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Oakland judge honored for access to justice efforts

Gordon Baranco
Hon. Gordon Baranco

In 2004, Gordon Baranco was instrumental in establishing the Alameda County Homeless and Caring Court, an effort that spawned other programs to help society’s disenfranchised. Indeed, Baranco, a Superior Court judge, has devoted his career to increasing equal opportunity and access to justice. For those efforts, he received the 2009 Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award last month.

“Our entire community here in Alameda County has been substantially improved because of his many efforts on so many issues,” said Judge Vernon Nakahara of Baranco, his colleague on the Alameda County Superior Court bench. “I knew Judge Aranda, and I know he would be proud to have Judge Baranco as a recipient of this prestigious award named after him.”

“Gordon prefers to serve behind the scenes and has for years cheerfully allowed others to take credit for many of his ideas and much of his own hard work,” said Justice James Lambden of the First District Court of Appeal. “I believe he should be recognized — whether he likes it or not.”

The award from the California Commission on Access to Justice honors a California trial judge, appellate court justice or commissioner who deserves recognition for improving access to the judicial system, especially for low- and moderate-income Californians. It is named after Benjamin Aranda III, a Los Angeles municipal court judge.

Baranco, 61, an Oakland native who graduated from UC-Davis and then its King School of Law, worked in public interest law and for the county and state before his 1980 appointment to the municipal court bench by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. Gov. George Deukmejian elevated him to the superior court in 1984.

He has presided over the Homeless and Caring Court since it began, holding court in soup kitchens, drug treatment centers and church halls in order to bring people who tend to avoid courts into the system. Besides addressing the defendants’ outstanding citations, infractions, nonviolent misdemeanors and failure-to-appear charges, the court provides extra services to try to stop the cycle of homelessness and deal with related problems, such as mental illness and drug abuse.

Baranco, said Tirien Steinbach, executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center, “is truly an inspiration and a role model for those of us who see our law degrees as tools for increasing justice and equality under the law.”

The homeless court has led to other programs that Baranco has been closely involved in, such as alternative court projects addressing criminal records and juvenile mental illness. He also began a collaborative project between Alameda County courts and the Peralta Community College District to teach students to become certified court interpreters.

Noting that the principles of the California Association of Black Lawyers focus on improving access to the courts for underrepresented populations, President Jennifer Madden said such ideals “are encapsulated in the life work of Judge Baranco and his fight to ensure that all voices are heard and access to justice is assured.”