Loose Cannon: Reassessing Los Angeles Municipal Judge Noel Cannon, Part I

Nicholas Beyelia, Librarian, History and Genealogy Department,
Colorize photo of Judge Nicole Cannon
Photo by Cliff Wesselmann from the Herald-Examiner Collection

On Wednesday, May 17, 1967, a petite woman sporting a pink babydoll dress and white patent leather Mary Jane shoes pulled a pearl-handled Derringer revolver and pointed it in the direction of Los Angeles reporters and photographers. Bearing a passing resemblance to one of the Gabor sisters, the model had a teased platinum updo complete with false eyelashes and frosty pink lipstick that were the hallmarks of 1960s high fashion. A jeweled letter opener perched in the woman's left palm went largely unnoticed as she raised the Derringer and assumed the combative stance of an old west outlaw. The pose was captured for posterity by the Associated Press (AP), who would dispatch the otherwise forgettable photo far and wide, resurrecting it countless times over the ensuing decades. The image itself wasn't particularly remarkable: taken under garish fluorescent lighting with a wall of West's Annotated California Codes as a backdrop, the only noteworthy thing about it was the model—who wasn't actually a model, she was a Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge. And she had just engineered her own downfall.

judge cannon in her office
Photo dated April 8, 1963, announcing the appointment of a new Los Angeles Municipal Judge, Nancy Cannon. Photo by Bill Walker. Herald-Examiner Collection

A colorful, eccentric figure from L.A.'s recent past, Judge Noel Cannon was smart, tough, and totally unpredictable; she was a "Judge Judy" type long before there was a Judge Judy. Loathed, feared, and adored in equal measures, Noel Cannon would prove to be a one-woman tornado blowing through the Los Angeles legal landscape. Although mostly forgotten, when her name is resuscitated, it is for shock value and intended as a cautionary tale to those in positions of power. Cannon is almost always depicted as a shameless, out-of-control self-promoter who compromised the integrity of the Los Angeles judicial system. It's a narrative which has stood unquestioned since 1975, when she became only the third municipal judge in California history to be removed from the bench. Today, her name and reputation inhabit a median space between a punchline and a warning, but her story is not that cut-and-dry. Few have attempted to question this narrative or contextualize Cannon's actions within the social and political climate in which she lived. Yes, Noel Cannon was flashy and brassy and cultivated a media savvy that irked her colleagues who were unaccustomed to judges, particularly female judges, being visible. The fact is that Cannon refused to be cowed by patriarchal politics and worked to fight it, often using the media to highlight what she perceived to be social injustice, particularly when that injustice was directed at women. Cannon's conspicuousness and her attempts to challenge the patriarchy at a time when neither act was politically or socially acceptable would lead to her undoing and cause her to endure a professional isolation that left her vulnerable to derision, ridicule, and even hazing. In the spirit of Women's History Month, let's shed a new light on a woman who was, in fact, a pioneer in L.A.'s legal history and an unsung feminist icon who was egregiously maligned.

Nancy Jane Stookey

a young nancy jane stookey
Judge Cannon’s 1949 Stanford Yearbook class photo. There were 36 men in her pre-law class, and she was the only female
Cannon’s Pre-law class at Stanford
Cannon’s Pre-law class at Stanford

Noel Cannon was born Nancy Jane Stookey in Price, Utah, on October 28, 1926, to Lillien and Lionel Stookey. A brother, Robert, was born in 1933, and shortly thereafter, the family relocated to San Francisco. Nancy claimed, rather ironically, that her childhood ambition was to become a "lion tamer" before she decided to follow in her father's footsteps and become a physician. She studied medicine for nearly three years at Stanford University, but her stellar performance on the Stanford debate team helped her redirect her interests to law. She earned her B.A. in 1949 and earned her law degree in 1951. Nancy Cannon was the only female graduate that year. A judicial contemporary of Cannon's, who was also the only female graduate in her class, explained that the situation was anything but amiable, "well, it wasn't a very comfortable environment. Nobody made it a comfortable environment. People who went to law school had in mind that a certain personality was necessary, and they weren't enamored of the fact that there were women who would be practicing. Many of them expressed openly to me that they felt I had no business being there because I was only going to get married, have kids, stay home, and waste a seat for some guy who could have had a career. They made generally negative comments that were pretty much sexist and reflected a very biased attitude." In 1952, the same year she was admitted to the State Bar, Cannon married a lawyer named Gean Cannon and adopted his surname (they would divorce at an unknown date for undetermined reasons). She began practicing law specializing in corporate finance before she was appointed as the first female Deputy Commissioner of Corporations for the State of California, a position she held for nine years. On April 10, 1963, Cannon was appointed to the bench by California Governor Pat Brown and landed in the Los Angeles court system. In Los Angeles, she began working in small claims court but eventually moved to traffic court, where she carved out a niche.

