When Beverly Hills attorney John J. Merrick was elected judge of the Malibu Judicial District in 1964, it was considered only a part-time job: The population of the area stretching from the ocean to Calabasas didn't warrant a full-time municipal judge.
While continuing to maintain his law practice, Merrick heard cases on Mondays in a small courthouse in Calabasas that doubled as a dance hall at night. He spent the remaining four weekdays in the landmark 1930s-era Malibu courthouse on Pacific Coast Highway.
But he could also be assigned to hear municipal court cases in such far-flung locales as Glendale, Indio, Lancaster and Ventura.
"I was known as 'Have Robe, Will Travel,' " he recalled in a 1986 Times interview.
By the time the judicial district's population exceeded the required 40,000 in 1973 and Merrick became the first judge of the newly established municipal court in Malibu, he was handling more than 20,000 cases a year. He remained on the bench in Malibu until he retired in 1986.
Merrick, a Malibu resident since the 1940s and a local historian and civic leader, died of pneumonia July 31 at his home in Point Dume, said his son Brian. He was 93.
When Merrick retired after nearly 22 years as the judge in Malibu, Richard Brand, a court commissioner who had worked with him for 12 years, told The Times: "We are losing an institution."
"Most people say I am a very fair judge," Merrick told The Times in 1986. "I try to see both sides, exercise some compassion and punish those who need it."
During Merrick's time on the bench, he signed the search warrant to gain access to the Spahn Ranch, the notorious home of the Manson family. And with 50 deputies guarding his courtroom, Merrick presided over the preliminary hearing of Manson family member Susan Atkins, who was charged in the murder of Topanga Canyon musician Gary Hinman.
Merrick occasionally took the heat for some of his courtroom decisions.
When a Topanga Canyon nudist club called Elysium opened in the 1960s and a number of people were arrested on nudity charges under a 30-year-old county ordinance, Merrick declared the ordinance unconstitutional.
The decision, which was upheld by the state Court of Appeal, received wide publicity.
"Despite the fact that I am a deeply religious individual who attends Mass daily," Merrick told The Times in 1986, "I was described as a pervert and received a lot of hate mail."
As the judge in a world-famous show business enclave, Merrick presided over a number of celebrity weddings, including the high-profile 1985 wedding of pop singer Madonna and actor Sean Penn on a Point Dume promontory.
"There were eight helicopters circling overhead with guys hanging out the doors filming; it was like 'Apocalypse Now,' " Merrick recalled in the 1986 Times interview. "The three of us knew pretty much what we were doing. But everybody else couldn't hear over the noise."
As a judge, Merrick was known for his sense of humor. "There are many times when you have very tense people before you, and you can break that tension with a bit of humor," he told The Times in 1969.
Those who passed through his courtroom occasionally provided their own unintentionally humorous moments.
"I had a busboy in for being drunk," Merrick recalled. "I explained the various pleas to him and then asked him how he pleaded. He answered, 'Very guilty, your honor.' "
Another time, Merrick asked a defendant if he was employed.
"Yes, sir," the defendant replied, "I'm self-unemployed."
Merrick, whose judicial career included a brief stint on the state Court of Appeal in the '80s, developed an early appreciation for humor.
The son of Irish immigrants, he was born Feb. 10, 1919, in New Haven, Conn., and grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., where he collected comedy gags in a large file and dreamed of becoming a comedy writer.
He majored in journalism in college in New York City and worked as a reporter for the Associated Press before serving in the Army as commanding officer of a tank destroyer company during World War II.
Intent on becoming a comedy writer after the war, he wrote a batch of sample scripts and sent them to the top radio comedians on the West Coast.
Hired by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in 1946, Merrick began a short stint writing for Bergen's radio show for $70 a week. He did some other comedy writing but eventually got a job as a trust officer in a bank and attended law school at night.
A Malibu resident since buying a beachfront lot at Latigo Cove for $2,300 in 1946, Merrick graduated from Southwestern University School of Law and opened a law practice in Beverly Hills in 1958.
He served as president and director of many local civic groups and led the successful effort to bring metropolitan water to Malibu and Topanga. He also served as president of the Malibu Historical Society and was a leader in the effort to save the historic Adamson House from being torn down for a parking lot.
Merrick wrote numerous books on the history of Malibu and taught courses on the subject at Santa Monica College and Pepperdine University.
Merrick and his first wife, Roberta, with whom he had four children, were divorced in the 1960s. His second wife, Marge, died in 1994.
In addition to his son Brian from his second marriage, Merrick is survived by children and stepchildren Shelly Merrick, Maria Merrick, Vicki Curran, John Merrick, Liz Klein, Robert Rowland and Patricia Howard; 13 grandchildren; and a number of great-grandchildren.
A celebration of Merrick's life will be held at noon Aug. 25 in Elkins Auditorium at Pepperdine University in Malibu.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun