Spirit of the Law: Remembering Judge Paul Egly

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Judge Paul Egly
Judge Paul Egly Photo by Eric Stoner.

History will remember Paul Egly as the judge who ordered the desegregation of the Los Angeles Unified School District. His family, friends and colleagues will remember him proudly as an energetic and loving man. This city will remember him fondly for his devotion to Laguna Beach where he lived from 1969 until Tuesday, June 26, 2018, when he passed away at the age of 97.

Egly was born and raised in Fullerton when the town was covered with orange groves. In 1938, he graduated from Covina High School and then went to UCLA to study medieval history. In 1942, just six units away from graduating, Egly was sent to Europe to fight in World War II.

Reflectively, Egly reported, “I learned a lot of things during the war. All of us have a fragile veneer of civilization, and it’s easily peeled off.”

After returning from the war, Egly made his way to Washington D.C. and earned his law degree from George Washington University. He first started practicing law in post-war France and Germany.

Returning to the U.S. in 1952, Egly eventually earned a judicial appointment from then-Gov. Pat Brown. He spent five years on the bench as a Municipal Court judge and another 13 years as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

He was a witness to the changes in our world throughout the 20th century. “When I was a boy I saw a horse pull a wagon, then I saw an airplane and then a Zeppelin.” As a soldier during World War II he peered into the horrors of war. In the ‘60s, he experienced what he called “the liberation of women.” As a teacher, husband, father and grandfather he once commented on his life: “I’ve lucked out.”

What would become Egly’s historic role in desegregating Los Angeles schools was his role in the remedial phase of Crawford v. Board of Education of the City of Los Angeles which was a class action lawsuit on behalf of “all Negro and Mexican-American pupils” and which found that Los Angeles schools were “in fact segregated by race.” In perhaps the most contested consequence of the order, the school district chose voluntary busing as part of its desegregation plan. Although it had been 17 years since Brown v. Board of Education and nine years since Jackson v. Pasadena, according to Egly, “California didn’t get around to doing anything about it; we ducked the issue for so long.”

Admitting that before the case he “didn’t know a damn thing about segregation,” Egly said his decision was straight-forward: “I always just followed the law, and the law is very clear on segregation.”

Until 1988, Egly had judicial authority over the LAUSD’s student integration services, and in this capacity he oversaw court-ordered voluntary integration programs, young black scholars’ programs, class size reduction and magnet schools.

Egly was also the founding dean of the University of Laverne, College of Law, where he and his wife, Jane, taught. “I love teaching. It’s like gardening where you plant something, nurture it, and then one day it blossoms. It’s better than a drink.”

Despite losing most of his eyesight to macular degeneration in 1984, Egly remained in the classroom. “Brains, not my eyes, are my greatest asset. I think that’s true for everyone.”

Egly was married three times and has a daughter, Patty as well as four step children. He and his first wife divorced, but remained friends. “She didn’t like a public life, and I can’t blame her.” His second wife, Pauline, who was Patty’s mother, died of emphysema. For the last 34 years, he was married to Jane Egly, also a lawyer and a former Laguna Beach City Council member.  “She has great energy,” he said. “I am the luckiest man in the world.”

The reciprocal admiration between Egly and his wife is clear. “He has the best laugh in the whole world, and his ability to spot legal issues and to teach law are pure genius,” Jane once said of her husband. “He often says ‘the practice of law is the practice of people,’ and Paul knows and loves all people.”

When Egly moved to Laguna Beach in 1969, he was reunited with his old friend, Jim Dilley. Together they were founding members of the Laguna Greenbelt and the Laguna Canyon Foundation, organizations that protect open spaces and wilderness areas.

“I’m a little disappointed in how it’s changed,” Egly once said of Laguna Beach. “The only people who live here now are those who can afford to live here. The city lacks the openness it had when Timothy Leary was here.”

When asked about his judicial legacy, Egly remarked, “I’m not sure busing was the answer. The real answer is to change the hearts of men.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. It well written article about one of Laguna’s pillars of democracy, he was a kind gentleman and very appreciative of humanity issues, one of the heroes of the people who helped save the open space around Laguna Beach.

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