Judge Earl Gilliam

Gilliam, Earl Ben ( 17 Aug. 1931 – 28 Jan. 2001), federal judge, educator, was born in Clovis, New Mexico, the son of James Earl Gilliam, a small business owner, and Lula Mae Gooden.  Gilliam spent most of his boyhood Oklahoma City before his family moved to San Diego, California in 1941.  At the end of the Second World War his father opened the Louisiana Fish Market on Imperial Avenue in the heart of the city’s African American community and Gilliam spent many after-school hours assisting the family business while attending San Diego High School where he was an outstanding tackle on the football team.  While attending San Diego State College he enjoyed acting in plays and was one of the earliest pledges of the school’s first black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi.  Upon earning his bachelors degree in accounting in 1953, Gilliam entered the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and was a classmate of future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.  His marriage in 1956 to the former Barbara Jean Crawford, a county Probation Department employee, produced two sons.  Completing his jurist doctorate and passing the bar exam in 1957, Gilliam returned to San Diego and started work as a criminal investigator for the district attorney’s office and later was a deputy district attorney for three and a half years.  He resigned in 1961 and went into private practice as a general practitioner.

      His high standing in the city’s predominantly black community known as Southeast San Diego and his connections in the Democratic Party undoubtedly helped Gilliam to become the first African American judge in San Diego County when Gov. Edmund G. Brown named him to fill a vacancy on the San Diego Municipal Court in 1963.  Subsequently, he was elected by the voters to serve a six-year term on the court and eventually became its presiding judge.  During the late 1950s and early 1960s Gilliam, an active liberal Democrat, distinguished himself in the arenas of community and professional service as a member of the city’s Interracial Council, as a county juvenile justice commissioner, a member of the Southeast Chamber of Commerce, the advisory committee to the San Diego Board of Education, and as a member of the federal, municipal, and reconciliation committees of the San Diego County Bar Association.  In 1969 Gilliam began teaching as a professor and head of the Trial Practice Department at the Western State University Law School and continued instructing classes at the newly established Thomas Jefferson School of Law in 1996.  He also taught in the urban and rural studies department at the University of California at San Diego and was a lecturer at United State International University.  In 1975 he became the first African American to serve as a judge of the Superior Court for the State of California.  President Jimmy Carter appointed Gilliam to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California in 1980.  He reached senior status on this court in 1993.  

      Gilliam presided over some of the most sensational and far reaching cases in San Diego   in the post-war era, among them the 1985 trial of attorney Phillip A. DeMassa (United States v. DeMassa) on charges relating to his connection with the notorious Coronado Company which since the late 1970s had smuggled unprecedented amounts of marijuana and hashish into the United States; the prolonged 1986 criminal trial United States v. Telink in which government employees allegedly took kickbacks and bribes from a telecommunications company; the 1988 case concerning the fraudulent multimillion dollar Ponzi scheme of investment pitchman J. David Dominelli and his mistress and business partner former Del Mar, California Mayor Nancy Hoover; the 1989 case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. which resulted in a national standard for trial courts authenticating scientific evidence; and the 1992 overbilling fraud case involving National Health Laboratories in which government prosecutors won a record setting $110 million judgment.

      Blessed with a keen intellect necessary to untangle and explain legal complexities, Gilliam also possessed a warm and gregarious personality and was widely revered by many while both on and away from the bench.  He was particularly outspoken on matters concerning racial equality, women’s rights, and youth education and guidance.  Gilliam chafed at federal sentencing guidelines which he contended discounted what he called “the human factor” in determining punishment.  Members of the Association of Black Attorneys of San Diego County were so impressed with his accomplishments and his performance as a mentor and role model that in 1982 they renamed their group the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association–a rare honor for someone still living—and later initiated a scholarship fund in appreciation of his contributions to his profession and his promotion of a civil society.  Gilliam was quite active in community development and he founded, inspired, and served on the boards of numerous San Diego organizations including the Burn Institute, VillaView Hospital Foundation, the YMCA, Salvation Army, and the Urban League.  Gilliam suffered a personal setback and public embarrassment in 1990 when his eldest son, Earl Kenneth Gilliam, a cocaine addict, was convicted of robbing two cab drivers.  The son died in 1999.  In 1995 the judge married his second wife, the locally prominent feminist attorney Rebecca Prater.

      In his closing years on the bench he received a host of honors and recognitions including being named San Diego County Bar Association Legal Professional of the Year, garnering the National Bar Association Wiley A. Branton Award, and the NAACP Civil Rights Pioneer Award.  A portrait of Gilliam was hung in his high school and the moot courtroom at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law was named in his honor.  Following his death from heart disease, the Earl B. Gilliam Memorial Golf Tournament was launched, a memorial plaque and bust of Gilliam was enshrined in the San Diego Hall of Justice, and a new U.S. postal facility near his former home was christened the Earl B. Gilliam Post Office Building.


Further Reading

Moran, Greg, “Memorial Honors Late Judge Gilliam,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 20 June 2003.

Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association. “The Honorable Earl B. Gilliam: 1931-2001”. Internet article at: http://www.ebgba.com/html/earl_b_.html

Petrillo, Lisa, “Judge Earl Gilliam, Country’s 1st Black Jurist Dies,” San Diego Union Tribune, 29 Jan. 2001.


Judges of the United States (Second Edition, 1983).

Robert Fikes, Jr.