Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona on August 15, 1970 · Page 45
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Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona · Page 45

Phoenix, Arizona
Issue Date:
Saturday, August 15, 1970
Page 45
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I \ H'.'LLDO w •"S u 22 The Arizona Republic Phoenix, Sat., Aug. 15,1970 Revolution hits LA court Small claims big deal to 'The judge with that name' z - y *|*7j£? Drive under way to save desert bighorn sheep IiT-a*** 1 ! I . . _ j_ ^~"^ *• By DAVID SHAW Los Angeles Times Service LOS ANGELES- His name looks like an accident on a Scrabble board, his demeanor might best be described as perpetual indignation and his temperament is more the volatile Greek of his ancestry than the calm sobriety of his profession. His voice, even in normal conversation, is loud, and his speech — uttered in tones of unquestioned authority — is studded with profanity, interrupted by ethnic mimicry and accompanied by flamboyant gestures. An unlikely description for a judge? Yes. But M. Peter Katsufrakis is an unlikely judge — a judge fighting, and winning, a private revolution unique in Southern California jurisprudence. Katsufrakis ("most people just call me 'The judge with that name' ") presides over small claims actions in Division 4 of, the Los Angeles Municipal Court. Until he took the bench there in 1966, small claims courts in Los Angeles, as elsewhere, had too often been collection agencies for finance companies, public utilities and other corporate entities seeking payment for past-due bills. (An individual also can use the small claims courts to file action against another individual in various disputes, such as automobile accidents. The small claims limit is $300). The private individual, required by law to represent himself (attorneys are not permitted in small claims proceedings), was many times cowed by the impersonal legal machinery and the formality of the courtroom. He either refused to go to court, or he went meekly and often lost out to experienced corporate representatives. Now, at least in Katsufrakis' courtroom, he's getting a full hearing — and, often, a victory. "They sold me the wrong size tires," the young man complained to the court. "That's why I refused to pay for them." "Our service manual says the tires are satisfactory substitutes for the originals," the company representative • countered. "All he has to do is keep them inflated to a certain pressure." Judge Katsufrakis glanced skeptically through the service manual. "What's the man supposed to do," he snapped, "check his tire pressure every 10 miles? I don't think anyone could understand this gob- . bledygook anyway. And even if he could, what good would the manual you keep in your desk do the customer? for the defend- " Judgment ant." "When I took over small claims, every Friday was called 'Store day,' " Katsufrakis says. "All these big companies could come in with up to 50 claims apiece — most of them defaults where the defendants didn't show up — and they'd just get an automatic judgment from the clerk. "The judge wouldn't even hear the cases." 'The first Friday Katsufrakis came to court as a small claims judge, he saw the corporate men lined up in the hallway, waiting for the clerk. He ordered every one to present his case to the bench. The next week he eliminated "Store Day," issued orders limiting every plaintiff to two cases per session and — shortly thereafter — directed that all be tried in the jurisdictions where the defendant lived or entered into the business dealing. "These companies were taking their cases from all over hell and gone, from Oregon to the Mexican border, and trying them in Los Angeles because that's where their home office was," he says. "The poor guy who lived, say, in Fresno couldn't get here to defend himself, so the company won automatically. I cut that out in a hurry." As a result of Katsufrakis' new policies, small claims actions, which climbed to a high of 84,901 in 1966, have dropped steadily the last three years, to a low of 47,678 in 1969. More important, defaults outnumbered contested cases by almost a 2-1 margin when he took over. Now, the two are almost equal. "This used to be a captive court for private business interests — many of them fraudulent," Katsufrakis says. "Now, it's what it's supposed to be — a court of law for the public. "For many people, small claims is their only contact with this country's legal system. I want to see that they know the system works for them, even if it only involves a few dollars." The judge has even begun carrying his crusade beyond the courtroom, helping local pher, now 16, who attends a law schools and legal aid societies provide consumer protection services in the ghetto. His goal is to organize these services like political precincts — with one person ("a block captain") available in each neighborhood to help individuals served with small claims actions. "You talk about crime in the streets," Katsufrakis says. "These car dealers and meat freezer outfits and other shady operators that cheat poor people out of food and rent money, then sell the paper to finance companies are the real criminals. And the finance companies that cooperate with them are not better." "This man owes us $273," the finance company agent tol the court. "He hasn't paid us for over two years." "Then why didn't you sue him back then?" Katsufrakis rasped. "Why'd you drag it out on him, and add on all those late charges? That $25 late charge is a little steep anyway, isn't it? "And why'd you bother him at work? How do you expect to collect if yon cost him his job? Just what are you trying to do here, anyway?" Katsufrakis' outbursts — and judgments —against