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Bench Clearing 

Humboldt County's judicial turnover, two decades in the making

Twenty years ago in these very pages, the North Coast Journal ran a story about an unprecedented turnover in the Humboldt County judiciary. Over the span of just 24 months in the late 1990s, Humboldt saw five of its seven judgeships change hands amid a youth movement. Well, history repeats.

In the last week, Humboldt County Superior Court Judges Dale Reinholtsen and John Feeney announced their retirements — Reinholtsen when his term is up at the end of the year and Feeney effective next month — after a combined 40-plus years on the bench. Their retirements follow those of Timothy Cissna, who stepped down this month, Marilyn Miles, who hung up her robe in July, and Bruce Watson, who retired in January of 2016. And in the midst of all this, Humboldt County saw its local federal magistrate judge Nandor Vadas step down last year, making way for Robert Illman to fill the role.

In all, it's a dramatic change for an elite club that wields tremendous power over the citizenry of Humboldt County. After all, trial judges decide child custody cases, marry people, grant divorces, authorize the seizure of personal property, protect people's rights and decide when — and for how long — someone's freedom should be taken away. In the most extreme of cases, they sentence people to death.

The vast majority of Humboldt County's judges were appointed to the positions. Christopher Wilson, who, come Reinholtsen's retirement, will be the longest tenured on the bench, is the last person to win a contested judicial election in Humboldt County, having done so in 1998. All others were appointed by the governor and have since run uncontested for re-election. That is also likely to change in November, as two local attorneys — Lawrence Killoran and Lathe Gill — have filed paperwork with the county elections office indicating they intend to run for Reinholtsen's seat.

Gov. Jerry Brown has already appointed former Humboldt County Conflict Counsel Greg Elvine-Kreis to fill Watson's seat and Kelly Neel, a former deputy public defender and deputy prosecutor in Humboldt, to take Cissna's. Who will take over Miles' and Feeney's seats remains to be seen but Court Executive Officer Kim Bartleson says she expects to see Brown make appointments by the end of the year.

In an interesting historic footnote, Brown, 79, is now appointing judges to replace those who replaced his appointees. During his first stint as governor from 1975 to 1983, Brown, a Democrat, appointed the three judges who left the bench in the late 1990s, making way for then Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, to appoint Feeney, Cissna and Reinholtsen.

While party affiliation undoubtedly plays some role in the appointment process — a lengthy affair overseen by the governor's office with input from the state bar and local attorneys — superior court judgeships are nonpartisan positions and most agree politics don't get much traction in the courtroom, where judges are expected to — and generally do — follow the law.

But there is no escaping that judges come from different backgrounds and bring different experiences with them to the bench. Reinholtsen, for example, was a former deputy prosecutor who'd spent two decades in private practice. Cissna and Feeney spent their careers largely practicing civil law before coming to the bench.

In contrast, Elvine-Kreis and Neel have spent their careers in criminal courtrooms, Elvine-Kreis representing indigent defendants for the county and Neel as both a prosecutor and a deputy public defender.

Dustin Owens, past president of the Humboldt County Bar Association, says both will likely have to do a lot of work to come up to speed in civil and family law. Elvine-Kreis has been working in the family law court since his appointment and Owens says he's been impressed with what he's seen so far, saying he's been in control of his courtroom, prepared and fair. Neel, Owens says, has been spending some time in the civil court watching case calendars since her appointment, apparently preparing to step into her new role next month.

"There's a learning curve with judges and staff helping them to learn processes," says Bartleson  adding that new judges are sent to a judicial orientation and a two-week judicial college under the umbrella of the Judicial Council of California.

The Judicial Council's trainings have been invaluable, Elvine-Kreis said in an email to the Journal, adding that he's attended ones on family, probate and dependency law. Each, he said, was taught by a California judge and spanned multiple eight-hour days. Elvine-Kreis conceded his learning curve has been steep, prompting him to spend a lot of daily hours on his own studying the law and picking his fellow judges' brains.

"All the judges have an open door policy, in that I can email them or go to their chambers when I need direction," he said. "I have even asked judges to leave the bench when an issue has come up that needs immediate attention. We all communicate with each other and having the more experienced judges available is invaluable."

He added that he's gotten some great advice — never get behind on your work or it will pile up and you'll never catch up, seek out other judges for direction, practice mindfulness — both at trainings and from his colleagues.

Locally, Elvine-Kreis and other new judges' learning curves will likely only be sharpened by Humboldt County's impacted calendars and heavy caseloads. Even with the new appointments, the county will soon have two judicial vacancies, meaning it will have to continue to bring in visiting judges to keep its courtrooms open and cases moving through the system. Bartleson says she's been leaning heavily on the governor's office to move quickly with appointments, saying she calls every few weeks to make sure our rural county is on governor's radar.

"The only thing I don't have is a bat phone, but I call on a regular basis and I've developed a rapport with the office," she says.

Whenever the governor pulls the trigger on his appointments, local attorneys will have some new faces to get used to. While Owens says all the county's retiring judges were really good and fairly uniform in their rulings, he says each had his or her own ways of doing things. Reinholtsen and Feeney had "wonderful judicial demeanors," he says, noting that Cissna wasn't always "as pleasant" in court but was equally fair. But over time, Owens says, attorneys can become familiar with the local bench. Different judges expect varying levels of decorum, are partial to different procedures and have their own ways of considering the law, leaving them more likely to be swayed by certain arguments and/or legal theories. Knowing all this can be an advantage.

For his part, Elvine-Kreis said he's loving the new job — calling it the greatest honor in his professional life — though he's working longer hours than he expected. The inside-the-courtroom stuff is going well, he said, but he noted that he feels the weight of the position — and the exclusivity of being just the 30th judge in the county's history — more acutely than he expected.

"I have found that what is more difficult is the weight of the decisions that impact peoples' lives in such personal ways," he said. "I spend the majority of my time in family court and making decisions based on what two parties are saying in court can be a profound challenge."

"... What I hope people can understand is that judges take an inordinate amount of time studying the law and applying it to the individual cases in attempts to come to a fair decision," he continued. "We are trained to put aside biases, personal or otherwise, and to render decisions not on what we believe, but what the law says. I think a huge misconception is that judges are just lawyers who get to make decisions now and are the same people as they were when they were lawyers. This is not true. Once you become a judge, you are no longer a lawyer, no longer an advocate for one side or the other, you are the person who listens and applies the law."

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct the spelling of Kim Bartleson's name and the dates of Jerry Brown's first stint as governor. The Journal regrets the errors.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. He can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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