In 1961, he went into private practice and continued in that capacity for two years before becoming a San Diego Municipal Court judge in 1963. He subsequently became the first African American to serve as a San Diego County Superior Court judge in 1975. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed him as judge of the United States District Court, Southern District of California. In 1993, he attained senior status at the United States District Court.
In addition to serving as a judicial officer, Judge Gilliam also worked as a law professor at Western State College of Law, an instructor in Urban and Rural Studies at the University of California at San Diego and as a guest lecturer at the United States International University.
Due to his many contributions to the legal community and community at large, Judge Gilliam was honored with more than a dozen awards during his legal career, including, but not limited to, the following: San Diego Chamber of Commerce Young Man of the Year (1965); San Diego Citizen of the Year (1973 and 1994); San Diego Good Guy Award (1974); Boy’s Club of San Diego Golden Man of the Year (1981); San Diego Trial Lawyers Association Trial Judge of the Year (1981); and a place on the San Diego High School Wall of Honor (1994).
Judge Gilliam’s community and civic activities included participation in the following organizations: Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity; Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (Founding Member); Founder and Organizer, Black Jewish Dialogue; Chairman, Legal Committee of the NAACP; Board of Directors and Vice President YMCA; and Advisory Committees for the Board of Education on Equal Education. Additionally, Judge Gilliam served as a member of the Board of Directors for numerous organizations including the following: Villa View Hospital Foundation; San Diego Kind Corporation; Burn Institute; San Diego State University Alumni Association; Salvation Army; YMCA; Urban League; Navy League; the Burn Institute of San Diego; and 200th Anniversary of the City of San Diego.
In 1982, the Association of Black Attorneys of San Diego County (initially founded in 1976) changed its name to the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association in honor of Judge Gilliam. Judge Gilliam was the first African American U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of California and the first African American San Diego County Superior Court judge. Today, the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association represents the interests of African American lawyers, judges, law professors and students throughout San Diego County and strives to honor Judge Gilliam’s legacy of community service.
Judge Gilliam’s service to the community is reflected in the awards he received during his lifetime, including the National Bar Association’s Wiley A. Branton Award (1997) and the California Association of Black Lawyers’ Judicial Pioneer Award (1998). Judge Gilliam was also inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame, which honors lawyers who have been licensed to practice for forty years or more and have made a significant contribution to the cause of justice.
Judge Gilliam passed away on January 28, 2001, however his legacy lives on. In 2003, Judge Gilliam was once again publicly recognized as a leader, a role model, and a trailblazer when a sculpture of him was installed in a place of honor in the San Diego Superior Count’s Hall of Justice. The joint efforts of the judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, the San Diego County Superior Court and the members of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association were instrumental in having Judge Gilliam’s likeness placed in the Hall of Justice.
Other public facilities and organizations pay homage to Judge Gilliam’s legacy as well. In 2004, Congressman Bob Filner (D-51) was instrumental in enacting legislation designating one of San Diego’s postal facilities as the Earl B. Gilliam/Imperial Avenue Post Office. That postal facility was officially open in early 2005 at 5505 Stevens Way, San Diego, California 92114. Additionally, each year the William J. Oakes Boys and Girls Club hosts an annual fundraiser known as the Earl B. Gilliam Golf Tournament to raise money for disadvantage children.
Judge Gilliam’s unwavering dedication to service and commitment to community continue to encourage and inspire us.