Respected East County jurist inducted into San Diego County Bar Foundation’s Memorial

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Gilbert Harelson served as La Mesa’s city attorney during two intervals, 1956 to1958 and 1959 through 1970. In that interruption from 1958 to 1959, Harelson was a Municipal Court Judge in the El Cajon Judicial District. And that only covers Harelson’s specific East County-based service to the law.

Gilbert Harelson served as La Mesa’s city attorney during two intervals, 1956 to1958 and 1959 through 1970. In that interruption from 1958 to 1959, Harelson was a Municipal Court Judge in the El Cajon Judicial District. And that only covers Harelson’s specific East County-based service to the law.

Harelson retired as a Superior Court Judge in 1987, and he passed away a little over a year ago, on May 25, 2015. Harelson was recently inducted into the San Diego County Bar Foundation’s Distinguished Lawyer Memorial. This honor recognizes deceased lawyers and judges of the San Diego County Bar who had long careers demonstrating superior legal skills and high ethical standards. 

For over half a century, Gil Harelson was all that. His colleagues admired his even-handed application of the law to parties appearing before him, his fairness and sense of justice, and his courtroom demeanor. But he was also known for his disarming wit and barbed humor on the bench and beyond, often as chief roast master of the San Diego bar. 

In a May 25 reception at the San Diego County Bar Association, Harelson and his colleagues among this year’s inductees into the memorial rolls were each recognized with a permanent plaque in the Hall of Justice at the San Diego County Courthouse. The other 2016 inductees were Paul D. Engstrand, George McClenahan, Judge Gordon Thompson Jr., and Judge Douglas R. Woodworth.

Harelson studied at the University of Southern California, was admitted to the California Bar in 1949, and joined the San Diego County Bar Association in 1951. Early in his career, he put in brief stints as a deputy district attorney and a deputy attorney general. He was a Superior Court Judge from 1970 until 1987, serving as Presiding Judge of Superior Courts in 1981 and 1982. For several years after 1987, Harelson was a panel member for Judicial Arbitration & Mediation Services. His private law practice in La Mesa spanned 34 years.

Notably an avid sports fan, Harelson was specially chosen by Superior Court Presiding Judge Donald Smith to preside over the infamous 1980’s lawsuit pitting arch-rival football opponents Eugene Klein, former owner of the San Diego Chargers, against Al Davis, managing general partner of the then-Los Angeles Raiders. That court case closed out Harelson’s career on the bench. Harelson joked to colleagues at the time that he had thought of doffing his judicial robes for a black and white referee’s uniform during the trial.

He was often assigned to handle settlement conferences in civil cases, because of his fair treatment to contending parties. And as he mulled retirement, Harelson stated that his most memorable work had been on murder trials. 

The San Diego County Bar Foundation is the San Diego County Bar Association’s charitable arm, dedicated to benefiting underprivileged local communities by providing access to support, funding and public service programs with legal services. Over 40 legal aid and public interest organizations have been beneficiaries of the foundation’s charitable efforts.

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