Judge Cannon performing a wedding ceremony
(Top) Judge Cannon being given her robe and gavel by Judge John Sobieski. (bottom) Judge Cannon before and after trying on her new robe. The Judge had a judicial robe custom made to better fit her frame, explaining that the standard robe was fine for someone with a “full back” but not a petite woman standing a mere 5’ 2”. She did not, however, have a pink robe made as some writers have insinuated. Photos by Bill Walker. Herald-Examiner Photo Collection
All accounts regarding Cannon’s early career are in consensus that she was a practical, no-nonsense judge who was honest, hard-working, and enjoyed presiding over traffic court. She made efforts to make traffic court easier for the working classes by pushing for night court as an option. She reasoned that “The working man isn’t getting his day in court because he can’t afford to take time off. So he should have his night in court. There’s no reason why a $15 million building plant has to close down at sunset. We don’t need more courtrooms, just more work from the judges and less hot air.” She believed that education was key to alleviating the number of traffic accidents and felt that traffic court should be televised for the public good: “The solution to highway carnage is public education. We have in our grasp a powerful and painless educational device: TV in traffic court.” She added that “the remedy is not to hide it but give it light.”  She also required those who had been found guilty of traffic violations to watch a 20-minute film on highway safety. She made some surprising and quite progressive additions to the court, including bringing an Alcoholics Anonymous counselor to her courtroom for those who had been brought before the court on drunk driving charges. Judge Cannon was doing her job and making some welcome additions to the courthouse that was meant to benefit the public.
Judge Cannon performing a wedding ceremony
(top) Judge Cannon performing a wedding ceremony, [ca.1963]. Herald Examiner Collection (bottom) Performing a wedding ceremony, [ca. 1964]. Author's collection
Los Angeles Times article
September 5, 1964, Los Angeles Times article announcing Judge Cannon's move to install AA counselors in Traffic Court

Nancy Becomes Noel

In May 1965, Judge Cannon legally changed her first name from Nancy to Noel (pronounced No-well). When asked why she decided to change her name, she simply replied with, "It's personal." She never discussed the change, but according to a 2020 article in Citations magazine (it was actually a transcription of a speech), Judge Arthur Gilbert suggested that this change was to avoid gendered prejudices by making people think that an individual with the name of "Noel Cannon" is probably a man. Gilbert stated, "You know what? People don't like having women on the court, and I'm controversial." So she changed her name to Noel Cannon, so maybe people wouldn't know…" This conclusion seems to fit with what we know about Judge Cannon, primarily that she liked to upend expectations placed upon her and, considering later developments, it becomes clear why she might want to obscure the gender of her name.

Judge Cannon attended the trial of Jack Ruby
In 1964, Judge Cannon attended the trial of Jack Ruby in Dallas, Texas. Given the national importance of the trial, it was odd that reporters and photographers found any time to profile any of the attendees, but they seemed to be fixated on Judge Cannon, and she looked like a queen holding court. Judge Cannon joked that her biggest fear was that she "would be mistaken for one of Ruby's strippers," a joke which seemed to break the ice and charm reporters, easing what had been a tense courthouse. She went on to explain the differences between California and Texas courtrooms, proving there was intelligence behind the glossy facade. It's also worth noting that she explained that she and Jack Ruby attorney, Melvin Belli, were "old friends." Author's Collection.
article in the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News
May 19, 1965 article in the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News noting that "some confusion" may result from Judge Cannon's name change

"The Mini-Skirted Judge"

