From crime to contracts, Price undergrads learn the law from judges’ perspective

April 15, 2018


By Cristy Lytal

This year, nearly 80 undergraduates appeared before a judge on a weekly basis — as part of two courses offered at the USC Price School of Public Policy. The courses are taught by Superior Court judges Tomson T. Ong and Stephen P. Pfahler.

“Their judicial experience provides students with insight into the dynamic inner workings of how the law is interpreted and enforced,” said Julie Zissimopoulos, associate professor and vice dean for Academic Affairs at USC Price. “This is a valuable learning opportunity for any student interested in a career in law or interested in better understanding the legal system and its role in public policy.”

Tools to think critically, analytically


This spring, Judge Pfahler is teaching his first undergraduate course, PPD 314 Public Policy and Law. The course covers the fundamentals of the legal system, including the nature of law and its relationship to public policy.

“I call my class ‘1L light,’ because I’m covering torts, contracts, real property, and constitutional law, but I’m doing it all in one class and all in one semester,” Pfahler said. “They’re getting an excellent overview and foundation of what it would be like to be in law school and to think like a lawyer and to apply the public policy arguments to the law. Every law has a public policy implication, and every public policy must be in conformance with the law, so there’s a real interrelationship and interplay between them.”

The students also enjoy respectful discussions about topical issues such as free speech, religious freedom, the right to privacy, defamation, fake news, police use of force, gun control, and sexual harassment.

“Probably about 50 percent of the students are seriously considering law school,” Pfahler said. “And learning how to think critically, analyze issues, put together arguments on both sides of the issue, and then reach a conclusion and support that conclusion are really valuable skills from a public policy perspective as well.”

Pfahler’s own journey to law school began early. As a student at El Camino Real High School in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, his athletic inclinations drew him to consider a career in sports law. So after earning a bachelor of science in business from USC, he attended the USC Gould School of Law.

“I had an amazing professor named Erwin Chemerinsky, who’s now the dean at [UC Berkeley’s] law school,” Pfahler explained, “but he was a professor at USC, and he got me really interested in constitutional law.”

Since then, Pfahler has furthered his expertise in constitutional law, along with civil rights, employment law, land use, public law, and education law. He practiced at several private law firms, and served as the City Attorney for South Pasadena and Rolling Hills Estates and as Assistant City Attorney for Calabasas. In 2006, he was appointed to the Superior Court for the State of California, where he hears both civil and criminal cases.

“I just consider being a judge and being a teacher to be among the highest of callings, a great way to give back, serve, and do it in a meaningful way,” Pfahler said. “And the great thing about teaching is that you get to help students become productive citizens in the future.”

In addition to teaching PPD 314, Pfahler – the proud parent of a freshman Trojan – co-chairs the Price School’s LEAP (Learning to Excel Academically and Professionally) Program, a group of parents and supporters who are committed to advancing undergraduate education at USC Price.

Exploring criminal behavior

Tomson Ong

Judge Ong leads PPD 342 Crime and Public Policy, a fall undergraduate course that he first started offering 25 years ago. The course examines the public policy-making process with a focus on crime and criminal justice. During the course, the students have the opportunity to visit a courthouse, learn theories about why people commit crimes, and discuss important issues ranging from the death penalty to gun control.

For Ong, teaching is a way to leverage his own educational and professional experience to train future generations to become good public servants and caretakers of society.

His first teachers were his maternal grandparents, who cared for him during his childhood in the Philippines. “They taught me the importance of service and the importance of having good values and ethics,” he said.

At age 13, he joined his parents in the United States, where he continued his education and earned bachelor’s degrees in speech communications and political science from USC. He attended Loyola Law School before obtaining both a Master and Doctor of Public Administration from USC Price. He served as a Fulbright Scholar and Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer in the Philippines, and also received a Master of Laws in Taxation from the University of San Diego School of Law.

During a legal career that has spanned more than three decades, Ong served as a Deputy City Attorney in Santa Ana and as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. He joined the bench in the Long Beach Municipal Court before being elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, where he adjudicates criminal cases, including violent felonies. He is also a retired Lieutenant Colonel with the U.S. Army Reserves.

Despite his breadth of personal accomplishments, Ong remains proudest of the achievements of his students. Several of his former students are practicing law in the district attorney’s office, in the public defender’s office and in civil practice, and he hopes that at least one of them will join him on the judicial bench in the not so distant future. Those students who did not pursue a law school education have ended up as elected councilmembers, peace officers, court administrators and city managers.

“The highlight of my life is watching my students succeed and do good things,” he said. He added, “I look at a lot of the undergraduate students that I have that have moved on to graduate school, to law school, to the Peace Corps, to Teach for America, to education — and I’m so very proud of them, because in a very special way, they’re doing public service and community good.”