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March 06, 2008



Long Beach Judge Mark C. Kim made his way up the American legal ladder while honoring the traditions of his Korean parents.

By Pat Alston
Daily Journal Staff Writer
This article appears on Page 5.

LONG BEACH - Mark C. Kim was not quite a year old when his parents sent him to South Korea to live with his maternal grandmother.

Kim's father, who had emigrated from Seoul after the Korean War, was trying to establish his own business in California - a nonstop endeavor for the Kims, leaving them little time to care for an infant.

"Those were very busy and difficult years for them," Kim said.

He saw them only every year or two.

Kim was 10 when he returned to the United States to live with his parents and 3-year-old brother, Robert, now a lawyer. But Kim quickly adapted to life in Santa Cruz, where his parents opened an optical dispensing business.

He sailed through high school, graduated from UC Berkeley, earned his law degree from Cornell University Law School and, after a couple of years at a firm, joined the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Eight years later, he was about to fulfill his duty as oldest son by returning to Santa Cruz to help with the family business when Gov. Pete Wilson appointed him to Los Angeles County Municipal Court.

Thankfully, he said, his dad gave him his blessing, and Kim gave a sigh of relief. The work of a judge, he said, would be nothing compared to what he would face under the supervision of his hardworking father, who, at 74, puts in 80 to 90 hours of work a week.

"This is a piece of cake!" Kim said.

He can still say that today, even as he serves as supervising judge of the South District and presides over the hectic master criminal calendar at the Long Beach Courthouse. Mornings may find him juggling 35 to 40 early dispositions, followed by felony arraignments and other matters in the afternoon.

Attorneys who regularly appear before Kim say he handles it all with a great deal of professionalism, courtesy and, when deserved, compassion. They describe him as firm but even-keeled, a man of his word.

"He runs a very expeditious calendar," said Long Beach criminal defense attorney Theodore J. Batsakis. "He keeps things moving along."

But he's also approachable, Batsakis said.

Deputy Public Defender Brent G. Montgomery agrees.

"He is very efficient," Montgomery said. "He doesn't waste time, and he's able to make a decision, which I appreciate."

At the same time, Kim is polite to the defendants, respectful to the attorneys and considerate of his staff, Montgomery said.

"He's pretty even-tempered," he said. "He's not moody."

Occasionally, tempers fly, and someone makes an intemperate remark, Montgomery said.

"But he doesn't take it personally," the attorney said. "He just moves on."

Kim does not hold a grudge, Batsakis said.

"In the battle of arguing a case," Batsakis said, "he will not hold it against the lawyer who aggressively defends his client; in fact, I think he respects it."

Long Beach criminal defense lawyer Richard L. Poland describes Kim as "very fair but very firm."

"He's a hardworking guy [and] knows his cases very well," Poland said.

Torrance attorney Bruce B. McGregor of McGregor & Ernenwein said Kim is not a rubber stamp for anyone.

"He does not lean toward one side or the other," McGregor said. "He's his own man.

"Certainly, he wants input from all sides," the attorney added, "but he'll call it as he sees it. He makes a decision, and that's it.

"A lot of the clients are scared of him. They ... figure out very quickly that they're in front of a no-nonsense guy ... [and] they could be in trouble with him, if it's deserved."

But Kim gives a defendant the benefit of the doubt, when circumstances warrant it, Poland said.

"He is a reasonable man when he encounters reasonable circumstances," he said.

Three years ago, Poland had a "very difficult," fourth-offense, driving-under-the-influence case. His client, an accountant who otherwise had never been in trouble with the law, faced a 16-month state prison sentence.

Kim agreed to the man's placement in an intensive, one-year, Salvation Army residential treatment and work program.

"He's now been sober for two years, professionally employed [and] doing well," Poland said. "Had he gone to prison, he'd probably still be a drunk."

Long Beach attorney Jay M. Glaser of Glaser, Damone & Schroeder said Kim has keen insight into the defendants who appear before him, "in terms of what they're capable or not capable of doing."

"I think he sizes people up pretty well," Glaser said.

Kim, 45, recalls with affection his years with his grandmother.

"She was a very traditional but loving woman," he said.

Although he spoke no English when he arrived in Santa Cruz, he quickly assimilated, stumbling only briefly over a cultural difference between American and Korean boys.

"In Korea, boys are raised to be aggressive," he said.

Soccer proved a successful outlet for his physical energy, and he joined the junior varsity football team in high school.

During his senior year, he put in 35 hours a week as a student-worker at Bank of America.

Kim planned to major in political science at college, and he spent his first undergraduate year at USC.

"I wanted to get away from home ... from Northern California," he said.

He transferred the following year, however, to UC Berkeley, which offered the classes he wanted in East Asian politics. He also studied Japanese and spent his junior year at the International Christian University in Tokyo.

When he graduated from Berkeley in 1985, he enrolled at Cornell University Law School in New York, graduating in 1988.

"I was going to work for a Wall Street firm," he said.

But his parents protested.

"'If you work in New York, we'll never see you,'" he recalled their lament.

So he returned to California and joined McKenna, Conner & Cuneo in Los Angeles, where he focused on corporate transactions.

There was only one problem, he said.

"I really didn't like my work," Kim said. "It was not very interesting."

So in December 1989, he resigned from the firm, moved to Chicago, where his fiancee, Sunmin Park, was in medical school, and took the State Bar Exam. A few months later, they exchanged wedding vows in California, then returned to Chicago - in the dead of winter.

Kim had experienced freezing temperatures in Ithaca, N.Y., during his law-school days, but the wind-chill factor that winter made Chicago unbearable for him. He soon returned to California, where he joined the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, while his wife finished her medical studies.