Noel Cannon was a woman who appreciated fashion, and much of the media's attention seemed to be focused on what she wore. Stylish, not comfortable, seemed to be the salient adjective used to describe her clothing. In her first few years on the bench, Judge Cannon appeared in suits, sweater sets, and skirts with small, inconspicuous accessories. She even wore gloves. It was an era where even female police officers were forced to wear skirts, and Cannon complied with the unspoken rules of what a female professional should look like. As the 1960s progressed, however, the styles that were in vogue at the start of the decade had radically transformed by the end of it, and Judge Cannon followed suit. By 1966, in keeping with high fashion trends, Judge Cannon began sporting more of a "mod" look: miniskirts, babydoll dresses, clunky jewelry, wigs, hairpieces, false eyelashes, and, in spite of the L.A. weather, fur stoles. While Cannon never wore anything risque or provocative, her choice of outfits decidedly flew in the face of "business attire," which was still drearily stuck in the 1950s. Judge Cannon's new fashion-forward look generated an inordinate amount of nationwide press attention, and they bestowed the nickname "the mini-skirted judge" upon her. The fact was Judge Cannon looked more like a movie star than an officer of the court, and she willingly pursued what her colleagues would later claim was a need to cultivate "personal publicity."

Judge Cannon August 1965
April 23, 1967 feature story in Parade Magazine
Judge Cannon August 1965
April 23, 1967 feature story in Parade Magazine. Judge Cannon August 1965. The caption reads, "Judge Cannon's recommendations for drive-in window and other innovations are being incorporated in the plans for the new $5.4 million traffic courts building." Photo by Cliff Wesselmann. Herald-Examiner Collection

"No one would ever guess from my appearance that I'm a judge…"

From the start of her tenure in the Los Angeles judicial system, more than just her wardrobe sparked public interest in Judge Cannon. People and the press were inordinately fixated on her physical appearance. Following her appointment to the bench in 1963, an Associated Press headline read, "Blonde becomes LA Judge." The story describes her as follows: "Nancy Cannon, single, 5 feet 2 and lighter than 100 pounds, is 36." Another newspaper story that ostensibly summarizes a speech she gave on women and corporate finance in Chicago quoted Cannon as saying that "women hold a vast majority of corporate securities, but too few are actually controlled by them. Many women are in an excellent position to take an active role as a stockholder but are content to sit back and turn the job over to someone who is less qualified but who is male" and then ran with the vacant headline, "Pretty California Judge Tells Women about Securities." One reporter, Bill Hunter, who wrote about Judge Cannon in 1964 when she attended the Jack Ruby trial in Dallas (she attended on behalf of the American Bar Association) provided his Texas readership the following description of Judge Cannon: "She's 5 foot 2, has eyes of blue and weighs 95 well-distributed pounds. Her hair is a shimmering platinum and usually graced by a black bow," while another Texas newspaper described her as "a beautiful legal brief." Reports like these rarely, if ever, mentioned that Judge Cannon was a Stanford graduate, a whiz at corporate finance law, or that she was the first female Deputy Commissioner of Corporations for the State of California, serving in this capacity for nearly a decade. What they did do was feel the need to insist that she was a capable judge in spite of being a pretty blonde.

 Judge Cannon, [ca.1966]
(top) Judge Cannon, [ca. 1966].Photo by Dave Cicero. Herald-Examiner Collection (bottom) April 4, 1967 wire article written by Helen Hennessy on Judge Cannon

In an era where it was assumed that attractive women did not need to be intelligent, Judge Cannon was regularly underestimated. No one seemed to expect that this tiny, bouffant-haired blonde dressed in miniskirts could possibly be a judge, let alone smart. Profiles on Judge Cannon always included anecdotes about how she was sold short by members of the public. One report noted that she was regularly addressed as "honey" by men standing before her in a courtroom, while others unaccustomed to addressing a female Judge would sometimes refer to her as "your majesty," both titles she would immediately correct. One 1967 Los Angeles Times feature on Judge Cannon opened with her being accosted by a man described as a "Don Juan type." He addressed her as "baby" and then asked, "What's a nice girl like you doing in traffic court?" without realizing she would be the judge to preside over his case. Parade magazine relayed a story in which Cannon visited a women's prison to speak with some of the inmates. As she was being escorted by one of the guards to an interview room, another guard shouted, "Hey, Sarge, that's some doll you've got there." The senior guard scolded him and revealed the "doll" was actually a representative of the court. At department stores, clerks would inquire if her husband had authorized her to use his account (the charge accounts were in the name of Judge Noel Cannon). At parties, servants would show her the side door, assuming she was an entertainer. In some respects, she liked that people underestimated her because it allowed her to view them in situations that weren't forced by the unnatural propriety of the courtroom: "In my position, it's very important to know human nature...I have an advantage over most other judges in gaining insight into people in their natural behavior. No one would ever guess from my appearance that I'm a judge. So I get the same treatment and mistreatment as everyone else, even from the police."

