Judge Leon Emerson, lawyer who helped Downey incorporate, passes away at 90

DOWNEY – Judge Leon Emerson, who served as president of the Downey Chamber of Commerce in 1958, died in his sleep Feb. 11 at 90.  

As a young local attorney, Emerson was an active member of the Steering Committee for the Incorporation of Downey. When the movement for incorporation won the vote in 1956 (a similar vote had failed in 1954) the instant city of 86,000 began to establish processes and  take over services that had previously been supplied by the County.  

He therefore led the Chamber at an important time in the city’s early history, when debates raged about what the services would be, and how much they would cost.

He also became president of the Exchange Club and several other local groups.  He was a Scoutmaster, long-time member of Downey Kiwanis and the Shriners, and a founder of Downey Counseling Center.

In 1961, he was appointed to the Downey Municipal Court, and served most of his 30 years on the bench here. Judge Emerson was a local leader who ultimately left a national impact in his tireless crusade to get drunk drivers off the road. Time Magazine hailed him as a courtroom innovator.  

He met Bud McDonald, a former child actor in the “Our Gang” series, and they became friends and collaborators. Together they developed what is known today as the court card, used by judges nationwide to confirm attendance at a local Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting under a judge’s order. Emerson, a former Downey Toastmaster, spoke at judges’ and lawyers’ conferences all over the country to promote the concept. He campaigned for treatment programs, as well as tougher laws.  McDonald and Emerson founded the nonprofit Southern California Alcohol and Drug Programs (SCADP) to bring treatment, education and services to alcoholics and addicts.  

Like many early Downeyites, Judge Emerson came from the heartland of America. The eleventh of 13 children, he grew up on an Oklahoma farm. In WWII, he fought at Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa. He then used the G.I. Bill to attend Compton College and Loyola, and graduated from the Southwestern School of Law.  

He is survived by his wife, Lora; daughter Julia; sons David and Donald; granddaughter Ayisha; two grandsons and two great-grandchildren; and an older sister, Cleo LeVally of Oklahoma.  

A short military ceremony is set for 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 29 at Riverside National Cemetery, 22495 Van Buren Blvd. 

Judge Emerson told his daughter he wanted a “fun funeral.”  So whether attending or not, those who wish to honor him are "encouraged to wear bright, fun colors on Leap Year day.  And smile to remember the loud jackets and ties he often wore under his dark judicial robes."