Florence-Marie Cooper, the presiding judge in the current Mongols case, died late Thursday night.
At least partly because prosecutors have hidden so much of the case against the members and associates of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, that case will probably be her least well known.
She will probably be remembered longest for being the judge who decided who actually owns the rights to A. A. Milne’s cartoon character Winnie the Pooh. Milne named the character after his son’s teddy bear. (The son was Christopher Robin Milne.) Milne invented the fictional bear in 1925 and by 1931 it had become a $50 million a year business. An entrepreneur named Stephen Slesinger bought the merchandising rights in 1930. Eventually Slesinger’s heirs sued the Walt Disney Company in a dispute over merchandising revenue. The legal fight lasted for 20 years and eventually Judge Cooper ruled in favor of Disney.
Judge Cooper probably deserves to be remembered for the several notable times she defied conventional authority.
She infuriated the George W. Bush Administration when she told the United States Navy to stop testing a kind of sonar that environmentalists were afraid might hurt whales. In that ruling she quoted that the Navy’s own reports which warned that the testing, “will cause widespread harm to nearly thirty species of marine mammals, including five species of endangered whales, and may cause permanent injury and death.” That case was titled Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. and the Supreme Court overruled her by a vote of 5 to 4 the next year; not because she was wrong but because the court thought the Navy is more important than life in the sea.
“The Court does not question the importance of plaintiffs’ ecological, scientific, and recreational interests,” Chief Justice John Roberts, a Bush appointee wrote, “but it concludes that the balance of equities and consideration of the overall public interest tip strongly in favor of the Navy.”
Judge Cooper also ruled on behalf of the family of a rapper named Christopher Wallace. Wallace performed under a couple of names including The Notorious B.I.G. before he was gunned down outside the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997.
The murder remains one of those famous Los Angeles mysteries. The Los Angeles Times reported that Wallace had been murdered by the Southside Compton Crips. A writer named Randall Sullivan accused David Mack, a Los Angeles police officer, a member of a Compton Bloods set and a fellow employee at Death Row Records of killing Wallace.
Since Mack was a Los Angeles cop, Wallace’s family sued the Los Angeles Police Department for information. And, when the LAPD ignored the request Judge Cooper ordered the city of Los Angeles to pay the Wallace family $1.2 million.
Judge Cooper also outraged government attorneys when she dismissed espionage charges against a Chinese-American businesswoman named Katrina Leung.
The government accused Leung of being a secret double agent for both the Chinese and American governments. She was specifically charged with copying government secrets during love-making sessions with a man named James J. Smith. In addition to being her sex partner, Smith was Leung’s FBI handler.
When Judge Cooper learned that Smith had reached a secret plea deal with prosecutors that prohibited him from being interviewed by Leung’s lawyers she hit the roof. She accused prosecutors of “misconduct” and “stonewalling” and dismissed the charges against Leung. Leung later pled guilty to a lesser charge but never went to jail.
Who She Was
Judge Cooper planned to retire March 15th in order to take a job as a private mediator. Her husband is institutionalized with Alzheimer’s disease and Cooper could no longer afford to care for him on her government salary.
A lawyer named Richard Kendall, who represented the Natural Resources Defense Council in the Winter case told the Los Angeles Times that Cooper, “had this quiet and clear-headed courage of her convictions. There was no self-advertising as someone defiant of authority. But when she dug into a case and decided the government needed to be called to account, she just didn’t hesitate.”
In a 2006 interview with the Daily Journal, Cooper said “I do believe that I hold the government to a higher standard. If we can’t rely on the government to be honest, we are in great peril.”
Cooper was a surprisingly pretty, kind, soft-spoken, bright and matronly woman. In court she seemed to be almost religiously patient with the endless parade of legal clowns and broken defendants who paused before her. Even to a cynic, she always seemed to try to be fair.
She was born Feb. 9, 1940 in Vancouver, British Columbia. She moved to San Francisco when she was 12. As a young mother, she attended San Francisco City College for five years but never got her degree. She worked as a legal secretary. She got coffee for important people. She ran their errands and was not rewarded when she did their work for them. Eventually she was admitted to what was then Beverly Law School and is now Whittier College of Law as part of a special program for bright people who lacked college diplomas. She graduated first in her class.
In her last case she seemed not to be much impressed by biker stereotypes.
The Road Home
Judge Cooper was in poor health for the last few months of her life. She suffered from diabetes. She was also battling lymphoma and she apparently suffered a minor stroke on November 19th. She was hospitalized in St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica after a second stroke around Christmas. She died after suffering a third stroke.
She is survived by her husband, Les Pickens; her daughters Karen Albert and Angela Sample; her son Joe Andrus and her sister Maureen Kelly Schulze. She was 69-years-old.
She tried to be a good judge.
Requiescat In Pace