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Santa Monica Human Rights Warrior Judge David B. Finkel Dies

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

July 7, 2015 -- He was a young lawyer who in the 1960s volunteered legal aid to civil rights fighters in Mississippi. He defended conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. He fought for educators' right to free speech in classrooms. He defended local renters. He worked for a more inclusive Santa Monica College.

On the Fourth of July, former Santa Monica City Councilman and Santa Monica College Trustee Judge David B. Finkel died, his family and college officials said. He was 83.

Finkel died at his Santa Monica home surrounded by his family “while fireworks lit the sky,” said an obituary, “Honoring the Life of Judge David B. Finkel,” posted online over the weekend by his daughter, Amy Shimson.

Finkel was a founding member of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the City’s most influential political organization. He served on the City’s Rent Control Board in 1981 and 1983, and was elected to the City Council in 1986, serving as mayor pro tem. He was elected to the Santa Monica Municipal Court in 1990 and was elevated to Los Angeles Superior Court judge in 2002.

Finkel was elected to SMC’s Board of Trustees in 2006, serving for eight years until health problems forced his retirement last year.

“I regret having to do it. I love the college,” Finkel told The Lookout (“Former Judge David Finkel to Step Down from Santa Monica College Trustee Board,” January 10, 2014).

Blog comments and quotes from colleagues and college officials described Finkel as a soft-spoken but powerfully persuasive litigator, a patient but determined politician, and a lifelong, tenacious fighter for educational equality and human rights.

Former Santa Monica Mayor Dennis Zane vividly remembers the intelligence and “art of gentle persuasion” Finkel used to successfully include the unheard voices of tenants into a bill that continues to impact renters across California to this day.

Authored by Republican state Sen. Jim Ellis of San Diego, the bill was stuck in the Legislature when then-Sen. David Roberti, a Democrat, summoned Zane and Finkel to a private meeting in his office with the lead lobbyist for the powerful California Board of Realtors, a supporter of the bill.

“Watching David – it was so masterful. He was artful in his way of dealing with differences, even in this charged situation,” recalled Zane.

Although the Ellis Act, which gave the landlords of rent-controlled buildings who want get out of the rental business a legal process for evicting their tenants, is now law, few renters know it was Finkel who convinced the bill's staunchest supporters to include amendments softening its impacts, said Zane.

“David almost single-handedly was able to get the sponsor to make amendments to make it less onerous, although it's still very onerous,” said Zane.

“But it was very instructive how he would use his intelligence and the art of gentle persuasion to bring even the Board of Realtors to support the bill's amendments.”

That was a central part of Finkel's  “gentle almost serene” manner, his unassumingly way of injecting calm into heated issues and debates, said Zane, who had known Finkel since 1980 and served with him on the Council.

“David had a serenity, an even-temperedness that was very calming. He could calm the air just by being generous and gentle,” said Zane. “On the council, he was always the same.”

Born in Newark, New Jersey, the second son of Reva Mucha Zwolinksi and Sidney Finkel, Jewish immigrants who had fled persecution in Europe, Finkel was given the middle name “Bruce” by his parents as a way to protect him from religious persecution, wrote Shimson.

“Finkel defined his Jewish identity as synonymous with understanding struggle,” Shimson wrote. “His own family’s experiences became a springboard for a life committed to social justice causes.”

His legal career began early when he was forced to defend himself against the U.S. government after refusing to sign a loyalty oath while in the Army. Earlier Finkel’s mother had been brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Signing the loyalty oath would have forced Finkel to “in effect renounce his own mother,” Shimson wrote.

His case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Finkel successfully argued that “a son should not be forced to choose between the 10th Amendment to honor country and the 10th Commandment to honor family,” wrote Shimson.

Finkel arrived in Los Angeles in 1952, moving to Santa Monica in 1963. He bought a home in the Sunset Park area of the City in 1966, according to his self-written biography for his 2006 SMC Board of Trustees election campaign.

In 1964 Finkel, then a young lawyer, volunteered with the National Lawyers Guild to participate in Freedom Summer in Mississippi, serving on the now-famous case in which civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwermer were killed, according to Shimson and other sources.

He went on to later defend numerous clients in civil rights cases, including the freedom of speech rights of teachers and college professors, and Finkel also fought against racial “redlining” in housing in Los Angeles. He was the legal counsel for the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in Los Angeles when Dr. Martin Luther King’s visited to the city, said Shimson.

In 1990, Finkel resigned from the Santa Monica City Council to run for Santa Monica Municipal Court judge. He won by waging a door-to-door campaign and getting endorsements from SMRR. Finkel said his experience on the City’s Rent Control Board had given him the idea to run for judge.

“Sitting on that quasi-judicial board I realized that I was good at it,” Finkel told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I knew then that I wanted to be a judge. I think that with my personality and nature the judiciary is a better role for me to play in the community.”

Before being elected to SMC’s Board of Trustees, Finkel worked for five years as an adjunct professor of political science at the college.

“In my classes we do not read textbooks. Rather, we study unedited Supreme Court opinions and other original writings central to an understanding of American history,” Finkel wrote in his 2006 election bio.

“It prepares students for higher education at universities, if that is what they want, and for all other students it provides a basis for understanding the real world in which we live, with its ambiguities and changes, some subtle and some not so subtle. We examine the richness of living in a culturally diverse society.”

Because he had picked Santa Monica as his home, it was “only natural” that Finkel would eventually get involved in local politics, running for the Rent Control Board in 1980, said Zane. A year before, the city had adopted its landmark rent control law, which had a clause allowing for a board to oversee its implementation.

“The Rent Control Board would be a natural place for him to feel like he could contribute, that he was acting consistent with his long-held beliefs and what really moved him,” said Zane. “He was motivated by love.”

Finkel was married for 51 years to Bruria Finkel, an artist and feminist and an influential advocate for the arts. He also is survived by a brother, George Finkel, his children, Melva Colter, Wendie Colter, Amy Shimson and Adam Finke, and his grandchildren, Avilo Santo, Reva Santo, Rose Colter-Night and Reave Finkel.

His family asked that donations be made to the Judge David B. Finkel Social Justice Scholarship at Santa Monica College. Checks can be mailed to Santa Monica College Foundation, 1900 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA, 90405. Please indicate “Judge David B. Finkel Social Justice Scholarship” on your check.

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