Noel with 2 cops accompanying 1967
Image accompanying a 1967 Parade Magazine feature on Judge Cannon. Adsausage Archives

The Unlikely Feminist

No one would ever confuse Noel Cannon with Gloria Steinem, but she was a feminist. Cannon was committed to raising consciousness about the social, political, and legal injustices affecting women. This can be seen throughout her tenure in Los Angeles. She was appointed to the bench during a transitional time in American culture, a time when women were beginning to question the ubiquitous sexism and misogyny in everyday life, and Cannon was among their ranks. The mainstream media had posited feminism and female professionals as a threat to the patriarchal order, but Judge Cannon didn't see it that way. In 1964, Judge Cannon was questioned about her interest in the fledgling movement and defended it. "I don't claim that women are superior, only equal," she responded. She rebuked the idea that professional women were somehow dissatisfied or unfulfilled because they had "abandoned" the domestic sphere: "[The professional woman] is no longer considered a frustrated woman, but intelligent, well rounded and well adjusted, with an intense interest in her work. The professional woman would rather bring home the bacon than cook it." She pointed out that Los Angeles was among the more progressive cities because seven of its Municipal Judges were women (out of 49), but she believed that society, in general, had a long way to go and pointed to the imbalance of power. "In the battle of the sexes, the woman who is fighting is unarmed."

A view of Judge Cannon's office in the courthouse
A view of Judge Cannon's office in the courthouse. Cannon's style choices also extended to her home and office. She redecorated her office at the courthouse, changing the walls from what she described as "gas chamber green" to a soft pink. She exchanged the old, dilapidated office furniture for Louis XV-inspired decor, added a princess telephone, a shag rug carpet, and installed a mechanical singing canary. She was quick to point out that the taxpayers were not on the hook for these changes as she paid for the redecoration with her own money. The photo was published in the June 16, 1966 edition of the Herald-Examiner with the heading "Gas chamber green is out, Pink is in for the Judge." Yes, that is a plush cat perched on the chair next to her. Photo by Terry Sullivan. Herald-Examiner Collection
Judge Cannon enjoying tea in her chambers
Judge Cannon enjoying tea in her chambers. Author's collection

In a 1969 article written for the American Bar Association Journal, Beatrice Dinerman looked at gender discrimination in the legal profession. Dinerman found that gender discrimination was very real, and women practicing law had to fight harder, work longer, and be tougher just to be taken seriously. Dinerman quoted a law school dean who said, "Women feel they must be superior in order to survive, and this shows up in their dedication and productivity." In other words, women had to take on exponential responsibilities in their workload just to get a fraction of the respect of their male counterparts; Judge Cannon would be no exception. A judicial panel determined that over a two-year period, Judge Cannon presided over 4,700 preliminary hearings (15-16 per day) and 18,500 arraignments. She told the Times that vacations were more of "a bother" and took only five days of vacation time during that two-year period. "I'm a workhorse," she said. "When I finish with the cases on my calendar, I take on overload cases from other traffic judges" (the judicial panel determined that this excessive workload later factored into Judge Cannon's ultimate undoing, but more on that to come). Dinerman also found that there was an assumption that women in the legal profession were willing to desert their careers entirely if the prospect of a family were on the table, making them a "risky" prospect for employment. Judge Cannon made sure that people knew her job was paramount as she remained unencumbered, both personally and professionally, throughout her tenure on the bench in Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, Dinerman cited Judge Cannon as an example of woman who were contradicting the wishy-washy stereotypes about women in the legal profession.

