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Judge of humble beginnings finds creative solutions to rural county’s problems

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Growing up the seventh of 10 children of farm worker parents, Judge Juan Ulloa learned never to back away from challenges.

Judge Juan Ulloa
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 humbling.”

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 say.

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, however.

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 specific complaints.

“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 in Calexico.

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 proceedings.

“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."