SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – After growing up in San Francisco’s Bayview District and excelling on the city college’s baseball team, David De Alba traded in his glove, crossed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. The son of Mexican immigrants trusted his counselors' advice and dove into a heavy load of civic and political science classes: the infielder was suddenly rounding first, running toward the bench.
Now a state judge with 38 years of public service, De Alba is once again on deck after being selected presiding judge of the Sacramento County Superior Court.
“We’re going to improve and maximize our service to the public and increase access to justice,” said De Alba from his chambers on the third floor of the Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse in Sacramento.
For the last two years, De Alba has been the court’s assistant presiding judge under Judge Kevin Culhane. While presiding over the civil division, he helped transform one of the state’s busiest courts.
Under Culhane and De Alba, the court brought its criminal calendar current by taking advantage of an array of collaborative courts. Utilizing the adult drug, mental health, domestic violence and veterans treatment courts has helped free up resources and keep judges active on civil cases. The court has also continued to take on recusals and transfers from surrounding counties without continuing a civil lawsuit over the last two years.
De Alba says the court will keep maximizing its use of collaborative courts and has received a grant that will fund a new court for DUI recidivists. The key to successful collaborative courts is having an enthusiastic roster of judges to lean on, De Alba insists.
“We’re a leader in the state,” De Alba said during a break in a medical malpractice trial. “There is no letting up on that. I’m happy we have judges who are interested and want to be more dedicated to those kinds of courts.”
De Alba recounts his past with a mild tone and casual demeanor. His story is uniquely Californian.
His parents met in California in the 1950s after emigrating from Mexico. They made a living as farmworkers 120 miles north of San Francisco in Colusa County, and raised De Alba and his five siblings in a lower-middle class neighborhood and Spanish-speaking home.
De Alba calls himself a “public school guy.” He went to community college, UC Berkeley and finally UCLA for law school.
After law school, De Alba left Los Angeles for Sacramento. He accepted a clerkship at the Third Appellate District where he was mentored by Justice Cruz Reynoso, the first Chicano associate justice of the state Supreme Court and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. The clerkship vaulted him into a job at the nearby attorney general’s office.
De Alba spent 22 years handling both civil and criminal cases and was promoted in 1999 to special assistant. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, appointed the attorney general’s office veteran to the bench in 2001.
Prosecutorial colleagues describe De Alba as an accomplished and experienced jurist.
“I was honored to have him while I was attorney general,” said Bill Lockyer, who served as California’s top cop under Davis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “He managed to ably handle several complicated topics and legal challenges for several years.”
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said her office looks forward to De Alba’s two-year stint as presiding judge, which begins in January.
"We have had a longstanding relationship with Judge De Alba in the fair administration of justice. We look forward to his leadership as the next presiding judge of the Sacramento Superior Court," Schubert said in an email.
A firm believer in press access, De Alba said the court will strive to continue giving reporters access to new complaints the same day they are filed – a welcome stance compared to practices used by some state courts which stall public access to new cases until they’re put through a set of administrative procedures, resulting in delays from one day to a couple weeks.
While there are no immediate plans to convert the entire civil court to e-filing, De Alba said the court is preparing to deploy new criminal, traffic and family case management systems.
The decorated judge, who has served on several Judicial Council committees and was named 2011 judge of the year by the Sacramento County Bar Association, promises to continue digging up funding for a badly needed new courthouse.
The proposed $400 million, 17-story courthouse will be next door to the Robert T. Matsui Federal Courthouse. De Alba said architects are developing working drawings and that securing funding from the Legislature will be one of his top priorities during his term.
“We’re on the precipice of determining whether we will get this new courthouse,” De Alba said. “We have to identify and secure funding during [Gov. Jerry Brown’s] last year in office.”
As De Alba makes the move to presiding judge, he will have the comfort of leaning on an accomplished head clerk. Retired Judge Lloyd Connelly was recently appointed as the court’s new executive officer.
“Judge Connelly has been a jewel, he’s one of the most respected judges we’ve had sit on the court,” De Alba said. “He has boundless energy.”
Connelly, former state assemblyman, has been advocating for a new Sacramento courthouse for years.
The dilapidated Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse is nowhere near compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and lacks fire sprinklers and inmate elevators. Inmates are routinely funneled directly past judges’ quarters and through public hallways, often in plain sight of jurors and the victims’ family members.
“It’s fundamentally unsafe,” Connelly told Courthouse News in 2016. “We in Sacramento are used to this system, but other judges think we are nuts.”
In his office in the ramshackle courthouse, De Alba – an accomplished jurist and San Francisco Giants fan – fumbles with an old baseball and motions toward pictures of his family. His children are also dedicated public servants: Amanda is a staff lawyer at the California Office of Emergency Services and Ben was appointed by Gov. Brown in 2013 to an administrative position with the state transportation agency.
“Who would have guessed,” De Alba says of his children following in his footsteps. “I’ve been very, very fortunate; school, career, marriage and parenting.”
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