April 2005 Thomas D. Glasser
By Ed Butler
Marking his 20th anniversary this year on the San Bernardino County bench, Judge Thomas D. Glasser enjoys criminal adjudication to the point that it's non-work to him. A criminal trials judge at Barstow District, he exhibits a mild, considerate, congenial demeanor. Underneath that is the competitive, adventurous spirit of a man who broke out of a steelworker dynasty to fulfill the dream of becoming a trial attorney. He's also a man very content with his Barstow assignment and lifestyle, after having experienced both Barstow and more urban areas of the county growing up and as an adult.
He was appointed judge in fall 1985 by Gov. Deukmejian, after prosecuting for 11 years in the San Bernardino County district attorney's office. His work there included nine murder cases, two resulting in death verdicts, and lead attorney role in the career criminal prosecution unit. As Barstow judge he has presided over 209 jury trials including 19 murder trials. To unwind after such intense undertakings, he likes to hit the road on long motorcycle journeys.
Judge Glasser has come a long way since Charleroi, Pa., where he was born and spent half his childhood on a farm about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. He has special memories of his grandfather, whom he describes as a Renaissance man who grew vegetables on the farm as well as working at a steel mill. The grandfather was a former prize fighter who shot and dressed his own game. The family ventured to California when the future judge was about 11, his father partnering with his brother in Hancock gasoline stations at Baker, Barstow and Beaumont. When these ventures didn't work out, the family relocated to Rialto, and the judge's father rejoined the steel business at Kaiser Steel in Fontana. The judge was about in sixth grade at that time, and fondly recalls deep involvement in youth baseball, playing third base in Little, Pony and Colt leagues. His Colt team took the area championship. He went out for wrestling for a while as a student at Eisenhower High School. His mother had various jobs in the area, working for example at Fedco and the county draft board.
The judge spent two years attending San Bernardino Valley College. On summer break he joined his dad at Kaiser Steel, performing various labors in the open hearth, where the steel was made. He continued his undergraduate studies at Long Beach State University, where he graduated cum laude with a social science major with economics emphasis.
The judge says his interest in the law arose from his competitive nature, although he faced the uncertainty of moving out from a blue collar family background. He was accepted by the Hastings College of Law, but it approved deferral of his admission due to a pending obligation in the Naval Reserve. He was called up to active duty because of the Vietnam War, and ended up spending a couple of years as radioman aboard the Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier. He recalls the excitement of bombing sorties from the ship 24 hours a day, the loud racket of jets landing back on deck, and bunking in a room that accommodated 90 personnel together. While having this "great experience," he also was "very apprehensive" anticipating law school, and read numerous books to prepare himself on the subject. He says his favorite rest and relaxation ports were Sidney, Australia and Hong Kong. A major source of sustenance was the daily letters from his college sweetheart, Sue, now his wife for more than 30 years.
Judge Glasser says the competitive aspect of trial attorney work is what attracted him to law school. "The fact that somebody would actually pay you money to do something like that, it was very exciting to me." And, this career choice has turned out to be very fulfilling for him, as he anticipated. He admits that he had to adapt himself to the rigors of trial work. "I never liked public speaking (beforehand) . . . It's like anything, if you want anything bad enough . . . you will teach yourself how to do it." He says he didn't know if he could do it, but was very motivated and with time "it became very easy for me to be in the courtroom." Before finishing law school he won the opportunity to clerk at the San Bernardino County district attorney's office, and this led to prosecuting there as a licensee.
He mostly worked at the central DA's office in San Bernardino, residing in San Bernardino and Grand Terrace and overnighting at motels for cases in the desert to the east. As for seeking the work of judge, Judge Glasser says he always admired the position and those who held it. Also, it afforded a change from what he was doing. "I still get to experience all the fireworks of the trial . . . I still enjoy watching the lawyers, their ability and skills. They seem to be getting better all the time." When he began judging at the municipal court level, he rotated among civil, criminal, small claims, traffic, and unlawful detainer.
