Judge Mablean Ephriam is one of the most recognized jurists in America. The Jefferson High School graduate wanted to be a lawyer since her childhood, specifically drawn to the profession because of the Civil Rights Movement and the changes she saw rapidly taking place across the American socio-economic landscape as they pertained to African Americans.
A native of Hazelhurst, Miss., Judge Ephriam—or more commonly known to television viewers as “Judge Mablean”—graduated from high school with honors, earning a four-year academic scholarship to Pitzer College in Claremont. Those early years saw her working as an investment banker with First Western Bank, and later as a corrections officer at the Federal Women’s Prison at Terminal Island. The legal profession soon beckoned and by the early 1970s she was attending night classes the Beverly Rubens College of Law (later changed to the Whittier College School of Law), while continuing her day job as a legal secretary.
Fighting for victim’s rights
In her third year of law school, Judge Ephriam was employed as a certified law clerk in the Criminal Division of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, and it was there that she discovered her passion for investigating and defending victims of domestic violence, while at the same time trying to prevent this crime through mediation between both parties.
“At the city attorney’s office, I handled domestic violence cases against women,” she said. “There were so many cases coming across my desk … I had to do something. I didn’t like to see couples fighting and harming one another, but I especially didn’t like to see couples fighting over kids. They’re the innocent parties. I also worked to see that more fathers could be allowed to see their kids.”
Judge Ephriam explained that, years ago, police didn’t routinely arrest the perpetrator in domestic violence calls. Most often, the incident was left to the couple to sort out. “Police would only bring misdemeanor cases to the city attorney,” she said, “and that meant more crimes involving family disputes came to the city attorney. Today these CAP (crimes against persons) cases are treated differently, and even if the woman declines to press charges, the perpetrator is arrested at the officer’s discretion in order to prevent an escalation of the situation that, far too often, can result in either great bodily injury [to the woman] and sometimes death.”
New remedies for domestic violence
Judge Ephriam earned her Juris Doctor degree in 1978 and was soon admitted to the State Bar of California. Not long after joining the City Attorney’s office as a prosecutor, her review of and filing of cases involving domestic violence against women caused her considerable concern. She met with and discussed remedies with the then presiding judge of the Bauchet Street Criminal Court, Judge Madge Watai, and together they devised a diversion plan specifically tailored to a victim who was reluctant to testify and often would ask for a dismissal of the case. This plea would be granted only if the defendant [usually the man] were to agree to counseling and was not involved in any criminal behavior for the next six months. The result became the Domestic Violence Diversion and Prevention Act voted into law by the legislature under the California Family Code Section 6200. As well, it was Judge Ephriam’s work with CAP that gave birth to the Family Law Center on 76th Street and Central Avenue in South Los Angeles.
“Women usually don’t want to go forward with these cases for fear of reprisal,” she said. “They’re afraid of their husband or partner. What began in Los Angeles became a statewide act. We believed that putting the defendant on probation could bide time while counseling took place. Our objective was to reduce and ultimately prevent acts of domestic violence and keep families intact.”
Judge Ephriam opened her private law practice in 1982, at last finding her niche in family law. Those years found her providing legal services and representation to women who were victims of domestic violence, and she later expanded her work to provide services to low-income persons throughout Los Angeles County. Also during this time, she co-founded the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law in Los Angeles.
Her television career began in 1998, when FOX selected her to preside as judge of a revamped version of the old “Divorce Court” serial of the 1960s. But unlike the old show which used actors to portray couples seeking a divorce, the new show would have real litigants—and a real judge—confront one another before a studio audience.
“I knew about “Divorce Court,” but I didn’t watch much television in my youth,” Judge Ephriam explained. “FOX asked me to do the show, and I agreed to tape an interview and it worked. They called me one week later and said ‘let’s get started.’” Judge Ephriam actually got the show through word-of-mouth from her colleagues, but in modesty, she says it was “divine intervention.”
Mablean Ephriam Foundation
“Divorce Court” ran from 1999-2006 with one of her favorite taglines being: “Look deep before you leap” in advising couples to examine each other’s behaviors and attitudes before getting married. Her latest show, “Justice With Judge Mablean” has been in production since 2014 and can be seen weekdays on KDOC (Channel 56) in Los Angeles. Other television and movie credits include an appearance on “Celebrity Fit Club” and her on-going role as a judge on in Tyler Perry’s “Madea” films. She also made a short appearance in the 2005 film adaptation of the play “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”
The Mablean Ephriam Foundation (a 501-3 non-profit) each year hosts the Father’s Day event called the HUF (Honoring Unsung Fathers) Awards which is a star-studded community celebration of sometimes forgotten and neglected fathers. “Putting on this brunch each year for the fathers allows them to have a really wonderful Father’s Day, to share the joy of good music, good food as well as entertainment and fellowship with family,” said the judge. The foundation has adopted two schools, Peary Middle School in Gardena, and Jefferson High School to provide academic and cultural enrichment programs and scholarships to graduating seniors.
“The foundation is there to educate minds, to provide financial empowerment and to strengthen families,” explained Judge Ephriam. “We take on issues such as anger management, child relations, and encouraging better fathers. We provide scholarships, and there is an on-going mentor program at Jefferson High School.”
In addition to her foundation, and television work, Judge Ephriam has also written a book called “Life Lessons: Tools for Weekly Living” which is a practical, “self-help” work designed to help people develop personal improvement skills.