A Feisty 82, Joe Ball Speaks His Mind

Originally printed in the Long Beach News, Thursday, June 27, 1985 

Joseph A. Ball remembers when he first put out his shingle as a private attorney in 1928. There were 40 lawyers in Long Beach.

The Long Beach Bar Association met once a month at the Pacific Coast Club on Ocean Boulevard.

“It was Prohibition, of course, and so we all brought our own bottles,” Ball recalls.

In the 57 years since, Ball has tried more than 500 jury cases and won a national reputation as a premier trial lawyer.

(The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law quotes Emil Gumpert, founder and chancellor of the American College of Trial Lawyers as saying in 1973 that Ball is “one of the few lawyers who can try any kind of litigation – criminal, civil, anti-trust, patent, anything. He’s the best trial lawyer I’ve ever seen.”)


“I value my reputation as a lawyer more than you as a client,”

  — Joe Ball, turning down business


At 82, Ball remains passionate about the law and speaks out on issues as diverse as the upcoming California Supreme Court elections in 1986, historic preservation, the death penalty and the fate of American hostages in Beirut.

After a one-year stint with the district attorney’s office, Ball spent 18 years in single practice and then, in 1948, joined with Clarence Hunt and George Hart to form the Long Beach firm of Ball, Hunt, & Hart. The firm’s principal background was in oil and gas law.

Former Gov. Pat Brown, a friend of Ball’s since 1940, joined in 1967 and became the fourth of the firm’s five current partners.

Today, Ball, Hunt, Hart, Brown & Baerwitz has some 60 lawyers with offices in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Long Beach.

JoeJoe Ball’s office in the IDM building on Ocean Blvd., sits kitty corner from the Jergins Trust Building and as Ball points out the sights from his balcony he waves a hand towards the building and says:

“That’s the only one of these damn buildings they should save. It’s got character.”

Ball remembers when the Long Beach Superior Court’s four courtrooms were in the Jergins Trust Building and the Municipal Court was housed in the Minnow Building.

Coming in off the balcony, he sits at a side table and points to his desk.

In 1935, he found the desk in a storeroom after it had been repossessed from its former owner. Ball bought the desk for $15 and had it refinished for another $15.

Like he says of the Jergins Trust Building, Ball has character. He hopes the interview will turn out well since “every time I get in the newspaper I lose more clients.”

It’s easy to see how he might lose some clients since Ball pulls no punches and speaks his mind with vigor and unvarnished candor.

He feels that lawyers today are better trained in research than appearing in court.

“They could be better trained in writing though. For me, every brief should be a work of art. I have never submitted a brief I didn’t rewrite at least five times.”

He contrasts the 25 to 30 trial cases a year he handled in 1935 with the current one or two trials lawyers may have annually and says that, on the whole, “attorneys today are not as strong in trial work.”

When it comes to trial work, Ball differs from his more famous contemporaries like F. Lee Bailey or Melvin Belli.

“A trial lawyer should be a good thinker, not an actor. I think juries are offended by flamboyance.”

Ball's Friend and Law Partner for More Than 50 Years

Ball’s Friend and Law Partner for More Than 50 Years

Ball favors a quieter, more avuncular approach. “Like a college professor,” he says. He sees his role as trying to “reduce the issues to their simplest proportion so they can be easily understood by a juror and the court. Basically, I do the thinking for the jury.”

Playing down his courtroom success, Ball says only:

“I’m lucky a lot of the time.”

But luck can’t be the only reason for his success.

In 1969, for example, Ball defended Keith Smith, a developer who wanted to build a World Trade Center in San Pedro. Smith had received the lease and spent $1 million on plans, Ball recalls, when the Los Angeles County Grand Jury indicted four of the Los Angeles harbor commissioners for receiving bribes from Smith.

The harbor commissioners were convicted of taking bribes from Smith.

 Ball, representing Smith, moved Smith’s trial to San Francisco and Smith was found not guilty of bribing the commissioners.

“Probably would have gotten the same result if I hadn’t moved the case,” Ball says.

In 1946, Ball handled a murder case in Long Beach Superior Court, stepping in after the jury in the first trial ended 17 days of deliberations in a hung vote for conviction.

Ball moved the case to Los Angeles and, after a three-month trial, won an acquittal for the two defendants.

More recently he defended (Watergate figure) John Ehrlichman in the early going of Ehrlichman‘s trial for his alleged role in conspiring to burglarize the office of the psychiatrist who treated Daniel Ellsberg.

When Ehrlichman first talked to him, Ball remembers asking Ehrlichman if he was calling to hire him as his lawyer. Ehrlichman said he was.

“Well I have to tell you, I’m a lifelong Democrat,” Ball remembers saying. “I’ve never voted for a Republican for president and I thought it was a national disaster when Richard Nixon was elected.”

Ehrlichman still wanted Ball to represent him but Ball eventually withdrew from the case after Ehrlichman refused to go along with what Ball calls a “very favorable arrangement.”

Although Ball won’t discuss what the arrangement was, 10 years after the case, Ehrlichman called Ball to say that, in retrospect, he should have taken the dal Ball had worked out for him.

John DeLorean

John DeLorean

Ball was also called in as one of the initial lawyers for John DeLorean in the maverick automaker’s cocaine trafficking trial.

In 1980, Ball handled the well-publicized divorce of Saudi Arabian billionaire Adnan Khashoggi.

When Joe Ball says he’s a lifelong Democrat, he means it. He remembers casting his first vote in 1920 for James M. Cox, governor of Ohio and Democratic candidate for president against Warren G. Harding.