Judge Cannon newspaper article
Cannon's response following the Times' publication of a story in which a marriage counselor suggested that educating women is ruining marriage. Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1964,

Second-wave feminism has been criticized for its tendency to exclude groups like minorities, but it was also incredibly unforgiving of anyone who was perceived to be "breaking ranks," and Judge Cannon was no exception. While Cannon's words and actions demonstrated her commitment to the movement, her personal style seemed to undermine solidarity with second-wave feminists. Writer Linda Scott explains in her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, "Feminist writers have consistently argued that a woman's attempt to cultivate her appearance makes her a dupe of fashion, the plaything of men, and thus a collaborator in her own oppression." Cannon's attention to personal style, fashion, and appearance seemed anachronistic when compared with the mores of second-wave feminism, yet her actions and ideology seemed to align with the overall movement. It was, no doubt, confusing and hard to reconcile the contradictions; because of this, instead of supporting Noel Cannon, the movement essentially ignored her. This ambivalence can be seen most succinctly within her judicial peers.

Joan Dempsey Klein

Cannon had a complicated relationship with her female peers on the bench. There was an unspoken idea that Cannon's style and media savvy undermined not only her authority on the bench but, more importantly, it somehow compromised her female colleague's authority as judges. The only real tête-à-tête that ended up in the press came in 1968 when Cannon's contemporary, Judge Joan Dempsey Klein, made comments about Judge Cannon that permeated both local and national news. Judge Klein passed in 2021, but she was rightfully regarded as a trailblazer within her profession and remains one of the most respected women to ever serve on the bench. Klein was appointed to the Municipal Court around the same time as Cannon, and it is striking how their stories overlapped, yet the two had entirely different approaches within their professional paths. One has to look at Klein's experience to begin to understand what happened to Cannon with the caveat that Klein was able to convey the kind of diplomacy that ultimately eluded Cannon.

Judge Joan Dempsey Klein, 1968
Judge Joan Dempsey Klein, 1968. Author’s Collection

"A Constant Source of Embarrassment…"

When Joan Dempsey Klein organized a press conference in 1968, it was to announce her candidacy to run for a seat in the Superior Court, though one would never guess that from newspaper headlines. Klein shared her news with the press and was eventually asked about Judge Cannon, who was gaining notoriety thanks to what seemed to be endless press coverage. Klein stated that she had a "fondness for" Cannon but conceded, "We feel her conduct is not befitting a member of the court." Eventually, the press was able to elicit a more damning quote from Judge Klein: "She's a constant source of embarrassment to me and every other Municipal Court Judge I know." Los Angeles Times reporter Linda Matthews asked Klein if she was, perhaps, more critical of Judge Cannon than a male jurist might be, a point to which Klein conceded, yet she did not recant her criticism. When Klein concluded the conference, she made a joke that the press reported as "one last jab" at Cannon; she stated, "Sorry boys, no miniskirts today." Rather than acknowledging what was probably the first instance of a female candidate running for a position on the Superior Court, the ensuing headlines posited Klein's press conference as a judicial catfight that was blasted throughout the national press.

Noel Cannon was fully aware of what the other female judges thought about her. Her response was to point out their inattention to their style: "...but I don't criticize their attire. I don't point out that some of them wear food on their clothing." She joked that she imagined that her peers viewed her new up-do hairstyle as the result of "unsuccessful brain surgery." But the fact was that she just didn't seem to care what they thought of her, and it bothered her colleagues that she was not willing to follow a socially ordained set of rules.

Judge Joan Dempsey Klein's press conference
Judge Joan Dempsey Klein's press conference "calling out" Judge Cannon appeared on the front page[!] of the Times, February 14, 1968. Klein's announcement of her candidacy was quickly buried in what was summarized as a "blonde vs. blonde" catfight
A sample of headlines seen across the country
A sample of headlines seen across the country

"Chased Around the Mulberry Bush…"

