A LEGACY OF HONESTY, FAIRNESS AND DECENCY
Ask almost any member of the tight-knit Monterey County legal community and they will tell you that Judge Nat Agliano was simply among the best.
Agliano died this past summer at age 90, but many describe the legacy he left as one of honesty, fairness and basic decency that those in the legal community should aspire to.
The American Bar Association states that judges “are like umpires in baseball or referees in football or basketball. Their role is to see that the rules of court procedures are followed by both sides. Like the ump, they call `em as they see `em, according to the facts and law — without regard to which side is popular (no home field advantage), without regard to who is `favored,' without regard for what the spectators want, and without regard to whether the judge agrees with the law.”
Agliano's colleagues say that fit him to a “T.”
Defense attorney Larry Biegel resonated with that metaphor.
“I was the type that wanted to be a player, and he wanted to be a referee,” Biegel said, “and he did so without fear or favor.”
Agliano was a judge on the Municipal and Superior Court benches in Monterey County, appointed to both by Gov. Reagan in 1971. He was a justice on the state 6th District Court of Appeal for eight years, including as presiding justice, appointed by Gov. Deukmejian. He was a pro tem (temporary) justice on the California Supreme Court in 1990.
After stepping down, Agliano handled Superior Court assignments elsewhere in California, and he worked for many years for JAMS, a company that resolves disputes through mediation and arbitration, until health forced him to retire. Agliano also taught at the Monterey College of Law.
Away from his legal work, he learned to play several musical instruments and loved to garden, particularly raising tomatoes. The Agliano family enjoyed vacationing in Lake Tahoe and visiting the family of his wife, Lil, in Washington State. There were regular Agliano family dinners, but Sunday afternoons were reserved for a family meal at the Pacific Grove home of his mother, Mary, where her son carried on the family tradition of making meatballs.
“Attorneys trusted his sense of fairness and fidelity to the law,” said retired Superior Court Judge Robert O'Farrell, who served as a pro tem justice on the California 6th District Court of Appeal in San Jose.
“Nat was our anchorman, universally respected, calm, steady, contemplative, and always thoroughly prepared,” said Bill Wunderlich, who was a Superior Court judge and then a justice on the state 6th District Court of Appeal. “He seldom raised his voice, but he left no doubt as to who was in control of the courtroom. He was my favorite judicial mentor.”
Retired Monterey County
Supervisor John Phillips knew Agliano for five decades. The judge officiated at the wedding ceremony of John and Patti Phillips in 1971. Phillips appeared before Agliano as an assistant district attorney, tried most of his big murder cases in his courtroom and supervised deputy district attorneys who prosecuted cases in front of him for a dozen years.
Phillips then served briefly with him as a Superior Court judge, before Agliano was elevated to the appellate court, where Phillips joined him on a pro tem basis for eight months.
“I immediately visualize the man sitting on the bench — with the scales of justice behind him,” Phillips said, reflecting. “For me he was the epitome of `The Judge.'”
Phillips called Agliano “the finest judge I ever appeared before — ever. And we had a hell of a great bench in Monterey County before and while Nat was on our bench. Nat was the best. He let you try your case and didn't try to push or micromanage it. But if you pushed too far, he let you know it. Usually just a look was enough. You never wanted to disappoint him because we held him in such high esteem.”
“The law was never just a job to him,” said Julie Porter, one of Agliano's three daughters. “It was his passion.”
Agliano had told me several years ago, “I always felt that the most important part of being on the bench was to listen and to listen carefully. You don't want to reach snap judgments.”
“Nat really listened to attorneys, and even if initially heading in a different direction he would really listen to you, and rule in your client's favor if presented with a convincing argument that was supported by the evidence,” said Phillips.
Tom Wills, who appeared before Agliano as an attorney before being appointed Superior Court judge in 2008, said, “He always seemed to have the ability to get to the heart of an issue and address it head-on.”
“Judge Agliano set an example for all of us as judges, by showing that he truly listened to those in his courtroom, by being patient even when we were imperfect, by showing respect for each of us, and by showing his humanity,” said retired Superior Court Judge Susan Dauphine. Agliano was among those who encouraged her to apply for a judicial appointment.