His assignment has been entirely criminal since consolidation made him a Superior Court judge in 1998, although municipal judges such as himself were cross-assigned in this county to preside over felony trials long before that. Judge Glasser remains very pleased to have his Barstow assignment and has no desire to change districts. Presiding over trials, there is "never a dull moment. I find it challenging. I've always liked the Evidence Code . . . I like the idea of being a neutral moderator of a trial." While he does miss advocacy, "I don't miss the intense work involved in being a trial attorney . . . You spend every available hour you have preparing for a trial." Despite that, it was more like fun than work to him, he indicates.
Judge Glasser says Barstow District is bearing up well under its caseload, although the area is growing as a bedroom community for people commuting to Victorville. He says attorneys in the district work well together, cooperating in the still small town environment. He also has praise for the Barstow bench working well together with well distributed workload. "I have a great courtroom staff that has been with me for years," specifically a clerk for more than 14 years and reporter for more than 16 years. Among crime trends, he reports an increase in road rage incidents and also gang activity, likely related to an increase in population. He feels the present heavy workload would justify more personnel in the district attorney's and public defender's offices. "They work awful hard. They should have some more people," he says. Also, the courthouse could use some sprucing up, in his opinion.
He reports that Barstow these days is drawing jurors from a wider geographic area, and those who respond do so without complaint. However, he regrets seeing an overall increase in failure to respond to jury summonses, necessitating a new enforcement initiative this spring. He praises the jury system as providing "that necessary buffer between the average citizen and his government . . . My experience has been that juries are smart, perceptive and, in the vast number of cases, make the right call." In his opinion, society has a "long way to go" in supporting victims and witnesses of crime, but it's probably 150 percent better than it used to be.
Judge Glasser says local judges have been asked to encourage qualified attorneys to consider seeking the job of judge. A state study has recommended nearly two dozen additional judgeships for San Bernardino County. He says a judge most importantly needs "to have an even temper. You need to have the ability to make your courtroom a friendly place. You need to be willing to work, to check the law." He says knowledge of and compliance with the Evidence Code are important, and a judge needn't yell and scream at people "You have all the trappings of authority right there." Judge Glasser says he enjoys the "humor, intellect and competitive spirit" of attorneys. His general reminders to them are short and sweet: "First, never forget that your personal integrity is more important than any one case. Secondly, he who is better prepared, wins!"
Reflecting his competitive nature, Judge Glasser likes to "keep life fun and exciting" in his leisure pursuits as well as work. "Adventure and challenges are necessary," he says. Among his adventures, he has parachuted from airplanes, become a certified SCUBA diver, and gone on extensive motorcylcing and bicycling expeditions. He and Sue camped through Europe for 63 days straight in 1978, and bicycled together the extent of the California coast from Oregon to Mexico. Only six years ago he and an attorney friend rode their Harley motorcycles around the circumference of the U.S., more than 10,200 miles. His other pursuits have included racquetball, snowboarding, windsurfing and kick boxing. The judge praises the "gutsy and adventurous" character of his wife. When he was first appointed judge, the time left on the term of office was very short. His wife encouraged him to accept the risk, and when a well established attorney confronted him at election, Judge Glasser's wife helped him collect 5,000 in-lieu signatures to successfully help win support. He has run unopposed ever since.
The judge and Sue, a schoolteacher, have a son, Ryan, who recently graduated as a physics major from UCLA. As for remaining in Barstow, the judge says his town wins hands down compared to the urban regions in the western part of the county. At Barstow, it takes five minutes to get to work, there's no smog or traffic, and "I've got the solitude of the desert." Among his activities, the judge has served as Mojave District chairman of Boy Scouts of America. In 1992 he received the Outstanding Jurist Award from the San Bernardino County Victim-Witness Program.
While an attorney he was a board member of the San Bernardino YMCA and of Option House, a home for battered women. He also has taught criminal law at Barstow Community College and evidence for the county sheriff's academy.