Judge Milton L. Schwartz
SACRAMENTO — During more than 25 years in private law practice in Sacramento, Milton L. Schwartz could tell when he was taking on too many cases because his stomach would start giving him trouble. At that point, he would simply stop accepting new clients.
"I never would have more than 40 or 45 active cases, and then my stomach would start churning so bad that I'd close the door," said Schwartz.
Since the end of 1979, Schwartz has been a federal trial judge for the Eastern District of California; he now has about 45 active criminal cases on his docket alone. He estimates he has 525 active civil files.
Asked if he enjoys being a judge, he pauses and sighs and looks glum. "I like it just fine, if I can ever get used to the volume of work. . . . You can't tell people here, 'You can't file any more cases in my court. I'm drowning,' and that's tough."
Moreover, he must spend the vast majority of his time on the bench coping with the criminal cases. "That means that this great mass of civil cases has to be done on Friday (his law-and-motion day) or nights and weekends because there's no other time to address the civil....
"Once in a while I get civil cases to trial, but not very many," the judge continued. "I bet I haven't had five civil jury trials since I've been here in almost four years." He added that he has tried a number of nonjury civil cases, however.
The biggest contributor to his problem, Schwartz noted, is that the Sacramento branch of the Eastern District has had a vacancy on its bench for nearly a year, leaving Schwartz and the court's two other active judges to pick up the load. "That really hurts," he said.
Nevertheless, lawyers say Schwartz is fully capable of managing his calendar and of trimming issues from civil cases, in the way federal judges are famous. "He may be farther behind (than some other judges)," said a trial lawyer in Sacramento. "But he's the kind of judge who's very organized. . .. It may take longer to get to trial before him, but his calendar's not messed up."
Still, the judge said he does not "feel comfortable doing a lot of arm-twisting" to make lawyers settle civil cases. Settlement may well be his weakest area on the bench, Schwartz conceded. "I don't really know why. I felt, without any false modesty, that that was a strong suit that I had as a lawyer. I felt I could negotiate well."
On the other hand, he added, "I think I'm the only judge I know who doesn't have mandatory settlement conferences.. . .
"I'm somewhat reluctant to pound heads. I don't mind pounding heads when I'm running my courtroom and I think somebody has misbehaved. But to try to squeeze or force a lawyer or a client into settling a case because I think it ought to be settled just seems to me to be beyond the scope of what I think a judge ought to be doing, and I don't feel comfortable doing it."
Some lawyers, on the other hand, suggest that Schwartz' problem may stem in small part from his thorough and conscientious approach to deciding cases. "He tends to take a little bit too much time," said a federal prosecutor. "He agonizes a little bit too much over certain motions ... another judge would deny becuase they're just frivolous."
A private practitioner in Sacramento who has had civil and criminal cases before Schwartz made a similar point. "Some people would say he is too cautious, in that it takes him longer often to made a decision than it might take another judge. It's more agonizing for him," the lawyer said.
But both lawyers made the complaints gingerly, at the same time praising the judge for his thoroughness. "He is very cautious about his decisions, very conscientious about his decisions, and one of the most knowledgeable judges," the private lawyer said.
Those lawyers also said Schwartz has learned criminal law very well, even though he had little criminal practice. The prosecutor and two defense lawyers agreed, however, that he is the toughest sentencing judge on the Sacramento federal bench. In fact, the judge disclosed that his nickname is "Maximum Milt."
The private lawyer also added that the judge is extremely well versed in the rules of evidence. In fact, that lawyer said, Schwartz "has one of the best backgrounds of any of the federal judges in terms of both breadth of experience and depth."
Schwartz, 63, makes the same assessment of himself when he talks about how comfortable he feels in the courtroom and why. "It's very seldom that a laywer appears before me who has been in the courtroom over as long a period of time as I have," he said. "I have often said that I would not trade for greater legal accumen in preference to the experience and the seasoning....
"I still think more like a laywer than I do a judge, and I think that's terribly important. I think it's important that I be sensitive to the legitimate administrative, logistical, and other problems that lawyers have as opposed to just ranting and raving and screaming and hollering."
Schwartz was a trial lawyer in the Sacramento area for about 31 years, first as a deputy district attorney there and then as a founder of a law firm that grew to be the city's largest.
Born in Oakland, where his father had practiced law, Schwartz grew up in Sacramento, where his family moved after his father's death. He received his undergraduate degree in 1941 from the University of California Berkeley, and his law degree at the campus's Boalt Hall in 1948, after serving in the Army during World War II.
He worked briefly as a law clerk at the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento and then joined the district attorney's office. Schwartz said he was the sixth lawyer in the office. He tried his first homicide within two months.
He enjoyed the work very much, but he left in 1951 to set up his own practice alone. "I always said if I could have made a good, comfortable living at it, I would have stayed in the district attorney's office all my life. There's nothing much more exciting and satisfying than prosecuting good criminal cases."
Even in private practice, Schwartz prosecuted a few cases, taking special, difficult cases for smaller counties in the area that lacked adequate staff. One he tried for little Plumas County in 1954 was "for years one of the most notorious murders in the state," he said. Related crimes committed by the same defendants were the subject of a movie starring Susan Hayward called "I Want to Cry."
Schwartz' case, People v. Santo, took him 30 days to try but took the police two years to investigate. It concerned a father, his three children, and one family friend who were robbed, beaten, and left for dead in the trunk of their car by two men and a woman. The only survivor was a 3 1/2-year-old girl.
"It was unbelievable," the judge said. "Though she had been bludgeoned too, she was able to describe the car that waylaid them and the people.... It was all circumstantial evidence. There were no positive identifications, no real eyewitnesses." The two men were sentenced to death and the female defendant was given life in prison.
Later, he tried an even more difficult, circumstantial-evidence case for Yolo County. In it, he convinced a jury that a Sacramento lawyer had forged the will of an old, miserly recluse based in large part on the testimony of the decedant's companion, who insisted the old man had never gone to the lawyer's office to sign the questioned will.
The forgery was "beautifully executed," Schwartz said. "The only thing he (the defendant) didn't count on was that everyone doesn't necessarily have a price." The companion was left $150,000 under the true will but $300,000 under the forgery.
The lawyer had also included small bequests to people in his own office building, such as the elevator operator, in hopes of making them believe the decedent had come to the office regularly. "It was a very clever thing, because the people he needed for witnesses, he wrote into the will," the judge recalled.
Later in his practice, Schwartz took very few criminal cases, instead concentrating on commercial and business litigation, including condemnation and real estate matters. He also handled a number of divorces, he said.
The firm he and three others started grew to be the largest in Sacramento, with 56 lawyers. It is now called McDonough, Holland, & Allen. Schwartz headed its litigation department and is a member both of the American Board of Trial Advocates and of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
The ACTLA invites in only the top 1 percent of the trial bar in each state, according to the judge. He said at the time he was accepted, at age 44, he was the youngest member the group had ever had.
President Jimmy Carter named Schwartz to the federal bench in November 1979, and the judge says he is glad for the change. "I had reached a point where I was tired of the problems, of getting yanked around, of being told that I had to be in three different courts on the same day... .
"Here, the only thing that controls you is your own stomach and your own conscience, and you can't be in two courtrooms at one time. I've exchanged one set of problems for another, but I was ready for a new kind of problem. .. .
"I have had a rebirth here," Schwartz concluded. "I feel I've got considerably more energy."
— DON J. DeBENEDICTIS
© 2001 United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Historical Society.