The Punk Rocker Who Would Be Judge

The Vandals' Joe Escalante has grown up to be a conservative lawyer with political aspirations. That doesn't mean he's stopped making noise, though.

Joe at Harvard -PHOTO CREDIT Sandra Escalante 615.jpg
Sandra Escalante

John Yoo isn't generally associated with icons of anti-authoritarianism. But five days after a judge threw out a lawsuit that a convicted terrorist filed against Yoo for penning the George W. Bush administration's "torture memos," Yoo was on the phone, vouching for a punk rocker.

Or specifically, a punk rocker by the name of Joe Escalante, the Vandals bassist who's campaigning to be a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge but is running into legal problems.

Escalante, 49 of Signal Hill, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, is a member of the area's gracefully aging rocker sect answering what happens when punk grows up. Some of Escalante's peers went on to start record labels and families. Some cultivated new music careers in their 40s and 50s. Others got their Ph.D.s, fell into drugs, or became Subway sandwich artists. Escalante, though, ended up with seemingly the least punk-rock resume of all: a law degree, a legal expert job, a career in entertainment law, and conservative Catholic bona fides. But he's managed, perhaps inadvertently, to keep the spirit alive by running for a judgeship with the express disapproval of the local legal establishment, facing down a lawsuit from a Hollywood publication, and generally saying the kinds of things in public that conservative J.D.s with political aspirations don't say.

Escalante says he was too nice to the bar committee. "I should've said, 'You're a jerk.' I should've said"—here he shifts to guttural caveman grunts—"OHHERHHHHERHH. OH I TOO LAZY."

The Vandals made a name for themselves in the '80s with their witty, tongue-in-cheek humor in songs like "I've Got an Ape Drape" (their ode to the meth-riddled Inland Empire) and "Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government)," and albums such as Hitler Bad, Vandals Good and Live Fast Diarrhea. Escalante was just 17 when he joined as the drummer (he later became the bassist). While the band still performs sold-out shows around the globe, Escalante allocates the rest of his time as a legal advice radio program host on Indie1031.com and KTLK; providing free legal advice via Facebook for LegalZoom, an online, legal-document-preparation service; being an entertainment attorney; and volunteering his time as a temporary judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court system. He's also a contributor to Ricochet.com, an online attempt to reinvent conservatism for the internet age, which is why Yoo—now a Berkeley law professor—was willing to get on the phone and back Escalante's contested free speech claim as a judicial candidate.

After racking up 20 years as an attorney and some 480 hours as a volunteer temporary judge presiding over everything from unlawful detainer lawsuits to small-claims cases, Escalante this year decided to put his name on the ballot for an open judicial seat for the upcoming June 5 election. He even has a red-, white-, and blue-hued campaign poster designed by Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic HOPE image of President Barack Obama.

But it hasn't exactly been a smooth race. In what Escalante says is a violation of his constitutional rights, election officials have denied his request to list his ballot designation as "Volunteer Temporary Judge."

"They're afraid someone will volunteer for one day so they can use that for their [ballot designation]," Escalante says. "I mean, can you imagine? To abridge someone's free speech for something like that? For what? So you can have that dumb title? It's not that great of a title!"

That's what I called Yoo for his opinion about.

"My understanding is that [Escalante] sometimes serves as this kind of temp or substitute judge, a state court trial judge," said Yoo in a careful, deliberate pace. "And he wants to run for permanent judgeship, and he's prevented from listing on the ballot that that's what he does.

"Obviously the government can say if you're a Republican and you're running for office, you can't put down you're a Democrat," Yoo continued. "Or you can't put down some fictional title, like you're Quartu from some foreign planet... But I don't see why the government has any case to restrict [Escalante] about his description of himself."

In early May, the Judicial Election Evaluations Committee (JEEC), an organization within the Los Angeles County Bar Association that evaluates judicial candidates, labeled Escalante and four others as "not qualified" for judgeship. At the committee's evaluation, Escalante says, officials called him lazy due to his lack of megafirm experience. (Committee members haven't responded to interview requests.)

"I've been called many things before," Escalante says. "But never lazy. If [JEEC] thinks what they did was drudgery, I have a lot of respect for it, but there's a lot of drudgery with what I've been doing, too, waking up at 4:30 in the morning to do a radio show or riding in a van with stinky band members.

"I was too nice to [the committee]. I should've said, 'You're a jerk.' I should've said"—here he shifts to guttural caveman grunts—"OHHERHHHHERHH. OH I TOO LAZY."

Escalante's history of not quite fitting in with his legal-world peers dates back to his days as a young law-school grad in 1985. He chose not to go work in a firm—a decision he says has returned to haunt him in the Los Angeles bar's dismal evaluation of his qualifications to be a judge.

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Vickie Chang is a senior editor for Buzz Media, based in Los Angeles. She has written for SpinVillage VoiceLA WeeklyOC WeeklySF Weekly, and others.

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