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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Judges who launched pioneering court programs receive Aranda award

By Psyche Pascual
Staff Writer

On Ventura County Superior Court Judge Colleen Toy White’s desk sits a photo of 15 young mothers.

Colleen White

The mothers were graduates of the drug dependency court program White launched in 2000. By helping the moms gain parenting skills and get treatment for substance abuse, participants were more likely to avoid another clash with the law. White also launched similar programs to help the military veterans struggling with mental health problems, the homeless facing vagrancy charges and elders dealing with domestic violence complaints.

It’s a sweet memento of the babies they cradle, but it is also a reminder of how White’s work in the courthouse has kept them out of legal trouble.

“There’s a lot more to life than crime and punishment and putting people in jail,” said White, 71, who spent more than two decades in the district attorney’s office. “We deal in people’s lives literally being turned around.”

White’s work in creating such programs is a major reason reason she’s received the 2016 Benjamin J. Aranda III Award. This year, White and San Diego County Superior Court Judge Julia C. Kelety were honored as co-recipients.

First awarded in 1999, the accolades are named for Judge Benjamin J. Aranda III, the founding chair of the Judicial Council's Access and Fairness Advisory Committee. The award honors a judge or an appellate justice who is noteworthy for their efforts to improve access to justice, particularly among the poor.

Others in the Ventura County superior courts, such as fellow Judge Brian J. Back, say White is the main force in getting law enforcement, court officers and various health care officials united behind the innovative programs. White “was the engine in all of those [efforts],” he said. “It’s in her DNA.”

White makes sure the most vulnerable in her courtroom are treated with compassion. That attitude comes from her upbringing in Oklahoma by her police officer father, a “softie” who often gave money to people after they had served time in jail. Defendants who have access to counseling and drug programs are less likely to commit other crimes, White believes, and others support her.

Kara Ralston, chief executive officer of the Camarillo Health Care District in Ventura County, called White’s work establishing the Elder Justice Court “legendary,” especially her insight into tough domestic violence cases.

In a letter supporting White for the Aranda award, Ralston recalled the case of an elderly man who was overwhelmed caring for his disabled wife. One day, he was arrested for pushing her. During his court appearance, White required him to attend a caregiving class, which he resisted, but later attended resentfully. At the end of the course, he had a change of heart, Ralston said.

“Sometimes the greater lesson is to absolutely drill down to the cause and fix that,” Ralson said. It’s reality in that courtroom, and [White] handles it with wisdom and justice. … She is an outstanding soul.”

White considers it part of her job to find another path that goes beyond sentences behind bars.

“If they’re doing well, you encourage them. … He didn’t need to be in jail,” White said. “It seems that people involved respond to that. They see me as part of the team that’s trying to help them improve their lives.”

Julia C. Kelety

Julie Kelety

Many remember when the law library in downtown San Diego was so dark walk-in visitors mistook it for the lobby of the county jail next door. Plumbing and air conditioning leaked, and workers sometimes found beer bottles and needles in the warren of library stacks.

“It was sort of a depressing place,” San Diego County Superior Court Judge Julia C. Kelety said.

But during Kelety’s stint as president of the library’s governing board, the building underwent a $5.2 million renovation so sweeping it was transformed from a neglected collection to one that garners national attention. Crews punched windows through the 2-foot thick concrete of the building built during President Eisenhower’s era.

Old air ducts were removed. In the end, the renovation helped staff expand programs to the community, especially to poor people representing themselves in Kelety’s probate court.

“The rule of law doesn’t mean much if the written law is only available to people who can afford lawyers or attorneys in high-rise offices,” said Kelety, 56. “You can have the best library on the planet, but if people don’t understand that, what good does that do if they don’t know it exists?”

John Adkins, director of the San Diego Law Library, said there’s been a jump in people using the library since it became a brighter, more usable space, both by the public and by attorneys.

“Everybody thinks everything’s on the internet. But the law is different because you need to know if it’s the current law. That’s the beauty of the law library.”

Kelety’s work in pushing for the renovation is only one of the reasons she’s receiving the 2016 Aranda Award. Kelety has also played a critical role in designing training for court-appointed attorneys.

Kelety said she pushed to get more Spanish-speaking attorneys appointed to the panel of court-appointed lawyers. It was especially important for a county bordering Mexico, where much of the population speaks Spanish.

The judge also serves as an instructor for lawyer training sponsored by the San Diego County Bar Association and was the key player in creating the mediation clinic at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Kelety still refers litigants to the mediation clinics, which serve as a chance to meet with a professional mediator to resolve problems out of probate court.

“It’s important to her that self-represented people get their day in court,” said Olga Alvarez, a board member of the Lawyers Club of San Diego and probate attorney who appears regularly before Kelety. However, a few are happier not having to go to court.

“Sometimes what people are fighting about has nothing to do with money. It makes for a very emotional process on all sides,” Alvarez said. Kelety “has to be able to calm them down and reason with them. I think she restores faith in the judicial system.”