Robert Moody, a retired Superior Court judge after being a deputy district attorney, said Agliano “would guide your testimony or your legal presentations with thoughtful questions, but he paid serious attention to each speaker. Add to that a keen intellect, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the law, plus the ability to research and learn what he needed to in each case.
Whether you won or lost, you had the feeling that you had been in the presence of greatness.”
Attorney Tom Jamison's first court case was about 40 years ago in Agliano's courtroom, where he witnessed the judge's innate listening ability. It was a complicated matter involving a sand company's existing mining in the coastal zone. The California Coastal Commission attempted to halt the usage.
Jamison filed suit. He and a state deputy attorney general argued long and hard before Agliano.
“Nat never interrupted or urged us to hurry up,” Jamison said. “He was attentive and courteous, clearly listening to what we had to say. At the end he asked a question that was on point and indicated that he understood the issues and the arguments. I had been apprised of how good Nat was, but I still left impressed with the feeling that it was a worthwhile experience and the sense that both sides had had a fair hearing.”
The judge ruled in his favor and was sustained on appeal. Jamison attributed that victory to helping his development as a land-use attorney.
When Biegel arrived in Monterey County as a deputy public defender in 1975, after practicing law in the far larger Los Angeles Superior Court for several years, he didn't expect to find luminaries on the much smaller Monterey County bench.
“Boy, was I wrong,” Biegel said. “When I first appeared in Judge Agliano's courtroom, I immediately saw a judge who had complete command of his courtroom, the respect of the attorneys who appeared before him, and most importantly was a patient, articulate judge who announced his decisions with precision. He was born to be a judge.”
Born to be a judge? That probably didn't seem likely when he was a boy. For one thing, Nat didn't learn English until he was 7. His parents, Frank and Mary, were Sicilian immigrants who in 1920 settled in Philadelphia, Nat's birthplace. But English came quickly in parochial school, “as we had Irish nuns who weren't going to learn Italian,” he once told me. The Aglianos moved to the Monterey Peninsula when Nat was in his early teens. His parents found work at a cannery.
Following high school Agliano attended Monterey Peninsula College, where he played baseball and football, before earning an undergraduate degree in 1954 at UC Berkeley, where he played both sports. Next came two years in the Army. He received his law degree from UC Hastings in San Francisco, now the UC College of the Law, San Francisco, and passed the bar.
Then came serving as a deputy district attorney for the state of California and almost nine years locally in private practice. In 1971 his bench appointments followed, and Agliano served 13 years in Superior Court.
“I really got to know him best when he was on the appellate court, where I would see him daily, and sometimes even commute with him when I was assigned there,” O'Farrell said. “We would sometimes talk more personally. It was clear that he was totally devoted to and loved his family, was very proud of all of them and enjoyed spending time with them.”
Attorney Andrew Swartz vividly recalled his first appearance in Agliano's courtroom about 50 years ago as “a very young and an inexperienced lawyer trying my second civil jury trial.” He was the plaintiff's attorney squaring off against a more experienced lawyer.
“I had a very tough case, representing a cocktail waitress who was hit by an insurance agent on his way to work. This case should not have been tried, but I was too young to know when not to try a case. Judge Agliano treated me with kindness and understanding,” said Swartz.
Agliano suggested that he accept the offer of a small settlement from the defense. Swartz declined.
“The jury deliberated for all of 30 minutes and brought back a 9-3 defense verdict,” said Swartz. “The three young men on the jury who voted in my client's favor all wanted dates with the cocktail waitress; otherwise, it would have been 12-0 for the defense. In later years Judge Agliano discussed that early trial, reminding me in a respectful manner that all young lawyers need to learn from their early trials.”
Fairness was synonymous with Agliano.
“I remember when in the late 1970s he received an invitation to play in The Crosby, as the AT&T tournament was called then, and he was super excited,” Biegel said. “He told us he had to spend a lot of money on getting new `duds' for this chance of a lifetime. Then, a case involving Bing Crosby's brother was assigned to him, and he felt he had to decline the invitation because he might be accused of some sort of favoritism if he played. Some years later he was again invited to play in the tournament; this time there was no impediment to accepting the invitation.”
