LOS ANGELES (CN) – When new Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Debra Archuleta was a young woman, she had a brush with death that would change the course of her life.
“I was 19 years old and I had a boyfriend who had anger-management issues and threw me into a wall,” Archuleta told Courthouse News in an interview in downtown Los Angeles late last year.
Archuleta suffered from headaches that worsened over the next two years. One day, her head hurt so badly she realized she could delay no longer. She drove herself to a hospital for a CT scan that showed a blood clot in her brain that was the size of an egg. Her doctor recommended surgery for a subdural hematoma.
“It wasn’t until the doctor had done the neurosurgery that he said I had a trauma to the brain two years earlier,” Archuleta said. “I knew exactly what it was because that was the only head trauma I’d ever had.”
As a teenager, Archuleta had dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Though she was living at home in Orange County and was enrolled in community college she realized that it was time to go after her dream.
“After this particular incident, I sort of made a pact with myself and God that if I survived this, that I would move myself forward,” Archuleta said.
She came from a family where the women were teachers and the men worked in law enforcement. Some of them challenged her, albeit with love and respect. Her Uncle Mose, a Denver sheriff, told his niece there was no way she would finish law school. He bet her $100 and wrote an IOU on a scrap of paper, signing it with the same distinct initials he used to brand his horses and emblazon his boots and saddles.
Archuleta could not have proved him more wrong.
After close to three decades in the District Attorney’s Office as a violent-crimes prosecutor, this past November more than 1.6 million people voted for the 57-year-old to fill a seat on the Superior Court, the largest trial court in the nation. On Jan. 3, she took the bench at the Metropolitan Courthouse in downtown LA.
While her Uncle Mose’s words nudged her into action, her father Alfred Archuleta had an even greater influence on her. Now 88, he was with his daughter on election night, along with her husband Jay, a school teacher, her son Jake, a high school senior, and friends and supporters. Her daughter Alyssa, visiting from Chicago where she is studying public policy, monitored the results of her mom’s race online.
During an interview last month at a cafe in the basement of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, Archuleta recalled how her father had grown up in Southern Colorado in a house with dirt floors. As a Hispanic, he had experienced discrimination at whites-only dances. He worked hard to help the family, picking peas and fruit with his father in the summer while his mother cleaned houses and diapered other people’s children. Later, he would enlist as a serviceman during the Korean War, spending more than a month in a foxhole during the coldest winter. He graduated from college on the GI Bill and became the first bilingual probation officer in Orange County, Archuleta said.
“My dad was strict and thoughtful and humble and really imbued in us a sense of public service, dedication, perseverance, hard work. That’s the family legacy that I come from. And to think that his mother was on her hands and knees scrubbing floors and toilets, to his daughter being a Superior Court judge is truly the American dream,” the judge said.
Her father’s discipline and work ethic rubbed off. Archuleta worked full time and on weekends through law school. As a prosecutor at the DA’s office, she took on thousands of cases involving violent crimes, domestic violence, domestic-violence homicide, child molestation and sexual assault.
Retired Superior Court Judge Janice Croft saw Archuleta perform firsthand in her courtroom and said she is hardworking and fair.
“She knows the law and she has a great disposition. She can see both sides of every issue and that’s what makes her a good lawyer and will make her an excellent judge,” Croft said in a phone interview.
Croft recalled a 2011 trial where Archuleta prosecuted a Glendale man who had stabbed his wife to death and then microwaved his dog, a Pomeranian. The judge said Archuleta secured a conviction by focusing jurors on the murder victim, 35-year-old Michelle Levin, rather than the dog.
“Everybody loves little dogs. You want people to focus on the poor lady that was killed and Ms. Archuleta was very capable in doing that,” Croft said. “Nothing’s going to disturb her. She’ll be a very unbiased jurist. She’ll give each side a very fair trial.”
As would be expected for a prosecutor of her experience, Archuleta is not without her critics.
Despite the lack of interest shown in judicial races, Archuleta said her race against Deputy District Attorney Steven Schreiner turned ugly when he sued her to change her ballot designation as a violent-crimes prosecutor because she was assigned to the white-collar crime division. The court ruled in her favor, and she called the race “contentious and brutal.”
