Born: February 25, 1934
Judge, Orange County Superior Court, 1979-1982
Associate Justice, Court of Appeal, 4th District, Division 2, 1982
Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, 4th District, Division 3, 1982-1987
John K. (Jack) Trotter was born in New York City, but moved with his family to San Diego County while he was in high school. Trotter said there were more people who lived in his Brooklyn apartment building than in his new hometown.
Trotter attended Loyola College (now Loyola Marymount University) on a basketball scholarship but was “scooped up” into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Following his wartime service, Trotter resumed his college education at Santa Monica College. As a returning veteran with high grades, Trotter received early admittance into law school at the University of Southern California under a special program, receiving his law degree in 1961.
Trotter immediately began a very active civil trial practice. Ed Wallin, later to serve with Trotter on the Court of Appeal, described him “as good a trial lawyer as there was in Southern California.” From 1978 to 1979, Trotter served as president of the Orange County Bar Association, where he worked to institute a night court program to hear domestic and business cases using volunteer attorneys as temporary judges.
In the early 1980s, Trotter was instrumental in forming Amicus Publico, an organization dedicated to promoting access to justice for persons who could not afford to hire private attorneys. In Trotter’s words, “We began the concept that lawyers should give time to those that can’t afford to pay for a lawyer—that there should be some basis on which these people could reach competent, good lawyers to represent them.” The group later evolved into Orange County’s Public Law Center.
In April 1982, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Trotter, then a superior court judge, to the Court of Appeal’s Division Two in San Bernardino. At the time, Orange County had no appellate court of its own, although the Legislature shortly thereafter appropriated funds to establish a new Division Three in Orange County. In November 1982, the California Supreme Court cleared the last legal hurdle to the court’s formation, and Brown promptly designated Trotter to be the new division’s presiding justice. Trotter, at age 48, described himself as the “grey beard” of the court; his fellow justices, all appointed by Brown, were considerably younger.
On January 3, 1983, the state’s newest appellate court held its first writs conference in Trotter’s breakfast room “with sunlight splashing through the patio doors and coffee brewing on a nearby counter . . . .” “All of a sudden you were a justice of the Court of Appeal with three others, and figuring out how to make it work.”
Since the court opened its doors in cramped rented office space, Trotter and his three judicial colleagues walked across Santa Ana Boulevard in their robes to hold the court’s first oral argument in the Santa Ana City Council chambers. The court came into existence with a 300-case backlog, and Trotter worked assiduously to manage the flow, but the court in the rapidly growing region was deluged with new appeals. “Each year that this buildup continues,” he observed, we add four to six months to the delay in the average case.” Trotter attributed the crush to the predominance of complex civil cases within the division.
To speed up the process, Trotter instituted an automation program at the court to enable individual justices to type their opinions directly into a computer, rather than writing them by hand. By 1985, Trotter and his colleagues were averaging about 140 opinions per year — more opinions per justice than elsewhere in the state.
One of Trotter’s most noteworthy opinions required public entities to publicly disclose previously secret settlement agreements with tort litigants. The court granted a newspaper’s request to discover notes and reports by the county’s claims settlement committee in a police misconduct lawsuit brought by a jail inmate. Trotter concluded “the public interest in finding out how decisions to spend public funds are formulated and insuring governmental processes remain open and subject to public scrutiny” outweighed any interest in keeping secret its settlement policy and decisions. (Register Div. of Freedom Newspapers, Inc. v. County of Orange (1984) 158 Cal.App.3d 893.)
And, in Garcia v. Rockwell International Corp. (1986) 187 Cal.App.3d 1556, a leading employment law decision, Trotter, writing for the court, recognized a tort cause of action for retaliatory disciplinary action in violation of public policy, falling short of an actual discharge.
In 1987 Trotter resigned his position at the Court of Appeal.