Dean Flippo, who was the longest serving Monterey County District Attorney, with 30 years at the helm, described Agliano as “a scholarly gentleman. He treated everyone, including the defendants . . . with respect and dignity. In my many discussions over the years with colleagues, I always stated that should I ever pursue a judgeship, I would want to model myself after Nat Agliano.”
Robert Jones, retired longtime court reporter for The Herald, spoke of Agliano's “thoughtfulness and humanity. He had a way, when a lawyer made an objection, of sitting there and thinking about it. Then he would say, `I may be wrong, but I'm going to sustain (or overrule) the objection. You can certainly take it up on appeal.' That `I may be wrong' is something I never heard another judge say.”
“Unlike some judges whom I have appeared in front of, I never observed Nat call out a lawyer or be rude to those who appeared in his court,” stated attorney Chuck Keller. “If he had an intimidating bone in his body, I never saw evidence of it.”
“Judge Agliano treated everyone with the utmost courtesy and respect,” said Don Freeman, a longtime municipal attorney. “He never got upset or rattled.”
Kay Kingsley, a retired Superior Court judge, fondly remembered lunches with Agliano during which “we would speak about legal issues and pick each other's brains for ideas and perspectives. Nat had the most stimulating and thought-provoking way of conversing about legal cases. When I think of Nat I think of his insight into human nature and society, his calm and comforting demeanor, his acceptance and tolerance of opposing points of view, and his deep and enduring friendships with so many. I was grateful to be counted among his friends.”
As a measure of the esteem in which fellow attorneys held him, the Monterey County Bar Association's lifetime achievement award was renamed after Agliano in 2018. He had received the honor in 2011.
Giving back to his community college, Agliano helped found the MPC Alumni Association, then served on its board many years.
Renee Kezirian, the organization's co-president, called Agliano “a key person in consensus building and problemsolving. He also possessed a phenomenal background on the history of the college. We shall always remember his cordial ways and the essential goodness he showed whenever we talked.”
Scott Ferreira, Corral de Tierra Country Club's general manager and previously its head pro, remembered Agliano telling him how much he loved playing golf there.
“He was always working on his game, tinkering and trying to make it a little bit better,” Ferreira said. “Whenever we talked, it was always a positive conversation that made you feel better about yourself. He was wonderful, kind and cared so much about people.”
Corral de Tierra member Larry O'Neill estimated that he had played golf with Agliano once or twice a week for the last half-dozen years.
“In as much as he was a fiery competitor, he was as polite as they come,” said O'Neill. “We would talk about everything, from the law to relationships to marriages and how to be a good man and husband. He was on this earth for a reason, and it was easy to see why. He was warm, caring and respectful. Nat only wanted you to succeed, whether on the course or in life. You don't see that a lot in people. You came away thinking what a wonderful human being he was.”
As he made his way through law school some 65 years ago, Nat's wife, Lil, devoted herself to allowing him to concentrate on his studies and worked to support him, said daughter Julie.
“I appreciated that he would encourage me to follow my passion of travel and I was able to travel throughout the world,” said Lil Agliano.
After 68 years of marriage, Lil was holding Nat's hand and singing to him when he passed. In addition to Lil and Julie, Nat was also survived by daughters Lisa and Cheryl. A son, Michael, predeceased him.
O'Farrell described Agliano as “a man of easygoing, good-natured dignity, a man who projected both wisdom and common sense, a likable man without any pretentiousness. He was known for unquestioned integrity and a steady, consistent approach to matters. There was nothing mercurial about the way he presided or handled cases.”
Offered Moody: “He was the role model we had hoped for: Every single day, in our practice and application of the law, our performances were influenced and enhanced, our excesses moderated, and our outcomes improved by virtue of Nat's example.”
Reflecting on a half-century of their rich connections and collegiality, John Phillips said: “Nat Agliano never realized what a great man he was, or if he did, he did nothing to convey that image. He was the most humble great man I ever met.”