Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association

Who was Judge Earl B. Gilliam?

Earl Ben Gilliam (1931-2001) is remembered as much for his warm, expansive personality and gregariousness as for his matchless accumulation of professional and civic awards. With a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State and a law degree from Hastings College of Law, he was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1957 and began work in the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. From 1961 to 1963 Gilliam was in private practice operating from a “storefront” and volunteering a considerable amount of pro bono legal assistance. At age 38, and at a time when there were only five Black attorneys in town, he was appointed to the Municipal Court in 1963, thereby becoming the first African American judge in the city and county of San Diego. He was elected Presiding Judge in 1971.

Governor Jerry Brown elevated Judge Gilliam to the Superior Court in 1975 making him the first African American judge for the San Diego County Superior Court. He became the first African American U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of California six years later when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. Judge Gilliam proudly held this position until his death.

While making judicial history, Judge Gilliam found time to serve on the boards of the Boys Club, YMCA, Salvation Army, UC San Diego, and a host of other civic and professional organizations. His many honors include awards from the San Diego County Bar Association, the California Association of Black Lawyers, the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association, and the National Bar Association. In 2003, the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association (EBGBA)—a group previously called the Association of Black Attorneys of San Diego County but renamed in his honor—memorialized Judge Gilliam with a plaque in the San Diego Hall of Justice. In 2001 the Honorable Judge Earl B. Gilliam Luncheon and Golf Tournament was christened as an annual event. Judge Gilliam was honored by Thomas Jefferson School of Law, where he taught as an adjunct professor, with the naming of the Honorable Earl B. Gilliam Moot Courtroom which is used to hone the skills of future trial attorneys. In 2004, a new facility in the Encanto community of San Diego was designated as the Earl B. Gilliam Post Office.

Upon Judge Gilliam’s passing, The Criminal Justice Memorial Internet site of the San Diego County Bar Association eulogized him thusly:

As a sentencing judge, he was known for his compassion, his dedication to trying to understand the individual in front of him, and his leniency for first-time offenders. He was respected for his ability to explain the sentence imposed to defendants and their families in a manner that kept them from feeling bitter toward the criminal justice system. Judge Judith Keep related that Judge Gilliam made
everyone who appeared before him feel the warmth of his soul and the breadth of his humanity.

Revised and edited. Original article written by Robert Fikes, Jr., Librarian at San Diego State University, for publication in the San Diego Lawyer Magazine, June 2001.