

All four children were raised in the same San Gabriel home where their parents still live, and attended the same parish. They took piano lessons from the same teacher, went to the same schools, went on to college.

Richard Montes says he learned from his work the importance of spending time with children and having fun with them. On a camping outing, he once was party to a conspiracy resulting in a fellow camper returning home with a dead fish in his luggage.

Montes was active with his children in scouting, watched years of soccer from the sidelines and as a referee. Despite a demanding schedule, he did his best to spend time with his children. Elizabeth took 11 years off from teaching to be home with them.

"I think the gift of your presence is the first thing you have to give your children," he says, "and maybe it's the last."

For Richard and Elizabeth, it's a lesson learned from their own parents, who eventually moved nearby. Richard's parents lived across the street, and Elizabeth's parents lived about five houses down.

"We had dinner together every night," Elizabeth says. "We went through the major illnesses, the deaths, the funerals together. I think the children have some very good memories of what their grandparents gave them."

When their oldest son, Joseph, was 9, he invited Elizabeth's mother to live with them. Her husband had just died, and she had never lived alone.

"She can have my room," he said. She stayed for nine years until her health declined, and she was moved to a nursing home, where Elizabeth visited her daily.

David Montes says his father's stern persona in court is not reflected at home. He recalls how his father read "Snow White" and "Tarzan" in Spanish. Both Richard and Elizabeth read often to their children. Christi remembers Dr. Seuss. Each night at dinner, their father would offer the family a new word to be looked up in the dictionary and discussed.

David recalls how the two of them once spent a couple of weeks in the garage building a rabbit hutch. "I would always be wanting to cut something or do something, and he would tell me, 'Measure twice, cut once.' He had another saying that he said his father told him, something like, 'It would take a good man a half hour to do this job, so we'll do it in three.' "

Joseph and Christi, the lawyers, both say their father did not push them toward law. In their own searches, the importance their father saw in his work, the meaningfulness, stayed close to mind. That, more than anything he said to them about potential careers, led them to law.

His greatest joys and sorrows, they say, center on family. While Joseph was a senior in college, he wrote a play about the death of his father's mother, how she suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma, how the family decided to remove her from life support.

"I came home for break or something, and I gave a copy of it to my dad. He went into the den, and he read it, and he broke down and started crying. It was the only time I saw him cry. No one saw him, no one went to him or anything. I don't think he knows I saw him, but I did."

The Precious Gift of Literacy

In a small room at Central Juvenile Hall, half a mile or so from where Richard Montes grew up, not far from where the pickle factory that employed his mother once stood, he sits across a small table from a 17-year-old boy.

They are reading "Old Yeller." For a year and a half, Montes has been a volunteer in Project Read, a literacy program at the hall. Once a week, he teaches incarcerated juveniles to read.

At first, Ralph says, he didn't know Montes was a judge, but he found out from some of the other youths.

"I was in shock that a judge would come here to teach me," he says.

Being unable to read, Montes says, puts people at a huge disadvantage. For the young people at Central Juvenile Hall, reading, he says, could make a big difference in their lives.

"The only way we're going to get new ideas to them that differ from the gang milieu that many of them come from is to teach them how to read and hope that they will be able to turn to books or something else and feed their intellects."

While incarcerated as juveniles or adults, inmates write letters to friends and, perhaps, relatives whose lifestyles place them at risk of tragedy as victim or perpetrator.

"If they could write to someone and say, 'You know, it's not worth it to be carrying a gun. Don't carry a gun,' they could do a lot of good. . . . The fact of the matter is, they're going to come back to society some day and either come back as people who are very resentful of the system, or they will make positive change, and I think that it's to their benefit the more people along the way who show interest in them and encourage them, especially someone in authority or someone who is part of the system. It's important to tell them, 'I'm willing to help you. I see value in you as a human being even though you did something wrong.' "

Before he became a judge, Montes worked as a prosecutor. While there is good and bad in any job, he says, the role of prosecutor was never a good fit.

