James “Jimmy” Reese ’46 is a busy man. On a recent day, he did some early stock market trading, arbitrated a dog bite case and set up meetings for a new education intervention program administered by USC.
At 92, Reese doesn’t plan to slow down any time soon.
“You have two choices when you wake up in the morning: Live life or stay in bed,” he said with a chuckle. “I choose to stay busy and enjoy every day. You never know if it’ll be your last.”
Reese, an active member of the California Bar for 66 years, currently is helping USC to launch an intervention program for 7- to 10-year-old low-income boys attending public schools in Los Angeles. He has pledged $100,000 to the effort.
“Many of them are in fourth grade and can’t read,” Reese said. “If you can’t read, you can’t write and you can’t communicate. I think we have given up on these boys, and eventually they wind up incarcerated. I think a case may be made that their constitutional rights to a good education are being violated. I want to create a program that will teach these boys once and for all how to read.”
Reese opened his law practice after graduating from the USC Gould School of Law and later becoming the first African-American Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner. He also worked as an attorney for legendary singer Ray Charles in the 1950s and ’60s.
“I came out to California while I was on active duty in the military during World War II, and I met Crispus Attucks Wright ’38, who was one of about a dozen black attorneys in Los Angeles. I talked to him and saw what he did, and wanted to do the same thing.”
Two weeks before his military duty was up in 1943, Reese dropped by USC Gould dean William G. Hale’s office the Friday before classes were scheduled to start.
“I said I wanted to go to law school,” Reese said. “The dean’s secretary looked at me and gave me a test. She corrected it and told me to show up for classes on Monday. That was that.”
After graduating, Reese opened his own firm. In 1952, Charles asked him to work on retainer and later persuaded him to join Ray Charles Enterprises as in-house counsel.
Reese worked for Charles through the 1960s, though from 1965 to 1967 he received a special assignment from former Gov. Edmund G. Brown to head California’s Office of Economic Opportunity. In this position, Reese increased free legal aid from two programs to more than 100.
“This is one of the proudest accomplishments of my career,” he said.
In 1970, Reese became L.A. Superior Court commissioner. Five years later, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him as judge to the Municipal Court and, eventually, Superior Court. During his tenure on the Court of Appeal and in the appellate department of the Superior Court, Reese authored more than 30 opinions certified for publication.
At 70, he retired from the bench to work for Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services (JAMS), where he has heard more than 1,000 cases and developed a reputation as a skilled mediator. He has particular expertise in settling personal injury, medical malpractice, business, law and discovery, labor relations, real estate, sexual harassment and wrongful termination cases.
“Judge Reese is a well-respected and seasoned mediator and arbitrator,” said Gina Miller, vice president for JAMS’ Southwest region. “His intelligence, compassion, generosity and calm demeanor make him a favorite among clients and staff alike.”
Reese grew up in racially segregated New Orleans. He said a pivotal moment came when he was about 10 years old, and his father made an ugly, drunken scene at his elementary school.
“I’ll never forget my teacher took me in her arms and said, ‘Jimmy, you’re not your father. You can really be someone one day.’ I always remembered that. It carried me through,” Reese said, tearing up. “I get emotional when I think about that.”