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Frank J. Ochoa

The Honorable Frank J. Ochoa is retiring, effective January 5, 2015. If we are lucky, he may come back from time to time to sit on assignment.

Born and raised in Long Beach, Judge Ochoa came to Santa Barbara initially as a student. Not surprisingly, he thought this community might be a good place for a career. After graduating from UCSB in 1972, with degrees in English and History, he attended the then-new UC Law School at Davis, graduating in 1975.

In an experience many who came to maturity in that era share, the turmoil of the late 1960's and into the 1970's had an impact on him. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the agony of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the subsequent resignation of the sitting President - all contributed to his decision to turn to the law as an instrument of change and improvement. In his own words, “Our legal system holds us together as Americans.”

On graduation from law school and after passing the Bar, Judge Ochoa was attracted to civil rights law. He started with an office providing rural legal services for the poor, and advanced rapidly. Within a year of passing the bar, Judge Ochoa was running the Yolo County office of Legal Services of Northern California, handling federal court trials and state and federal appeals on his own (he argued in the state Court of Appeal three times that first year), and supervising other attorneys and staff. While there, he was involved in some of the key civil rights cases of the era, among them (Hennagin v. County of Yolo) (481 F. Supp. 923), (Vaughn v. Regents, of the University of California) (504 F. Supp. 1349), and (Driskill v. Woods) (70 Cal. App. 3rd 622). He also wrote portions of briefs on behalf of national Civil Rights organizations in the case of Regents v. Bakke.

Ochoa returned to Santa Barbara to take the position of Executive Director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, a position he held from 1980-1983.

The rapid professional pace continued when Judge Ochoa took the bench at age 32, the youngest Chicano bench officer in modern California history, and the first Spanish surnamed judge in Santa Barbara County in over 100 years. Starting on the Municipal Court in 1983, he was elected to the Superior Court in 1997. During his 32 years on the bench, Judge Ochoa has also served a a Justice Pro Tem on the California Court of Appeal, as a Special Master for the Commission on Judicial Performance, and in various capaci¬ties in the California Judges Association and the California Judicial Council.

Throughout his judicial career, Judge Ochoa has found time to serve the community in additional ways. To name just a few, he has taught “Law and Civil Rights” in the Chicanao Studies Department at UCSB, and has taught, served on the Board, and served as Board President at the Santa Barbara College of Law (which he was instrumental in keeping from impending demise during a State of California receivership action in the 1980's), founded the Latina/o Lawyers Association of Santa Barbara, served on the Board of Old Spanish Days, provided Board service for the Alumni Associations of UCSB and UC Davis' King Hall School of Law, served as a founding trustee of the Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation, served on the Santa Barbara Community Action Commission and as Judicial Coordinator for the Santa Barbara County High Schools Mock Trial Competition. He was also Honorary El Presidente for the 1987 Fiesta, and, for many years, has co-hosted Noches de Ronda in the courthouse Sunken Gardens with his wife, Paula Lopez.

During his career, Judge Ochoa has been keenly aware of the need to provide the opportunity to resolve cases before trial. He feels there are windows of opportunity to settle most cases and they occur at the very beginning of a case and just before trial, provided the mechanism exists to provide the context to fully explore the possible resolution. Judge Ochoa was the main force in creating and implementing the CADRe program. He also feels that judges benefit from training to enhance their skills in making settlements happen and he has taken the Straus mediation training program at Pepperdine University School of Law.

Judge Ochoa has also championed innovations such as both adult and juvenile drug courts and other courts focused on helping offenders break the cycle of repeat offenses.

In recognition of his achievements, Judge Ochoa has received numerous honors and awards, among them: the Santa Barbara County Bar Association's John T. Rickard (who Ochoa considers a judicial model and mentor) Judicial Service Award (2012) and President's Judicial Award (1999), the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County's Hero for Justice Award (2011), the Influential Latino award from Latino Today Magazine, Judge of the Year from the Southern California Mediation Association (2000), the UC Davis King Hall School of Law Distinguished Alumni Award (2000), the Dyslexia Awareness & Resource Center's Vision and Task Award (1998), and the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association's Leadership in Public Policy Award.

Having spent most of his career on the bench in the criminal courts, Judge Ochoa has been keenly aware of the tension between the need for such courts to move many cases through the system, while at the same time providing individual attention and justice in each particular case. One of the things he is looking forward to in the next phase of his life, whether sitting by assignment or serving as a private mediator or judge, is the chance to work on one case at a time.

Co-authored by Claude Dorais and Scott Campbell. Originally published in the November 2014 edition of Santa Barbara Lawyer. Scott Campbell is a member of the Board and the President of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association; Claude Dorais is a member of the Board and Editor of Santa Barbara Lawyer.

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