Judge Kelvin Filer accepts Distinguished Social Sciences Alumni Award

Judge Kelvin D. Filer. Photo by Andrea Cohen.

Compton Superior Court Judge Kelvin Filer (B.A. politics, 1977) made a whirlwind visit to campus last week to accept the second Distinguished Social Sciences Alumni Award, meet with students, and field questions from aspiring attorneys during a legal studies class.

"I have the greatest job in the world," Filer told students in Ryan Coonerty's civil liberties class. "It's a joy to come to work every single day."

"The law, historically, has been the most effective tool for fighting for civil rights," Filer told the students. "The law is always going to be an effective tool for redressing wrongs. That's what separates us from other countries."

Students peppered Filer with questions about the three-strikes law, jury selection, mandatory sentencing, plea bargaining, professional burnout, and enforcement of immigration laws--"better questions than you ever ask me," Coonerty quipped as he wrapped up the class.

"I have an obligation to reach back and help somebody else, because none of us do it on our own," said Filer, an active community member and gifted public speaker who regularly visits elementary and high school classrooms to encourage young people to stay in school. "I want to let them know, if I did it, they can do it."

On Monday evening, Filer accepted the alumni award from Social Sciences Dean Sheldon Kamieniecki.

"I was born, raised, and educated in Compton," Filer proudly told the audience during his keynote address. "When you're honoring me, you're also honoring the city of Compton. You're honoring my parents, who deserve it, my siblings, my church, my neighborhood friends, my two daughters, and UCSC."

"College was not an option, because both my parents stressed education," he said. "It was expected."

Filer recalled experiencing some "culture shock" at UCSC, where he was one of only 140 black students when he enrolled in 1973. But he made lifelong friends and experienced "an academic awakening" at UCSC that helped him develop the discipline he needed to succeed at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. He passed the Bar exam the first time he took it.

At the age of 27, Filer argued People v. Taylor before the California State Supreme Court, winning an 8-0 victory that grants the accused the right to appear in court in civilian clothing. Defendants are entitled to the "garb of innocence," said Filer, proudly noting that the case was cited during the trial of O. J. Simpson.

For Filer, whose talk was entitled "What is Our Legacy?," helping others is the source of life's greatest satisfaction. "You never know who's listening," he said. "I've had at least five attorneys approach the bench to say, 'You're the reason I went to law school and became an attorney."

Earlier Monday, Filer appeared on KUSP's Talk of the Bay public affairs program. He and host Robert Pollie talked about Compton, the law, and celebrity attorney Johnnie Cochran during a free-ranging, hour-long discussion that's available for online listening at http://www.kusp.org/shows/totb.html.

Filer had lunch at the University Center with several UCSC undergraduates, as well as Paula Powell, director of UCSC's African American Resource and Cultural Center, Duane Garner, program coordinator of the center, and Heidi Renteria, associate director of development for the Social Sciences Division.