A county paycheck could not compare with what he had been getting in the private sector, he said, but he figured the trade-off was worth it: actual courtroom experience. Besides, it was only a temporary job, he thought.

"I ended up loving it," he said.

He stayed eight years, prosecuting misdemeanors, felonies and major fraud cases. He also became actively involved in the Korean-American community through various organizations, including the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce.

He was on the job less than two years when rioting broke out in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers charged in the 1991 videotaped beating of motorist Rodney G. King. Rioters and looters targeted many businesses, including those of Korean-Americans, in South Los Angeles and beyond.

Kim, the host of a legal-education radio program, used on-air spots to beseech Korean-Americans to use restraint in their efforts to protect their property and to refrain from engaging in acts of vigilantism.

"Korean-Americans have a strong belief in law and order," he said.

A few years later, community leaders urged Kim to apply for the bench.

"There were no Korean-American judges in Southern California," Kim said.

So in 1995, he sent in his application.

"I thought it would be an opportunity - not only for me but also the community," Kim said.

Then he waited. And waited.

"My motto is if you don't try, you don't have a chance," he said.

Meanwhile, his father asked him to come home to Santa Cruz to help run the family business. As the oldest son, he was expected to take on that responsibility. His wife had finished her residency in ophthalmology at White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. If they were going to make a move, this would be the time. He made the commitment.

Then one day, he learned that the governor was considering his application.

Kim called his dad, who told him, "'If you have a shot at becoming a judge, you really should stick it out.'"

The appointment came through in December 1998, and, true to form, he dove into his work with an intensity that rivaled his dad's work ethic.

Kim had been on the bench only a year when he was in a serious automobile accident. Several broken bones protruded from his right heel. Doctors feared he would lose the foot.

"I was in the middle of trial," he said.

All he could think about was the jury.

"I called my clerk from the emergency room and told her ... I was fine and would be in tomorrow," he said.

He returned four weeks, and several surgeries, later.

"So my priorities changed," he said.

He sought a transfer from the Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles to a courthouse closer to his home so he could spend more time with his twin sons, Mark and Douglas, now 16.

In 2001, he moved to the Inglewood Courthouse, "but it was a little bit too slow for me," he said.

So the next year, he moved to Long Beach. One of the cases that stands out in his mind was the prosecution of four men in the revenge killing of another man. A friend lured the victim to a house, where he was beaten to death with a baseball bat. People v. Quintana, NA056323 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed March 27, 2003).

In the middle of trial, one of the defendants pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and testified against his co-defendants. He received an 11-year sentence. A jury convicted the other defendants of murder. The judge sentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 2005, Kim turned down a request to become assistant supervising judge of the South District.

"I really love being in a trial court," Kim said, "because I get to try cases."

Juggling a multitude of administrative duties held no allure for him: "I said, 'No, no, no, no.'"

But the next year, he agreed to serve as interim supervising judge when now-retired Judge Richard W. Lyman Jr. went out on medical leave.

"It was supposed to be temporary," he said, "but here I am."

Off the bench, Kim likes to play golf, walk Lucky, 3, and Hank, 7 months, the family's two Jindos (Korean hunting dogs), and travel. The family has been to Eastern Europe and Asia. Kim also makes frequent trips to South Korea, most recently in October when he was asked to speak about the American jury trial system, which South Korea adopted in February.

But his top priority is spending time with his sons, which usually takes place behind the wheel of his car.

"I'm kind of like my kids' chauffeur," he said.

That suits him just fine.

"I figure when they leave for college, that's pretty much it," he said.

"I won't see them again."

Biographical Information

Career Highlights: Elevated by unification to Los Angeles County Superior Court, 2000; appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson to Los Angeles County Municipal Court, 1998; deputy district attorney, Los Angeles County, 1990-98; associate, McKenna, Conner & Cuneo, Los Angeles, 1988-89

Law School: Cornell University Law School

Age: 45

Here are some of Judge Kim's recent cases and the lawyers involved:

People v. McGee, NA074746 - robbery, burglary For the prosecution: Danette J. Gomez, district attorney's office For the defense: Lee W. Tsao, public defender's office, and David Ross, alternate public defender's office People v. Stringer, NA077368 - murder, attempted murder For the prosecution: Kraig S. St. Pierre, district attorney's office For the defense: Rhonda May-Rucker, public defender's office. People v. Bermudez, NA077411 - attempted robbery For the prosecution: Kraig S. St. Pierre, district attorney's office For the defense: Brent G. Montgomery, public defender's office People v. Garcia, NA077408 - felony driving under the influence, with injury For the prosecution: Laurie L. Trammell, district attorney's office For the defense: William B. Clark, public defender's office People v. Milton, NA077329 - robbery For the prosecution: Laurie L. Trammell, district attorney's office For the defense: Charles E. Frisco Jr., Downey

The Long Beach criminal defense lawyer at the Law Office of Richard L. Poland defends people accused of committing crimes throughout southern California and the South Bay area, including the cities of Long Beach, Torrance, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Gardena, Hawthorne, San Pedro, El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Lomita, Palos Verdes, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Carson, Lawndale, Seal Beach, Signal Hill, Sunset Beach, Huntington Beach, Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Fountain Valley, Anaheim, Gardena, Lakewood, Carson, Compton, Buena Park, Fullerton, Norwalk, South Gate, Downey, Irvine, Inglewood, and Bellflower. Attorney Poland also represents clients throughout the communities in and around Los Angeles County and Orange County, and his law practice takes him from San Diego and San Francisco.