Even Glaucoma Can't Keep Him Off
Jurist Uses Childhood Sight Lines for Career
By Don Ray
Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES -
One of the earliest recollections Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Brian
Petraborg has of his childhood is an incident at the family cabin up in the
The 8-year-old had climbed to the top of a tree, he said, but fell to the ground and landed on his back with a resounding thud.
"It knocked the wind out of me," Petraborg said, "and I thought I was going to die."
His folks could keep him grounded, however, only until he was breathing normally again. Then, he climbed right back up there.
"I was constantly climbing up trees," he said, "because I always wanted to see a little further."
Call it foreshadowing, maybe, but Petraborg spent much of his life consciously trying to see a little further into his own future and using that vision to plot a path that led him to a successful career.
Petraborg, 51, has been able to maintain that vision, but, ironically, along the way, he nearly lost his sight to glaucoma and related complications.
For 15 years, he has undergone procedures in both eyes. Last year, however, an infection left him with partial vision in one eye and practically none in the other.
"I've finally come to terms with, and accepted, what I have," he said, "and I'm determined to make the best of it and, if possible, turn it around."
The defendants and occasional lawyers who appear in Petraborg's traffic arraignment court in Compton are unaware that he has any trouble with his eyesight.
"I've always gotten the impression that he seemed a little formal in concentrating on his paperwork," Los Angeles attorney Arthur B. Wood said. "I didn't realize he had any sort of vision problem."
Wood did notice that Petraborg is always courteous to everybody and never unpleasant.
"He seems to try to move the cases along fairly well," Wood said, "but he takes time to talk with people now and then when it seems to warrant it."
He also said that Petraborg is good at letting people know about their options.
"His court staff is pleasant," Wood said, "and I think that reflects on his approach to how he wants business conducted."
Before judges elected him as a commissioner last year, Petraborg spent two decades handling dependency cases, first as a trial attorney and then as a referee in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Deputy County Counsel Sharon E. Yackey regularly appeared before him and came to appreciate his temperament, organization and fairness - qualities that can be difficult in a hectic dependency court, Yackey said.
"You need a special kind of judge that can handle our types of cases," she said. "You're dealing with a lot of attorneys, a lot of relatives, and everyone wants to be heard.
"He would treat everyone fairly. He never showed favoritism, and I miss him."
Takin Khorram worked as an attorney for the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles when he first appeared before Petraborg.
"I was a brand new attorney," Khorram said, "and he was patient and understanding. I found him to be fair and conscientious about what he does. His decisions were very well-thought-out and, of course, very reasoned."
Burbank attorney Diane C. Reyes said Petraborg's court had the heaviest caseload in Monterey Park during the four years she was in his courtroom.
"He was able to handle his calendar so efficiently," Reyes said, "that everybody had Friday to do their office work."
He was a hard worker, she said, who never complained about anything.
"He doesn't promote himself," Reyes said.
Canyon Country attorney Linda A. Simmons worked alongside Petraborg when he was a trial lawyer and appeared before him when he was a referee.
He's a principled man, Simmons said, but very reserved.
"You can't see what he's thinking," she said. "He doesn't fraternize with the attorneys. He never engaged in ex parte communications."
He's well-versed in the law, she added, and takes his responsibilities very seriously.
Petraborg grew up in South Gate and went to high school in Downey.
His first dream, he said, was to work in the graphics arts field, but a short stint pursuing that vocation at community college convinced him he needed to set his sights higher: He wanted to become a lawyer.
Petraborg became a political science major at Cerritos College, then transferred to California State University, Long Beach, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1979.
By that time, he had been dating his future wife for several years, but as tempting as marriage was at the time, it didn't fit into what he had envisioned.
"My plan was to establish myself as a practicing attorney and have the kind of employment that could support a family comfortably," Petraborg said.
So he focused his energy in college on learning how to learn more efficiently. Like many who were planning a law career, he anticipated that law school would be as grueling and as challenging as it had been portrayed in the film "The Paper Chase," he said.
"I was seriously training myself on how to study effectively," he said, "in a way that would gain the most with the least amount of effort."
