December 19, 2014

Malibu Judge John J. Merrick Dies at 93

 

PHOTO COURTESY LA TIMES

Malibu Judge John J. Merrick Dies at 93

Judge Merrick was a familiar face to Topangans.

Judge John J. Merrick, a Malibu resident since the 1940s, a local historian and civic leader, died July 31 at his home in Point Dume, of pneumonia.

The son of Irish immigrants, John J. Merrick was born Feb. 10, 1919, in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up in Bronx, NY. 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.

After the war, he wrote some sample comedy scripts and sent them to the top radio comedians on the West Coast. He was hired by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in 1946 and began a short stint writing for Bergen's radio show for $70 a week.

In 1946, Merrick bought a beachfront lot at Latigo Cove for $2,300. He graduated from Southwestern University School of Law and opened a law practice in Beverly Hills in 1958.

Merrick was elected judge of the Malibu Judicial District in 1964, when it was considered only a part-time job. By 1973, Merrick became the first judge of the newly established municipal court in Malibu and was handling more than 20,000 cases a year.

Los Angeles Times reporter Dennis McClellan writes: “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.’"

He retired from the bench in 1986.

Merrick 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. He 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 died in 1994.

Merrick is survived by seven children and stepchildren; 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.