California Bar Journal
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'Tough but fair' prosecutor will lead bar
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Blue the skink ignores the coaxing of his mistress, refusing to show off the blue tongue for which he is named.appears to be filibustering, reading from the trial transcript for much of the afternoon. And this is a bench trial, so there is no audience, no jury to impress with sweeping gestures and colorful language. Frankly, it's a little boring - even the judge makes a wry comment or two.

Although she's slouching at the attorneys' long table, and if one is vigilant, she can be caught - once or twice - rolling her eyes at the defense's monotone monologue, Nobumoto's own argument is all business. Animated and concise, she summarizes testimony given by alleged victims. Then she breaks for lunch in the criminal court's cafeteria.

"It's nothing like a jury trial; in the end, passion doesn't win the day with the judge," she said.

Later in the week, Hylland was found guilty of 27 charges and sentenced to a 13-year prison term. But because practicing law without ever having had a license is a misdemeanor, most of the prison time comes from convictions of felony grand theft.

It bothers Nobumoto that shysters so often prey on recent immigrants and the poor - she is committed to diversity and plans to make minority and disability issues the hallmark of her presidency.

And it frustrates her that UPL is difficult to prosecute under current state laws.

"We as a bar need to lobby Sacramento, make this a felony. We need to look at prosecution, not just prevention," she said.

Had there been a jury in this court, Nobumoto would have talked at length about the real harm of UPL: the house lost by one woman forced to declare bankruptcy after dealing with Hylland; the visitation rights that were damaged by Hylland's failure to appear. This is the harm that cannot be assuaged by a few thousand dollars in restitution.

"Much of this harm is not economic; it's the havoc done to these people's families," Nobumoto said.

Nobumoto's license plate reflects her dedication to the State Bar.In less than a half-hour, three defense attorneys have approached the cafeteria table, appearing in succession as if swept in Nobumoto's direction. "You know what makes her a great prosecutor?" said Andy Stein, a criminal defender who took a seat opposite the prosecutor and stayed to chat awhile. "She's more interested in doing the right thing than winning."

That's not to say she tends to lose her cases: Of 20 felony trials she prosecuted for the county's central trials division, 18 resulted in guilty verdicts, two in plea bargains.

Stein, a private practitioner from Bellflower, has opposed Nobumoto in a handful of felony trials, and, he estimates, as many as 50 court appearances.

"I like having someone like her on the other side. She's not easy. She's not soft. She's hard-nosed and tough, but fair," Stein said. "If you're not prepared, you're going to get hammered by her. She'll take your head off in the courtroom."

Little gets in the way of Nobumoto, 49, when it comes to doing what she believes is the right thing. Not even the sight of blood.

She recalled an incident early in her career in which she badly sliced her finger on a defective chair, in the middle of a preliminary hearing. Bleeding profusely and in terrible pain, she wrapped her finger in napkins and continued arguing as if nothing had happened.

"Finally, the judge leans over and says, 'Ms. Nobumoto, do we have a problem?' I said, 'Yes sir, your honor.' I remember I was too afraid to stop because of (the defendant's) right to a continuous preliminary hearing."

High-powered L.A. attorney Johnnie Cochran shares the stage with Nobumoto at a reception held in honor of her election as bar president.During her term as the State Bar's first woman minority president, Nobumoto will be working in the D.A.'s employee relations division, where she can take on fewer cases and steer clear of long days in court. But she's already thinking about where she'll land when her year is up.

Right now, she's thinking arson.

"The science aspect is appealing to me; the evidence these investigators find tells the whole story - it's really amazing," Nobumoto said. "(And) they're such horrific crimes - not only were these people killed, but they suffered to death."

Then again, she muses, she also is interested in fraud, in helping to knock people like Hylland, the unlicensed practitioner, out of commission.

Whatever she sets her sights on, her record virtually seals her success. In addition to an alphabet soup of professional affiliations, Nobumoto's 12-year career has included a promotion to the county's elite career criminals unit and recognition as 1998 Prosecutor of the Year by the Century City Bar Association. 

"She's one of our best; we're proud of all her accomplishments and we're happy to have her here in any capacity," District Attorney Steve Cooley said. "But believe it or not," he added, "we do have a few other able attorneys who can fill in for her" during her presidency.

Nobumoto's downtown office is pretty much wall-to-wall boxes as she prepares to move into the new position, which happens to include a slightly plusher office in another building.

