Judge of humble beginnings
finds creative solutions to rural county’s problems
By Amy Yarbrough
Growing up the seventh of 10 children of farm worker
parents, Judge Juan Ulloa learned never to back away from challenges.
|Judge Juan Ulloa
Photo by Sergio Bastidas
That same philosophy guides Ulloa's work with Imperial
County Superior Court, whether it’s crafting solutions to improve access to
justice for poor and geographically isolated residents, building trust with a
local Native American tribe, or helping forge a unique collaboration with Mexican courts. Ulloa will be recognized for those efforts on Dec. 13 when he
is scheduled to receive the Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award.
Co-sponsored by the State Bar, the Judicial Council and the
California Judges Association, the award recognizes judges who have shown a
long-term commitment to improving access to the courts on behalf of low- and moderate-income
Californians. For Ulloa, the award has added significance. Ulloa worked with
the late Judge Aranda when Ulloa was a law school student and co-director of
Centro Legal de Santa Monica, a project of the UCLA La Raza Law Student
Association. Aranda was his supervising attorney and the two stayed in touch
over the years. Fittingly, both grew up in towns a short drive from one another
in Imperial County.
“It is beyond expectation,” Ulloa said of the award, “very
A letter in support of Ulloa's nomination submitted by
William Lehman, presiding judge of Imperial County Superior Court and Kristine
Kussman, the court executive officer, credits the judge with being a “leader in
court reform efforts” and outreach to the community.
“To me I always felt like no matter what happens, I would always be able to find something to do to survive. No matter what challenges you have, you find a way to meet them.” — Judge Juan Ulloa
“Judge Ulloa recognizes that the court is just one stop of
many on the road toward access to justice,” Lehman and Kussman wrote. “He
defies the scarcity of resources in this county by personally encouraging
service agencies to coordinate and create continuity of care for litigants
whose lives must touch the court system.”
Raised near El Centro, Ulloa worked in the fields as a kid,
during the sweltering summers when school was out. At 12, he got a job weeding and
thinning cotton and had a life-shaping experience. Ulloa picked up his family’s
paychecks and discovered that he, his brother and his father were all making
the same wage: $1.25 an hour.
Other kids his age worked as paperboys and at grocery
stores, “but they didn't take home an adult pay check,” he said. “To me that
seemed really significant.”
Although his parents did not make a lot, there was “some
sort of magic that happened,” and there was always food on the table, Ulloa
said. Family always came first.
“To me, I always felt like no matter what happens, I would
always be able to find something to do to survive,” he said. “No matter what
challenges you have, you find a way to meet them.”
Ulloa has done just that for Imperial County, his supporters
A tribe called Quechan
Sharing a border with Arizona and Mexico, Imperial County is
known for its rich agricultural history. It is also home to the Quechan Tribe, whose reservations are not only far flung from county government facilities but whose members haven’t necessarily
had the best relationship with state courts and law enforcement.
One problem was that tribal protective orders were not being
recognized by outside law enforcement, Ulloa said. To fix that, he encouraged
his court’s Access Center to collaborate with the Tribal Court. Now, the two
entities communicate over Skype so that members of the tribe can also obtain
state protective orders.
Lack of transportation made it difficult for Quechan Tribal members and
many county residents to get to the Imperial County courthouse so they often missed
court appearances. Through Ulloa’s efforts, a branch of court in Winterhaven
was reopened and hearings are now being held there once a month.
“Our rate of non-appearance has almost disappeared. Law
enforcement is happy, the community is happy,” Ulloa said.
“When you have a geographic area, you have obligations to
the whole community,” he added.
Jose Padilla, executive director of California Rural Legal
Assistance, said the award is well deserved, although the kinds of achievements
Ulloa is being credited for are nothing new. Access to justice has always been
the judge’s focus.
“His leadership goes beyond sitting as a judge in Imperial
County,” he said. Padilla, who interned at CRLA when Ulloa was a staff attorney,
describes the judge as one of his early mentors. He said he isn’t afraid to
“step back and be creative.”
Padilla cited as a recent example the judge’s actions when
it came to a young CRLA attorney working on a project to study why young people
ended up in the prison system.
“Judge Ulloa started immediately working with the attorney
and had her start teaching members of probation,” he said. “He understood there
were very few advocates who worked with these youth.”
Ulloa’s approach to his job hasn’t always won him fans,
In recent months, county prosecutors have been filing to
have Ulloa disqualified from hearing their criminal cases. In an Oct. 28
article in the Imperial Valley Press, Imperial County District
Attorney Gilbert Otero said Ulloa had been “unfair,” “condescending” and
“prejudicial” toward prosecutors.
Ulloa declined to comment, saying he was unaware of any
“What can I say about the DA complaining?” he said.
Forging ties with Mexico
Ulloa is quick to downplay his selection as this year’s
recipient of the Aranda award, which recognizes his involvement in setting up
connections with the Family Court in the Mexican state of Baja California and the Mexican Consulate
Alex Cardenas, executive director of Court Appointed Special
Advocates of Imperial County, said Ulloa has brought great changes to the
county’s juvenile dependency system by encouraging collaboration, taking non-traditional
approaches to cases, and by not criminalizing parents, giving them a stake in
“He is reuniting families quicker than any county in the
state,” he said.
A father of five with six grandchildren, the judge has
been married to Rosie Ulloa for 39 years. Prior to joining the court in 1995,
he was a sole practitioner for 13 years. Despite the difficulties that can come
with running your own law practice, Ulloa said nothing in his legal career has
compared to challenges his parents faced working in the fields.
“The one thing I learned from my parents, especially my
mother, (is) human beings can do anything, put up with anything for an hour,” he
said. “If you make up your mind to stay on a task and persevere, people will
not run you off.”
Asked about his achievements as a lawyer and a judge Ulloa
humbly calls himself a “survivor” rather than a scholar. He credits his hardworking staff for lightening his professional load. As for himself, he said, “I try to earn my pay."