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James Ross, 80; judge was great-grandson of Jesse James

Retired Orange County judge James Ross with a painting of his great-grandfather. (Ygnacio Nanetti, Orange County Register via Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES -- Retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James Randal Ross, a great-grandson of Western outlaw Jesse James, died Monday at age 80.

Judge Ross, who spent 29 years as a lawyer in Los Angeles, served as a Superior Court judge from 1983 until his retirement in 1995. He was a Fullerton resident at the time of his death.

In 1984, he gained notice for his ruling that Disneyland had violated the civil rights of two gay teenagers when security guards removed them from the Anaheim amusement park for dancing together. The next year, Disneyland ended its longtime policy prohibiting partners of the same sex from dancing together.

But in 1997, Judge Ross, who continued to hear cases after his retirement, also made headlines for a series of misconduct charges. They included accusations that he dozed on the bench during two trials, told an off-color joke during a sexual abuse case with the victim present, used the court to sell copies of a book he wrote about his notorious ancestor, and humiliated and intimidated attorneys.

In a letter to the judge, the state Commission on Judicial Performance offered to drop three of the charges if he pleaded guilty to the one accusing him of exhibiting an angry demeanor to attorneys in a personal-injury case.

In his written reply, Judge Ross refused to concede to any of the accusations.

"I will not back down," he wrote. "As a direct descendant of Jesse James, no one in our family backs down."

At the conclusion of the hearing, during which he represented himself, the commission ruled that he abused his power and upheld all the allegations except for falling asleep during trial. In 1998, the commission censured Ross, which prohibited him from receiving assignment, appointments, or references of work from any state court.

As a boy, Judge Ross used to listen to his grandfather, Jesse James's son, Jesse E. James, tell stories about the outlaw, who, along with his brother Frank, fought with Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War and then launched the string of robberies that made them infamous.

Judge Ross tapped those stories in writing "I, Jesse James," his 1988 book published by Dragon Publishing Corp.

"He did a lot of research of facts and then he filled in the facts with what his grandfather had told him, a lot of family history," said Judge Ross's daughter, Liza Ross-Suwczinsky.

In a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Judge Ross said the experience of writing the book, which is told in the first-person voice of Jesse James, strengthened his bond with his family heritage. "I don't know what he actually said or thought, of course, but I feel I know so much about him that I can capture the way it might have been," he said.

In writing the book, his daughter said, "he wanted the accurate story of Jesse James told, both the good and the bad, and let people decide for themselves."

Ross-Suwczinsky said her father, who once appeared on a History Channel segment on Jesse James, had a collection of James memorabilia, including a gun and holster, a rifle and boots, and other family heirlooms, which he donated to the Jesse James Farm and Museum in Kearney, Mo.

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