After meeting Pat Brown on a train to Chicago for the 1940 Democratic Convention, the two became friends. Brown’s two campaigns for governor were both chaired by Ball who invited Brown to join Ball’s firm after his 1966 defeat by Ronald Reagan.

But Ball also says he admires Earl Warren, former California governor and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, and former California Gov. Goodwin Knight. Both men were moderate Republicans.

(“The greatest American of our age—perhaps of any age,” Ball says of Warren in an October 29, 1973 Time magazine profile.)

Earl Warren

Earl Warren

Ball worked directly with Warren on the Warren Commission’s examination of the assassination of President John Kennedy.

As senior counsel, Ball wrote most of the commission’s report and stands by their finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Ball has served in a variety of capacities on the State Bar including the organization’s president in 1957 and some 12 years on the California Jury instruction Committee.

He was also a member of the California Law Revision Commission.

For 14 years, Ball taught law at his alma mater, the University of Southern California, and will be conducting a trial practice program for the lawyers in his firm this fall.

While Ball did turn down two offers of appointment to the state Supreme Court by Pat Brown when Brown was governor, Ball has a strong interest in the court.

Particularly the re-election of Chief Justice Rose Bird and Associate Justices Stanley Mosk, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso in 1986.

Justice Malcolm Lucas, a former Long Beach attorney and Gov. George Deukmejian’s only appointment to the state supreme court, will also appear on the 1986 ballot.

State supreme court justices serve 12 years terms and must be confirmed by voters to serve additional terms.

Ball strongly denounces “all the hell-raising” about voting out the justices and says, “if Rose Bird were an associate justice, this problem would never have come up.”

Ball plans to vote “yes” to retain all five of the justices and will urge the members of his firm to do the same.

“The Supreme Court is there to do justice. It’s there to discipline the lower courts if they do something wrong.”

One of his memories of former California Chief Justice Roger Traynor is a discussion in which Traynor told Ball how much it hurt to reverse cases based on trial court errors when the criminals involved were so obviously guilty.

Ball told him to instead focus on the positive effect of the precedent on future decisions.

Bernie Witkin

Bernie Witkin

Traynor, Ball, Pat Brown, Ball’s partner Clarence Hunt and Bernie Witkin, legal scholar and author of the definitive summary of California law, were sworn in as members of the State Bar the same year.

While Ball describes his feelings about the death penalty as “ambiguous,” he does remember he and Justice Stanley Mosk as young men appearing before the state Legislature to oppose it.

It’s “terrible” for the state Supreme Court to receive death penalty cases directly from the trial courts, Ball says. He agrees with Witkin that the “automatic appeal” process should be abandoned.

While Joe Ball does not know the answer for the increase in rime within the last few years it does bother him and he isn’t shy about saying so:
“If I were on the bench I’d send every son-of-a-bitch who committed a crime with a gun or a knife to prison. But all this noise about getting tough on crime isn’t the solution.”

Adds Ball, who lives on Country Club Dr. (in Long Beach):

“It’s appalling. I wouldn’t dare walk down Country Club Dr. after dark. I never used to think anything about my children going out unattended on Halloween.”

Ball’s two grown daughters work in his firm. One is a lawyer; the other is an office manager.

Later this summer he is traveling to Russia and then to London for the American Bar Association convention. When he returns, he’ll get back to meeting with clients and supervising the management of the firm.

As the interview winds down, Ball talks about how he has never been a believer in the cocktail hour.

“It makes me drowsy and I can’t read. I’ve read every night, all my life.”

hall-of-fame-1994-ballBorn in Stuart, Iowa in 1902, Ball credits his writing skills and his love of reading to his education at Creighton University in Omaha where he received a “classical education like you’d get at Oxford or Cambridge.”

He came west with his father, a doctor, after his mother died, enrolling in USC law school and  graduating in 1927.

While he is angered over the holding of American hostages in Beirut, Ball feels that America shouldn’t launch any indirect retaliation.

“It’s like the Nazis who would blow up a city if 10 of their people were killed.”

It amuses Ball that President Reagan is perceived as being weak for not taking such action.

“It’s the only thing he’s done in the last four years that I’ve liked,” Ball laughs and, grabbing a yellow pad, heads into the law firm’s library for some end-of-the-day reading.


(Material from Time and the Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law wasn’t in the original Long Beach News interview and is set off by parentheses. Elsewhere in the Yale sketch on Ball, he won a trespassing case by getting an oil company engineer to admit he misread trigonometric tables in locating an oil well. Time recounts Ball putting his classical education to good use in a case disputing the will of a Greek businessman. “A family retainer told the court through an interpreter that the deceased had once said of a nephew: ‘I am scared he will kill me.’ Ball suggested that the proper translation could be: ‘I am afraid my relations will bear me ill will.’ “ The interpreter agreed with Ball who won the case. The Yale biography cites a 1985 California appellate decision involving a party’s use of foul language. “Not everyone can be a Daniel Webster, a William Jennings Bryan or a Joseph A. Ball,” the court wrote. Ball’s September 23, 2000 obituary from the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times obituary from September 30, 2000. Best of all, read  Ball describe his life in “A Century in the Life of a Lawyer, Reflections by Joseph A. Ball,” California Western Law Review 36 1999.)



Filed under: California History


  1. A wonderful man and a fine lawyer. Don’t make a whole lot of these guys in any generation

    Comment by john mockler — 5.29.2013 @ 4:08 pm

  2. An incredible lawyer with a bullet like memory always on the straight and narrow. A magic personality. Too bad he didn’t live in Park Estates instead of Virginia Country Club. I would have known him better.

    Comment by Michael S. Maahs — 8.23.2013 @ 1:19 pm

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