JUDGE FLORENCE-MARIE COOPER
Judge Florence-Marie Cooper was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, the daughter of a secretary and a railroad agent. When she was twelve, her father moved the family to San Francisco, where he took a position as agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway. She grew up in the Bay Area in the 1950s, and developed a love of music that began with piano lessons.
After graduating from George Washington High School, Cooper found a job as a legal secretary in 1958. She married, and had two children, while continuing to work. A San Francisco attorney, Frances Hancock, recognized Cooper’s sharp intellect and talents, and told the young mother that she should consider becoming a lawyer herself. Cooper began taking night classes toward a college degree at the City College of San Francisco. Soon, her husband’s job was transferred, and the family moved to Los Angeles. There, she enrolled in night classes at Beverly Law School, known now as Whittier Law School, and after four years of study graduated magna cum laude and as valedictorian of her class in 1975.
After law school, Cooper accepted a clerkship with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Arthur L. Alarcón. Two years later, she took a position as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles, then returned to work as a senior research attorney for Alarcón, who had become an associate justice on the California Court of Appeal. When the justice was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Cooper stayed with the state court, working for Justice Arleigh M. Woods. Her training with these judges served her well; Alarcon in particular was influential in urging her to turn her dream of becoming a judge into a reality.
In 1983, Cooper was elected as a commissioner in the Los Angeles Superior Court. Typically, superior court commissioners hear and decide cases in rather limited matters and, unless the parties consent, it is rare for commissioners to hear capital cases. Commissioner Cooper, however, presided over ten death penalty cases, a testament to the attorneys’ confidence in her impartiality and judicial temperament. Throughout this time, Cooper was also teaching as an adjunct professor at the San Fernando Valley College of Law.
After six years as a commissioner, in 1990 Cooper was appointed as a judge to the Los Angeles Municipal Court by Governor George Deukmejian. The following year, the next governor, Pete Wilson, appointed her to the Superior Court bench. As a state judge, Cooper tried four more capital cases. She felt that criminal cases were much more demanding than civil cases because the stakes included a potential loss of freedom.
Judge Cooper has been the recipient of several awards by the legal community, including the Outstanding Jurist Award from the L.A. County Bar Association in 1999. She has been named Judge of the Year by the Criminal Courts Bar Association, the Century City Bar Association, L.A. Women Lawyers, and the Criminal Justice Section of the L.A. County Bar. In 2000, she was the recipient of the Golden Mike Award from the Radio and Television News Broadcasters Association. In 2005, 2007 and 2008, the Daily Journal named her one of the 100 most influential people in California.
Cooper’s career took a new turn when President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in 1999. She took to the federal bench quickly, becoming known around the courthouse as a dedicated jurist who was known to arrive at work by 6:30 a.m. She also became known for handling difficult and high profile cases and making tough decisions. Presiding over Altmann v. Republic of Austria in 2001, Cooper ruled that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 could not be applied to preclude a lawsuit brought by the heirs of the owners of Gustav Klimt paintings that had been looted by the Nazis and subsequently displayed by the Austrian Gallery, which is an agency of the Austrian government. Cooper’s ruling was affirmed by a unanimous ruling by the Ninth Circuit and, again, by a six-three decision from the Supreme Court. Following this decision, the parties agreed to arbitrate their dispute in Austria, and the paintings were eventually returned to the descendents of their original owners. In 2005, Cooper sanctioned the City of Los Angeles for withholding documents in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of rapper Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, ordering the city to pay $1.1 million in attorney fees. In one of her most controversial cases, also in 2005, she dismissed charges against Katrina Leung, who was accused of passing classified documents to the Chinese while having an affair with her FBI handler, James Smith. Judge Cooper decided that prosecutors engaged in willful misconduct by giving Smith a plea agreement that prevented him from talking with anyone about the case. The case of which Cooper was most proud, however, could hardly be classified as high profile. She enjoined the closing of the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, allowing it to remain open for the treatment of patients with severe disabilities.
Judge Cooper gave generously of her time in service to the legal community. On behalf of the Judicial Council, she served on the Jury Instruction Task Force, the Criminal Advisory Committee, Cameras in the Court Task Force, and was Chair of the Three Strikes Study Committee. She has been active in the L.A. County Bar Association on the Executive Committee, Litigation Section. She has been the Chair of the Media Committee for the L.A. Superior Court, former Chair of the Bench & Bar Committee for the L.A. Superior Court. She is a former member of the Caljic Committee and the California Judges Association Executive Board. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers, the Federal Bar Association, and the Advisory Board of the L.A. Commission on Assaults Against Women.
Cooper’s extensive teaching background included years of service on the faculty of the California Judicial College, National Institute for Trial Advocates, California Continuing Judicial Studies Programs, the National Judicial College, and the Rutter Group. She also participated over the years in many continuing legal education programs for bar associations.
Florence-Marie Cooper is remembered by colleagues, advocates, and litigants as an intelligent, hardworking jurist with a passion for justice and a generous, caring, and gracious personality.
Judge Cooper is survived by her husband Les Peckins and his children Angela and Chris, her daughter Karen and son Joseph, her sister Maureen, and her grandchildren Maya, Jacob, McKayla, Sebastian, Cedric, Sylvie, and Robbie.