Petraborg took the same approach to choosing a law school, he said, and ended up at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton. He was most impressed with the school's State Bar Exam pass rate.
However, even that wasn't enough, he thought, to ensure he'd pass the first time around, so he took a writing workshop and then a course on how to improve his memory.
He used his refined memory skills throughout law school, he said, and, when it came time for the Bar Exam, he put to memory everything he would need to know about civil procedure.
"The ironic thing was I did not get one question about civil procedure in my Bar Exam," he said.
Nevertheless, he was able to pass the bar on his first try.
Along with his new wife, Nancy Petraborg, he moved to Madera County and became a deputy public defender.
It was all part of the plan to learn about criminal law, he said.
While they were there, their daughter Bre arrived in their world. She's 21 now and in college.
Shortly thereafter, the family moved to San Luis Obispo, where Petraborg broadened his experience by becoming an associate of Melvin de la Motte.
True to his plan, Petraborg moved on to more experience. He spent a year in Orange County as a deputy county counsel, doing dependency cases.
When he left the county counsel's office, he tried his hand at personal injury and workers' compensation work, representing plaintiffs.
A year later, he switched to another firm to become familiar with the defense side.
In 1989, Petraborg decided to return to dependency work and accepted a job heading a team of prosecutors with Auxiliary Legal Services, an arm of the Los Angeles county counsel's office.
Two years later, Petraborg became a Los Angeles Superior Court referee.
When he was comfortable on the bench, he applied for a position as a commissioner and made it to No. 1 on two lists before new regimes abolished the lists and started over.
After 13 years as a referee, Petraborg won a seat as a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner in Compton.
But even before he became a referee, Petraborg began experiencing problems seeing things clearly.
He repeatedly went to an ophthalmologist, he said, but he never experienced the symptoms - an indoor haze that nobody else saw - while the doctor was present.
"He never came back with the word 'glaucoma,'" Petraborg said. "He would always pronounce my readings within normal limits, never recommended any drops, never referred me to a specialist in glaucoma and never recommended any corrective surgery."
After two years, Petraborg assumed nothing was wrong and quit seeing that doctor, he said. Then two years later, he inadvertently covered one of his eyes.
"About a third of the room disappeared," he said.
The elevated pressure in his left eye had damaged his optic nerve. He had surgery in both eyes to relieve the pressure that glaucoma had caused.
Then last year, his dominant right eye became infected. When he started losing vision in that eye, he went to a world-renown specialist at the Doheny Eye Institute who was able to prevent him from losing his sight completely.
For now, he says, he can see only out of his left eye, but he's hoping a custom-made contact lens will return some vision to his right eye.
The ordeal has had a positive effect on his life, however. The prospect of being blind led him to a relationship with God, he said, that he had never experienced.
"God will either heal me in this lifetime or the next," Petraborg said.
While he awaits word on the contact lens that may help - or on science to come up with a procedure that will restore his vision - Petraborg is determined to remain active.
He's able to drive his car to the nearby Green Line station, where he takes the Metro to work. And he has refused to give up his lifelong passion for snow skiing.
Twice a month, the Petraborgs escape to the family's mountain cabin. The rest of the time, he enjoys doing maintenance on the house or going to movies and dinner with his wife, daughter and mother, Kathleen Petraborg, who lives nearby.
Most important, Petraborg is looking optimistically to the future.
"This custom contact lens is part of that strategy," he said, "and, again, I'm planning and plotting to get the most improvement I can. And thanks to my surgeon and God, I have something to work with."
Very few lawyers appear in Commissioner Petraborg's traffic arraignment court. Here are some of the attorneys who regularly appeared before him when he was a referee in dependency court:
• Attorneys with the county counsel's office: James P. Leighton, Timothy M. O'Crowley and Sharon E. Yackey, Monterey Park
• Attorneys representing children: Takin Khorram, Los Angeles; Diane C. Reyes, Burbank; and Brenda C. Robinson, Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, Monterey Park
Attorneys representing children or parents: Lloyd C. Bedell, Agoura Hills; Michael D. Kandell, Manhattan Beach; Thomas W. Pichotta, Calabasas; Kenneth P. Sherman, South Pasadena; and Linda A. Simmons, Canyon Country
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