Punk Rock Lawyer Joe Escalante Wants to Be a Judge

Escalante poster P

Los Angeles music and radio fans might do a double take when they read their ballots in Tuesday's countywide election. Joe Escalante, the rabble-rousing entertainment lawyer, longtime bassist for punk band The Vandals and former host at L.A. alt-rock radio station Indie 103.1, is running for an open seat as a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court.   

Escalante, 49, is one of our favorite personalities here at THR, Esq. A former CBS business affairs executive, he left his gig as a Hollywood lawyer in the mid-'90s to tour with his band, then reinvented himself as an L.A. radio personality with a well-liked legal-advice show, Barely Legal, and a general-interest morning show on Indie 103.1, which has since gone online-only. These days, Escalante is a part-time host for KTLK-AM, has worked for legal self-help company LegalZoom and has served as a temporary judge in L.A. Superior Court. 

Now he wants a permanent judgeship, and the conservative Catholic is spending about $15,000 to remind people in L.A. who know his name that he's on the ballot. He's also enlisted some Hollywood friends in the effort. "Everybody who knows me -- like the Coachella people, the Goldenvoice people -- they are all supporting me," Escalante tells THR. "I also have support from people in TV industry, the music industry and Shepard Fairey," the artist behind the iconic "Hope" poster of Barack Obama, who has created a new version for Escalante's campaign.

So far the L.A. legal community hasn't exactly been lining up to support Escalante. He approached both the L.A. County Bar Association and the Mexican American Bar Association for endorsements, but "both told me to drop dead," he jokes. "The legal establishment is mad that I didn't work at a downtown law firm." In May, the LACBA's Judicial Election Evaluations Committee said Escalante and four other candidates are "not qualified" for judgeship, according to The Atlantic. Election officials also have denied his request to add "volunteer temporary judge" next to his name on the ballot, despite his nearly 500 hours of volunteer service on small-claims cases.

Escalante believes his real-world experience and background in Hollywood is actually a plus. Entertainment litigators, for instance, often complain that L.A. judges don't understand the peculiarities of contracts in the film, television and music industries.

“I spent four years drafting them," Escalante says, "then the next four years being deposed about them."

Escalante also spent years litigating (and then re-litigating) a high-profile trademark case against Daily Variety owner Reed Elsevier over the cover of his band's album Hollywood Potato Chip, which parodied the trade newspaper's logo. In that case, which finally settled in February, Escalante represented the band himself, in the process creating a funny video lampooning Variety's then-editor Peter Bart. "I think the bench would really benefit from having one guy like me running around [the courthouse,]" he says.

If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of votes on June 5, a winner will be declared. If not, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff in November. And if Escalante doesn't win? He has no plans to pursue politics full time. "This is a one-time thing," he says.

Email: Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

Twitter: @THRMattBelloni