The Los Angeles Times endorsed Schreiner before last year’s primary. In an April editorial, it said: “Deputy District Attorney Debra Archuleta brings a combative style that may serve her as a prosecutor but would not translate well to the bench.”
Even though the Times backed Schreiner, the editorial board noted that he had apparently lost his temper in front of a jury. The paper passed off his behavior as theatrics and said he would be a calm on the bench. It did not cite a single example of Archuleta’s combativeness.
“I believe that if I were a man I would be commanding in a courtroom, I would be confident, I would be effective. But when you’re a woman, as we all know, you get labeled in negative or derogatory ways, and that’s not who I am,” said Archuleta.
If she was sometimes aggressive, she said, it was because she was protecting the rights of people who were molested, abused or beaten.
Croft dismissed the characterization.
“She was very understanding, very open dealing with her cases. But once the trial starts she’s going to present her case as best as she can and I don’t think that’s being combative. I just think that’s doing a good job,” Croft said.
Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks, a longtime friend who worked with Archuleta at the Eastlake Juvenile Court in the 1990s, said she would bring her vast experience as a wife, mother and prosecutor to the bench.
“I would know the case would be vetted and looked at thoroughly, fairly, intelligently,” Hicks said. “I’d have no doubt in my mind about that. She would study it, she would know the law. She would apply the facts of the law appropriately and she would treat people with kindness and fairness.”
There were four races for the LA Superior Court this past November. In a year dominated by now-President Donald Trump’s rise on promises to build a wall on the southern border and to deport millions of people in the United States illegally, the results of the judicial races reflect a city and county more in tune with its immigrant communities. Of the four races for the seat at the Superior Court, women prevailed in all but one. Archuleta, Susan Jung Townsend and Kim Nguyen each faced men and each of them won. Efrain Matthew Aceves also won, but like Archuleta is Hispanic. Townsend is Korean-American while Nguyen is Vietnamese-American.
For Archuleta, race and gender matters – especially as she has represented many minority victims in domestic-violence cases.
“Certain communities within the county are disproportionately affected by certain types of violent crimes, certain types of nonviolent crimes, and I just think it’s important that our judiciary reflects the community that we are serving,” Archuleta said.
A little guarded in person, Archuleta has a dry sense of humor and an even tone that suggests she has the temperament to thrive on the bench.
She said her experiences in the courtroom made her want to become a judge. Without naming names, she said she had seen witnesses, victims and jurors treated with less respect than she felt they deserved.
“I’ve been lambasted in the press. I have gone into community meetings in different parts of the county, incurred the wrath of various communities. And I’ve basically said that if I can’t handle some wrath or some name-calling either in person or in the press, how am I ever going to put on the black robe and mete our justice?” Archuleta said. “I have seen times when I’ve felt victims, witnesses and jurors were not treated with appropriate accord and respect and I would hope to have a more hospitable environment based on all of my vast experience in dealing with victims and witnesses and jurors from all walks of life and background. Everyone needs to be respected whether it’s a defendant, a juror, a witness, police officer, defense counsel, prosecutor.”
Trial attorney Leonard Levine did battle with Archuleta in a child molestation case in which he won an acquittal. He was impressed by her tirelessness, even though the case was hard fought. When he found out she was running, he joked that he wanted her to win because it would mean he would never again have to face her in the courtroom.
“She’s no longer an advocate but a judge, and I have good reason to believe that she’ll perform in her new position as well as she did her previous one,” Levine said.
Archuleta will do the pledge of allegiance in her courtroom to honor her father’s military service. She expects lawyers to be prepared, even if they don’t always have the answers. The new judge has a gavel that’s likely to make an impact. It is bright pink. Archuleta says a close friend had it custom-made for her, in a nod to her preference for pink clothes.
In honor of her father, she embroidered the nickname he calls her inside her new robe. The gold lettering reads: “Deb-Deb.”
As for her Uncle Mose’s IOU, Archuleta never did find it. Even though he has since passed away, her cousin Cindy later gave her the $100 out of his estate. Over the years, the unpaid debt had become a long-running family joke. Her family in Colorado teased her that she would get paid but only when she found that scrap of paper.
“I’ve moved so many times in my life since then and I still am hopeful that one of these days when I’m cleaning out papers from somewhere I will (find it),” Archuleta said.