Many children of lawyers go on to study law. Some even attend their parents’ alma mater. For the Orfields of San Diego, California Western was a family tradition. In addition to both father and son receiving their law degrees at the school—Franklin B. Orfield at Balboa Law College in 1949 and Michael B. Orfield at California Western in 1977—Alycemary Orfield worked at the Cedar Street campus when it was the San Diego DMV headquarters in the early 1940s. Franklin Orfield served as Chair of the Board of Trustees in the 1980s, and Michael Orfield remains active with the school today, administering the Oath of Professional Conduct to new bar passers and attending alumni events.
Like many of his classmates, Franklin Orfield came to the law after completing military service. During his four years in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, Orfield developed business administration skills he later put to use as Business Manager of Balboa University during his time as a student at Balboa Law School.
After graduating in 1949 and passing the bar exam in 1950, Orfield struck up a working relationship with legendary San Diego divorce attorney John Holt, who reportedly wore a different suit to court each day and is credited by some as inspiration for the impeccably-dressed Arnie Becker on the 1980s television drama “L.A. Law.”
Orfield worked with Holt and other local attorneys on a contract basis before opening a partnership with David Thompson in the mid-1950s. Orfield & Thompson later became Orfield, Thompson & Bunker and then Orfield, Thompson, Bunker & Sullivan before dissolving in the early 1970s.
According to Orfield’s son, himself a retired San Diego Superior Court Judge, Governor Ronald Reagan personally called the elder Orfield to invite him to serve on the bench in 1969.
A student at UC San Diego at the time, Michael Orfield notes that his father’s varied legal experience was well suited to the judiciary.
“Of all of the people you would want for the bench, it would be someone with a multifaceted background like Dad,” he says, referring to his father’s experience in criminal and civil litigation.
Franklin Orfield served as a superior court judge from 1969-1988, overseeing hundreds of trials including two of San Diego’s longest, the historic Carlin case desegregating San Diego schools and the lengthy murder trial of David Allen Lucas, which remains on appeal to this day. His colleagues elected him Presiding Judge of the San Diego Superior Court in 1976 and 1977.
When asked to describe his father’s legacy as a lawyer and judge in San Diego, Michael Orfield points to his professionalism and civility.
“Everyone who ever came in contact with me said he was the epitome of what a judge should be: professional, courteous, who always listened,” he says. “He also had a wonderful sense of humor. I thought, if I can get half of what Dad had, I will be a raging success.”
Even those who ended up before the senior Orfield in court praise his professionalism and demeanor. San Diego television news producer J.W. August recalls the way Orfield put him at ease, even while threatening August and a colleague with jail time for their refusal to turn over material in the Lucas case.
“I felt I could trust the guy with my life and my career,” says August. “He didn’t let us down.”