"Our main function was to throw people in jail and keep them there," he says. "The way I justified it in my own mind is, 'You're protecting society.' You hope the person will turn around and become a more productive member of society, but there is that aspect of warehousing. . . . I don't know if it's necessary or not, but I just didn't think I had to be a part of it, and the truth of the matter was, I wanted to become a judge. . . . I didn't feel satisfied that my main function was to lock people up."

Elizabeth says his work as a prosecutor changed him. During that same period, he served on the San Gabriel City Council and eventually became mayor. His time was spread thin.

"It made him that much more dedicated to his own family and other families that were close to us. . . . It was a real education and it helped him focus on how important the family unit is and how much help people need."

In 1976, he became a judge, first in Alhambra Municipal Court. In 1980, he was appointed to the L.A. County Superior Court. He was the supervising judge of family law from 1989 to 1991 and presiding judge over juvenile court from 1995 to 1997.

He's taken his hits. While Montes was presiding over juvenile court in 1996, the system was criticized by the Los Angeles County counsel's office for allegedly making decisions that endangered children. After reviewing the accusations, made in a confidential memo and leaked to the media, the county Bar Assn. determined they were without merit and written "to mislead and inflame the reader."

Montes also has taken difficult stands. In 1994, he awarded plaintiffs beaten by police at a baptismal party $345,000 for the use of excessive force.

In 1991, he fined an attorney more than $11,000 for filing a "frivolous" lawsuit against a former client.

The California Women's Law Center, which helps represent women and girls, has only one reference to Montes in its files. It is a statement from Lesley Kraut, a petitioner in a case in Montes' court.

Montes' "main concern seems to be what is in the best interest of the child," Kraut wrote. "It is not often that a judge in family court has the time to devote to a case so as to allow for this kind of input from the parents, but when Judge Montes does allow such time, he rules in favor of the child. . . . Second, from what I observed in other matters while I was waiting for my case to be called, Judge Montes has never, in my opinion, shown a bias toward either the mother or the father."

Not everyone agrees. Some, Montes says, have included him in their criticism of family law judges, alleging they ignore the rights of mothers and evidence of child abuse.

"You're going to be dissatisfied if you want custody of your child, and the judge awards custody to someone else. . . . The consideration is, you have to make the decision in the courtroom based on the evidence presented to you. As a judge, I can't get in the car and drive to some playground and spy on the father while he's with the child. That's taking evidence outside the courtroom. . . . It has to be presented in court in front of all the parties with everyone being made aware of the allegations and given the opportunity to respond."

He has concerns regarding the current get-tough political climate toward crime, reflected by voters' approval in March of Proposition 21. The new law lowered the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults to 14, gave prosecutors, rather than judges, authority to determine whether juveniles should be tried as adults, increased penalties for gang-related felonies and imposed more stringent probation requirements for most juveniles who commit felonies.

"All I know is, when you go to juvenile (hall) how many white faces do you see? It's a profound social problem that we have, and why are we arresting so many minorities and incarcerating more people than any other country in the world? You could send a kid to Harvard for the amount of money you spend incarcerating somebody for a year."

He has learned not to second-guess himself, and he has learned how not to allow the pressures of his work to interfere with his private life. His parting thoughts address the role of judges.

"As I'm leaving, I have realized that our function is more emblematic than practical, because we actually touch a very small percentage of the cases in front of us, and we actually make decisions in a slight number of cases that are filed. And most of the time, we're there as a figurehead. We symbolize that this is a place you come to achieve some kind of justice. It doesn't necessarily depend on what we do. It's what we stand for, but if a judge doesn't do the right things for the right reasons, then that symbol doesn't work as well."

He says that following his retirement from Superior Court, he will move to the field of alternative dispute resolution, which involves private arbitration, mediation and litigation. He will spend more time with his grandchildren.

He will continue reading "Old Yeller" with the young man at Central Juvenile Hall, and most important, he will seek the peace that his father and Benito Juarez knew.