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Innovative court programs land Solano County judge 2015 Aranda award

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

In describing his childhood, Judge Garry Ichikawa likes to say he was born with a shovel in one hand and a book in the other.

Judge Garry Ichikawa
Judge Garry Ichikawa

The son of farm workers, Ichikawa grew up digging ditches and hoeing around grapevines alongside his family. But education was also a priority as was working hard to make sure he had access to the services that government offered.

“The idea of access was something that was a part of my life and when I understood what that meant to me and my siblings and my family, it became a very, very strong value,” he said.

These days, the Solano County Superior Court judge works to ensure access for others, establishing innovative programs that have led to his selection as this year’s recipient of the Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award. In its 16th  year, the award recognizes individuals who have devoted their careers to ensuring California’s low- and moderate-income residents have access to its courts.

On top of teaching, volunteering and countless hours of civic service over the years, Ichikawa was the driving force behind Solano County’s Dependency Drug Court, a collaborative court designed to remove obstacles for parents determined to stay sober and reunite with their children. Established in 2006, the program has served as a model for other Solano County specialty courts, including its unique new Integrated Domestic Violence Court, an effort Ichikawa is now spearheading.

John Hodson, who met Ichikawa when both were attorneys 25 years ago, said the judge is a fitting choice for the award, noting the judge “has been active in the community as long as I’ve known him.”

In addition to being “the most receptive bench officer imaginable,” Ichikawa truly believes the courts are there to help people resolves their disputes, Hodson said. He’s also probably the only judge whom Hodson has never heard raise his voice.

“I think all of this is part of the mix that makes Garry a special judge,” the Vacaville attorney added. “He’s an excellent judge and an excellent choice for recognition.”

Asked to share his thoughts about the award, Ichikawa is modest and quick to note he’s had a lot of help with the achievements that won him recognition.

“My poor staff, every time I get a wild idea, they have to kind of go along with it. They work extra hard. If I start a court, my court clerk has to do more cases also,” he said.

“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve worked with attorneys and our sister agencies and social workers, probation officers and treatment providers who are all willing to help develop these projects and make them successful.”

Appointed to the bench in 2000 by Gov. Gray Davis, Ichikawa’s history in Solano County runs deep. He is in the third of five generations of his family to live and work in the Fairfield area. His grandparents immigrated to the Suisun Valley in the early part of last century. His parents knew each other in high school, returned to the grape-growing region and got married there following their incarceration in a Japanese internment camp at Gila River, Ariz., during World War II.

Determined to also raise his family in the area, Ichikawa turned down a job in Sacramento after law school at University of California Davis. He served as a deputy public defender in Fairfield for a few years before starting a law office, practicing family law, in 1979. During his time in private practice, he served on the Fairfield City Council, the State Bar’s Juvenile Justice Commission and Solano County Legal Aid Board of Directors, among other groups.

While presiding judge of Solano County’s juvenile court, Ichikawa started the Dependency Drug Court in 2006. The court has graduated 93 people since then. The key to its success, Ichikawa said, is that it hired an in-house case manager.

A neutral party, the case manager works with participants – many of whom face barriers to success such as poverty, lack of transportation and unstable housing – helping them navigate obstacles and get organized so they can maintain their sobriety.

Ichikawa said there was resistance to the program at first, including from those who worried that the safety of children might be compromised in efforts to treat the parents. But now it serves as a model for other specialty courts.

“We discovered when we did dependency drug court, we didn’t have to put people in jail to motivate them to work really hard to be successful because they knew if they were not successful they would possibly lose their rights to their children,” Ichikawa said. “It was that recognition they would be willing to do almost anything, if they only knew how, to get their children back. We were able to take advantage of that in a very positive way.”

Courtney Tindall McClain, the program’s first and only case manager, said Ichikawa worked closely with her from the beginning, even taking it upon himself to visit drug treatment programs.

“Our program wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for judge Ichikawa,” she said.

Just the fact that she is now able to make sure participants get bus passes on time is a huge help, Tindall said. Before the program, sometimes the passes arrived late and participants were penalized for missing required drug tests.

When Ichikawa first presided over dependency drug court, he made a practice of wearing street clothes instead of a robe, standing in front of participants rather than sitting at his bench and addressing them directly rather than through their lawyers, Tindall said.

“It’s a nonadversarial environment that makes them continue to come back and start telling the truth,” she said.

Tindall said clients who graduated in 2006 and 2007 still call her to tell her how they and their kids are doing.

“Judge Ichikawa put that all together. That’s huge,” she said.

The dependency drug court model has since been replicated for Adult Drug Court and Veterans Treatment Court. Under Judge Ichikawa’s leadership, the superior court last year also launched an expedited family law program that allows self-represent litigants with simple cases to fast-track their matters. 

Ichikawa’s newest endeavor, Integrated Domestic Violence Court, is believed to be one of the first of its kind. Like Dependency Drug Court, the program uses a case manager. It also assigns the same judge to hear post-conviction domestic violence matters along with related family law cases.

Because the same judge hears both the domestic violence and family law matters, if a parent has a relapse and commits an act of domestic violence, it can make it quicker and easier for the victim parent to get a family law order, Ichikawa said. Conversely, a participant who is successful in their criminal case may be able to start having a relationship with their child sooner.

“It gives people hope that if they’re successful in doing one thing, their efforts will be recognized in the other things as well,” he said.

As for being recognized for things he’s doing well, Ichikawa will receive the Aranda award – given by the State Bar, the Judicial Council, California Judges Association and the California Commission on Access to Justice – at a ceremony in Aug. 20.

He said he hopes he’ll get a couple of minutes during his speech to recognize all the people who’ve helped make projects like Dependency Drug Court possible.

“If the people who live in Solano County knew the work that we’re doing with their tax dollars, I think they would be proud of us,” he said. “This award is a way to recognize all of Solano County for the work that we’re doing. I hope the public recognizes we’re trying hard with their tax dollars.”