Nobumoto takes notes in an afternoon meeting with her boss, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley."Just that seems like withdrawal. I should be happy, right?" Nobumoto said. "(But) I'd rather be in total squalor, doing the real stuff."

Stein said that early on, other attorneys could tell Nobumoto would be a great prosecutor by the compassion she showed for victims and in some cases, for defendants with sympathetic circumstances. She didn't showboat, he said, and she didn't always throw the book at defendants - especially those accused of crimes related to poverty - as some zealous young lawyers might.

"She's a good lawyer, but she's a better human being and that's what it's all about," Stein said. "Everyone knew right away Karen was going to be a good D.A. because she's real, she has real-life experience."

Born in Cleveland and raised in Los Angeles, Nobumoto received her J.D. in 1989 from Southwestern University School of Law. Her mother was a schoolteacher; her father, a social worker.

"Government service is in our blood; I was raised in a community-service environment," Nobumoto said.

Nobumoto's family is also filled with artists: her 38-year-old sister, Lisa, is a jazz musician; the family also is related to noted jazz musician Charles Lloyd. A Dallas cousin is a painter, and Nobumoto's home is dotted with the woman's African-American themed oils and pastels.

Active in the bar since she was admitted at the end of 1989, Nobumoto was elected to the board of governors just in time to help rebuild the bar following its dismantling in 1998. In winning the presidency, she beat out all four members of the third-year class.

She is being sworn in this month at the State Bar's Annual Meeting in Anaheim, but for the last six months she has traveled extensively in preparation for her post. 

It's difficult to believe law is the tough-talking attorney's third career, following stints as a marketing representative for IBM, and - even harder to imagine - a preschool teacher.

But at her hilltop home near Pasadena, Nobumoto produces a scrapbook filled with sponge paintings, crayon scrawls and rudimentary lettering. She still remembers all her former students, though the kids are now teen-agers: Who was better with fingerpaint; who had trouble forming the letter "c"; who was a troublemaker; who was particularly precocious.

"I had 3-year-olds. When I walked in the door in the morning, I was surrounded by hugs," Nobumoto said. "You walk in and get nothing but love - pretty cool job."

When you walk into Nobumoto's contemporary, two-bedroom house, you get Kiki, a skink with a prehensile tail. Kiki, 12, has a large cage to herself in the light-filled foyer, where the reptile lazily greets guests. She's alone because she refused the company of her male counterpart, Blue, named for the color of his tongue. Blue was granted asylum in the kitchen.

The reptiles have been with Nobumoto throughout her legal career, replacing an iguana who died. Both skinks together are much smaller, and according to Nobumoto, are each easily twice as intelligent as their predecessor.

Bar junkies still talk about the time Nobumoto appeared at a bar commission meeting in the early 1990s with Kiki peeking from her long, dark mane.

"(But) I've reformed," she insisted. "That's a lesson for the ambitious young lawyer - whatever you do at the bar, they'll still be talking about it 12 years down the line."

Dom Perignon, Nobumoto's best friend.Kiki and Blue are firmly entrenched among the black-laquered, Asian-influenced furnishings in Nobumoto's home, but they share the space with the rest of her small zoo: Banana Boat the box turtle lives in the bedroom; Rasta the chinchilla occupies the television room; Yin and Yang, a pair of green parakeets, separate the living and dining rooms; and Dom Perignon, the cocker spaniel, pretty much has the run of the place.

As she travels the courthouse halls, Nobumoto seems to collect people - they just gravitate her way as she speeds from one floor to another, from Cooley's expansive office to the spartan cafeteria to the courtroom. It's impossible to slow her momentum, but she manages at least a chirpy greeting - even if it's only a partial sentence - "Hey, how're . . . great!" - tossed in the direction of colleagues, friends and admirers.

At home, she collects things. There are the pets representing land, sea and air, of course, as well as 300-plus bottles of wine in the cellar, more than 1,000 VHS tapes and dolls from around the world.

The dolls represent different points of travel, serving to remind Nobumoto that there was a time she took pleasure trips, not just the business variety.

A major movie buff, her shelves contain examples of nearly every genre from the 1970s to the present, especially comedies: In the "A" section, it's "Action Jackson" to "Austin Powers." Her all-time favorite movie, though, is "Gone with the Wind."

 Although Nobumoto enjoys sharing her many wines and champagnes with guests, she cannot bring herself to crack open any of her 1990 bottles of Cristal or Dom Perignon.

"I didn't even crack one when I was announced bar president," she said. "I don't know what occasion's going to be special enough."