One can only begin to imagine the sexism Judge Cannon encountered during her tenure as a female law student, fledgling lawyer, and even as a judge in the 1950s & 60s; there can be little doubt that it shaped her outlook and approach to the world around her. It was a time when sexism and sexual harassment were socially acceptable practices, and female representation within the profession was minimal. To get an idea, we must look at some of the details Joan Dempsey Klein shared. Klein and Cannon entered into the L.A. Court system within a year of one another when it was inherently a "boys club." Klein explained that "overt sexual discrimination" was rampant. Klein recalled, "As the first judges on the superior court, my colleagues [were] saying weird things and some of us getting chased around the mulberry bush, etc." One of Klein and Cannon's municipal court contemporaries, Municipal Judge David Kennick, was infamous for addressing female attorneys and court employees as "'sweetie," "sweetheart," "honey," "dear," and "baby." He later defended these terms as having been intended as warm and friendly greetings with absolutely no recognition of how condescending these terms were for accredited professionals. Another Municipal Court Judge, Leland W. Geiler, was removed from the bench in 1973 for far more disturbing actions, including "prodding a Deputy Public Defender with a dildo in chambers," "opening his judicial robe and revealing his naked body to a court reporter," making sexually suggestive comments to (and about) court clerks and attorneys, as well as grabbing a court commissioner by his testicles.

Judge Cannon with John Hedberg (left) and Robert Brown
Judge Cannon was on the board of the Maud Booth Home for Boys and is shown here with John Hedberg (left) and Robert Brown (right) looking at books that were donated to the home by the American Institute of Interior Design in January 1964. Herald-Examiner Collection

Klein relayed that one of the biggest challenges were male lawyers arguing cases before her. She was often addressed by these men as "deary" and similarly inappropriate terms. She went on to explain another problem: "Male lawyers trying to run the court when they appeared before a woman judge...a very prominent attorney pulled that on me...and I finally had to haul him up and say, 'Listen, one more reference to the court as anything other than 'Your Honor' and you'll be held in contempt because this is a court. It doesn't make any difference who is sitting here as a judge, but it's the court, and it has to have your respect.'" Cannon, too, would have her fair share of attorneys trying to minimize her role as Judge, but she seemed incapable of distancing herself from the disrespect the way Klein had. While Klein took a more diplomatic approach, Judge Cannon refused to compromise what, in hindsight, should have been the basic respect afforded anyone on the bench - male or female. Neither Cannon, Klein, nor any of their contemporaries should have been subjected to this type of behavior, but, at this point in time, it was completely institutionalized, and this first wave of women in the L.A. Judicial system were forced to navigate through it. Eventually, Judge Klein and other women formed an advocacy group for women on the bench that conducted a study that confirmed sexual harassment in the profession and sought to educate male judges and lawyers that such actions were unacceptable. The organization, The National Association of Women Judges, was founded in 1979, four years after Judge Cannon was removed from the bench.

color photo of Cannon
Parade Magazine. Adsausage Archives

In the late 1960s, Judge Cannon's profile exploded as she began to appear throughout the local and national press. Papers like the Times and the Herald Examiner ran to profile and photograph her while wire service news agencies distributed stories across the country. In 1967, she appeared on Rat Packer Joey Bishop's new television show alongside newly elected California Governor Ronald Reagan, Debbie Reynolds, and Danny Kaye. She also appeared on Pat Boone's new talk show as well as Gypsy Rose Lee's morning show with Phyllis Diller. In April, she was courted by Life Magazine for a profile that, due to later developments, was called off. The photographs related to the profile still exist and show Cannon on the bench, at home, and practicing at a gun range alongside LAPD officers. That same year, she also appeared on the game show , To Tell the Truth in a dress designed by her friend, Hollywood couturier Donfeld (fittingly, he was also the man responsible for creating Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman costume). Her growing notoriety eventually earned her a weekly column in the Los Angeles area legal newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily Journal. In her column, "Judicial Cannons," she would call out her peers for what she determined to be wasteful behavior, inconsistencies, and questionable ethical practices in L.A. courtrooms. Cannon's obvious interest in courting the press, as well as her comments about the inefficiency in L.A. courthouses, was noticed by both her peers and the higher-ups in the court system. There would be repercussions.

Screengrabs of Judge Cannon’s appearance on To Tell the Truth
Screengrabs of Judge Cannon’s appearance on To Tell the Truth. The episode is paired with Hunter S. Thompson's appearance and is available on Youtube

Sometime in early 1967, Cannon was reassigned from traffic court to hearing preliminary trials. She regarded this transfer as punishment for making waves. In June 1967, the Times reported that "the first form of reprimand came when she was removed from traffic court where she presided until two months ago to "the oldest building where courts are now being conducted," noting that it was "the only municipal court in the structure." A second, more devastating reprimand was still to come.