GARCIA FINDS MORE THAN ONE WAY TO TEACH
COURT: Sacramento County Superior
APPOINTED: March 24, 1989, by Gov. George Deukmejian
BORN: May 30, 1949
LAW SCHOOL: UC-Davis’ King Hall School of Law, 1974
PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Sacramento County Municipal Court judge, 1987-1989
SACRAMENTO � Give him an hour and Judge Michael Garcia can parse criminal motions, rate mountain bike trails and ponder the impacts of Western philosophy on nuclear physics without breaking a sweat.
Such versatility comes naturally for a jurist who oversees an “open” courtroom in Sacramento County Superior Court. One week Garcia may handle a DUI case; the next, a civil lawsuit. Next month it might be a homicide with special circumstances.
“The wonderful thing about being a lawyer and now a judge is that in a very, very short period of time, you get to explore something entirely new, entirely different, that you may not have known before,” Garcia said. “Or explore a nuance of a concept you already knew about, and have to become very, very proficient at in a very short period of time. That’s what attracts me to the job. I have my 20 years [of service] in. I could walk away tomorrow. But I’m here because I want to be here.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Garcia is something of a school junkie. As a student at California State University, Fullerton, Garcia earned degrees in political science and sociology. But he also took enough coursework to either major or minor in public administration, psychology and history, all while working full-time to pay tuition.
“I had a lot of energy when I was young,” Garcia said.
His early inclination was to teach at the college level. A professor, however, suggested Garcia consider law school, and he enrolled at UC-Davis. There his classmates included Art Torres, who’s now head of the California Democratic Party, and former Sacramento District Attorney Stephen White, now Garcia’s colleague on the superior court bench.
His interest quickly turned to trial work, and after graduation Garcia took a job as a deputy district attorney in Ventura County.
After a brief stint there he returned to the capital, working first as a legislative advocate for then-Attorney General George Deukmejian, and later as a prosecutor in the criminal division. He also started teaching law at UC-Davis.
In 1987 Deukmejian, by then the governor, approached him about an opening on the municipal court, a position Garcia insists he wasn’t seeking. Garcia agreed to the appointment, figuring he could always return to teaching or prosecuting if he didn’t like the bench. But he ended up hooked on the job, even though he had to give up his law school position.
“I’m lucky in that within the cases I get there always seems to be something a little bit different. There’s always a different spin or a different nuance that makes it interesting,” Garcia said. “I like coming to work in the morning. It’s not something that you have to drag yourself out of bed to do.”
Garcia said he doesn’t mind the occasional verbal “flare-up” from well-meaning lawyers � “People are people. It’s OK.” In fact, the judge said that he’s only cited two attorneys for contempt in his 20-year career, and both of those lawyers were eventually disbarred.
Garcia’s seems to be a popular courtroom assignment with current practitioners.
“In my book, he’s probably one of the fairest and most scholarly judges there are on the bench over there,” said Deputy District Attorney Mark Curry, who has prosecuted three murder cases before Garcia. “What I like about him is that he can make a decision based on the law and facts while leaving politics out of it.”
Even on the bench, Garcia has found a way to continue teaching. He’s a past dean of a judges’ college and now chairs the Judicial Council’s Science and Law Committee. The chief justice also recently appointed him to a pool of special masters eligible to investigate charges of misconduct brought before the Commission on Judicial Performance.
Garcia, who recently stepped down from the Judicial Council, will be handling part of the initial training for other masters.
“You learn so much more by teaching than you ever could as a student, because you have to prepare,” he said. “Your audience [of judges] is an audience that already has a tremendous base. You’re dealing with people who are intellectually curious. You’re dealing with people who are very accomplished and who have a desire to learn. What group of people could be more fun to teach?”
Maybe motivated high-schoolers. Though Garcia said he has no plans to leave court any time soon, he admitted he’s intrigued by last year’s opening of Cristo Rey, a private Sacramento high school that caters to poor students who want to attend college.
“They’re the same type of people” as judges, Garcia said. “They’re intellectually curious. They have a desire to be there. … That would be the fun part: teaching people who want to learn.”
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