companies and others haven't made him America's most popular judge. He admits — almost boasts — .that the companies he's been most critical of have filed scores of complaints against him with the State Commission on Judicial Qualifications. The companies have also exerted pressure to have him transferred — even some say to the point of passing the word that they'd be ever so helpful if he wanted to move up to the Superior Court. But Katsufrakis, 50, is in no hurry to move. "It took me a long time to get here," he says. "I don't really think my job is finished yet." Judges generally have more latitude in small claims than in most other courts, and Katsufrakis exercises that latitude to the fullest. "I have very sensitive nostrils," he says. "If the stench of fraud fills my courtroom, I'm not going to be bound by the four corners of a contract. I'm going to look between the lines for maggots." Katsufrakis considers the district attorney and state attorney general consumer fraud divisions "adjuncts of my court," and he often encourages private litigants to lodge complaints with them after he renders judgment. He even keeps the proper forms on hand, and has — on occasion — told individuals to "be sure you file that complaint because I'm going to check up and see if you did." Kalsufrakis' te,rm on the bench has been a bit of an education for everyone — court personnel included. "No one ever took this much interest in small claims before," says one court em- ploye. "It's like traffic court and drunk court — Siberia; every other judge can't wait to get out." Katsufrakis' basic strengths, according to anoth-, er judge, are his instinctive sense of right and wrong and liis willingness to make that distinction and stand on it. "In small claims," Judge Howard Goldin says, "It's al« most as important for a litigant to leave the court feeling he got a fair trial as it is for him to actually have gotten a fair trial. "Because of the way he o p er a t e s, Peter provides boUi." Despite his gruff, commanding manner, Katsufrakis is not overawed by his position, and his courtroom is clearly more casual than most, with the sound of laughter as frequent as the sound of the gavel. But most of Katsufrakis' humor is at his own expense or at the expense of the system — not of the individual litigants. "He stole my television set, judge," the elderly woman said. The defendant, formerly the woman's boyfriend, told the judge she had given him the set as a gift — and, as proof, he emptied a large bag of clothing he said she had previously given him. "Why would she give you these things free?" Katsufrakis asked. "Sex," the man answered. "We Gemlnis are adventurous diners, Zody. Walt until you see this 'hole in- the wall!" Jetliner lands safely after fire scare LOS ANGELES (AP) - A Hawaii-bound jetliner with 105 persons aboard landed safely at Los Angeles yesterday after turning around when it was feared a fire may have occurred, officials said. The Western Airlines jet, with 97 passengers and a crew of eight, dumped most of its fuel in the Pacific Ocean to be light enough to land on the runway. Associated Press LOS ANGELES - Conservationists are w o r k i ft g to achieve a comeback for some rare Ice Age relics most people never heard of: the desert bighorn sheep. Only 3,900 of the magnificent animals, members of a family that once roamed the entire West, linger amid lonely California crags. A coordinated effort is under way by state and federal wildlife agencies and conservation groups to find and count them, preserve their dwindling water holes, protect them from ever-expanding civilization and reintroduce them, into areas where once they flourished. Amazing beasts, they can go five days without water amid a blazing Death Valley summer. The horns of a mature 200-pound ram curve in a full circle and give him awesome butting power. Their widely cloven hooves, soft on the bottom but with a hard outer edge, enable them to scamper up and down near-vertical rocks with ease. Travelers on mountain or desert highways occasionally see them bounding away, difficult to distinguish as then* tawnyhair blends with the background. Bighorns have been protected by California law since 1373, and despite their scarcity, one herd estimated at 300 roams within 40 miles of Los Angeles City Hall on the high peaks of the San Gabriel range. Most bands dwell in the remote desert ranges from Death Valley southward. A subspecies called the California bighorn lives along the 14,000-foot crest of the Sierra Nevada near Lone Pine. U.S. Forest Service officials say a "huge increase in recreational pressures" has driven sheep out of some parts of the range. They are considering discouraging public use of Sierra sheep areas by requiring entry permits, limiting the size of hiking parties and banning trail hiking. The animals generally are shy, fleeing at the sight of man — and experts say they can spot the move of a hand at a mile and a half. The rams, majestic and spectacular, roam together except at mating season, when they become loners, covering wide terrain searching for mates. The bands led by ewes sometimes sit motionless for hours on hot rocks, other times cavort playfully. Bighorns are believed to have migrated from Mongolia into Siberia and across the Bering Straits into Alaska, then down as far as Mexico as the last Ice Age waned 12,000 years ago. An estimated two million once ranged east to the Black Hills of North Dakota, to Missouri and West Texas. There are four major varieties. Besides the desert species there is the Rocky Mountain Bighorn, and farther north the snow-white Dall and slate-hued Stone. Only an estimated 20,000 of all species are left on the continent. 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