The Honorable Frank J. Ochoa, Jr. , Class of 1975
The Honorable Frank J. Ochoa, Jr. '75 is currently of counsel to Sanger Swysen & Dunkle, specializing in mediation and arbitration services. He previously served as Presiding Judge of the Santa Barbara Municipal Court and the Santa Barbara Superior Court, and temporarily served on the California Court of Appeal. As a judge, he created Santa Barbara’s first adult and juvenile drug courts and the Superior Court's “Court Administered Dispute Resolution Program” (CADRe program). He began his legal career at Legal Services of Northern California’s Sacramento and Yolo County offices, then became Executive Director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County. He frequently teaches at UC Santa Barbara.
How does your current work in alternative dispute resolution compare with being a judge? What’s rewarding about both roles?
I was on the bench for 32 years, after eight years of practice. In 2014, I realized I was 64 years old, and I had been on the bench half of my entire life — not my adult life, or working life, but half of my whole life. I greatly enjoyed it. It was a tremendous responsibility and a constant intellectual challenge. The courts are where the rubber hits the road in the legal system. I particularly enjoyed Juvenile Court. You really have a chance to help make a change in young people’s lives if you listen and make a positive connection.
There’s a constant cascade of cases coming into a courtroom. It creates a dynamic tension between keeping the caseload moving and providing individual justice in each case. I have to admire and respect the work all judges do. The justice system is so consequential in our society.
After leaving the bench, I’ve found my current work in dispute resolution to be gratifying also. I’ve been appointed by the city of Santa Maria to handle large-scale landlord issues. They have a consent decree to remedy and rectify health and safety issues. I was appointed the court’s referee. This is housing for low-income people, farmworkers. I’ve also done a lot of arbitrations in the healthcare field, in employment settings with millions of dollars at stake.
It’s a little easier than criminal work on the bench, when, if convicted, you’re deciding how many decades the person will spend in prison. The criminal courts are exasperating for everyone involved. You have a whole bunch of people in your courtroom who would rather be anywhere else. Dire circumstances require them to be there.
Most people don’t enjoy dispute interactions, but they’ve got to be taken care of. In arbitration, I get to deal with one case at a time: one dispute. In a mediation, I don’t decide anything. I help the parties to fashion their own remedy. The outcome is mutually disagreeable but acceptable to both parties as a resolution to their dispute so they can get on with their lives. The whole process is about helping them get through it. The work is meaningful and impactful. Not everyone will be happy, but they will be able to put the dispute experience in their rear-view mirror.
Both processes are fair, neutral, and usually predictable. I’ve enjoyed both and been honored to serve in both capacities.
How did your background in Legal Aid influence you as a judge? Would you recommend Legal Aid work to aspiring judges?
Moving from legal services, representing low-income persons, gave me perspective on needs for access to the legal system. That was always a concern while I was on the bench. Low-income people have limited options. As a judge, I created options. I created the first adult and juvenile drug courts in the county when there were only 25 in the country. This was in the 1990s, and the first one in the country had started in Miami in 1989. So it was very new. I started domestic violence treatment programs and veteran’s treatment programs. My background in legal services helped me develop that perspective.
One of the best things that happened to me early on, when I was working in legal services, was my involvement with the Bakke case. At the same time, I was involved in the DeRonde case, which was a similar “reverse-discrimination” case against the UC Davis School of Law. Just starting out, I was able to work with renowned civil rights litigator, Nathaniel S. Colley, Western Regional Counsel for the NAACP, and Professors John Oakley and Emma Jones at King Hall.
We were able to change the question that went before the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead of simply asking whether affirmative action’s use of race was legal as a two track or quota system as embodied at the UC Davis Medical School, we expanded the issue to whether it was legal as it existed in the UC Davis and Harvard Law School settings, as simply a non-determinative factor.
Eighteen months into practice, I was quoted in Newsweek on the Bakke case. It was particularly gratifying to be quoted in the same paragraph as a prime career and life mentor, the Honorable Cruz Reynoso. Having peer relationships as co-counsel with law professors and Mr. Colley was an astounding way to start my legal career. Legal services gave me that opportunity. I was exposed to high-impact cases in addition to the usual service-oriented cases. I also argued three cases in the Court of Appeal my first summer in practice when I inherited the Yolo County Legal Aid Office and all of its cases. I can’t imagine a better way to start a legal career. It propelled me to my bench work.
You’ve been very involved in innovations to the courts. What innovations would you like to see in the future?
I think that’s happening. The return to determinate sentencing and the constitutionality of the death penalty are potentially changing areas of the legal landscape. Intellectual leaders are at King Hall. Major substantive changes to legal areas are going on right now. Davis is at the forefront.
Dean Kevin Johnson’s international reputation in immigration law is another area. I worked with Dean Johnson on an immigration issue, an area of the law I knew nothing about. Also, I spent 40 years in law and never sent a client a bill or an invoice. Now, my paid work allows me to do a wide array of pro bono activities. The local press called Juana Maria Flores the “Goleta grandmother.” Her husband was a citizen, and she had a large extended family here with 10 children and 18 grandchildren, including a son in the U.S. Air Force. The Trump administration ordered her deported on a technical offense in April 2019. Our sheriff called me because it wasn’t right. We were trying to bring her back. The Biden administration granted her humanitarian parole. In May of this year, she came home to be reunited with the family she had been ripped away from two years earlier. Dean Johnson helped us with a parole application submitted to the President early in the process.
I’ve also been able to do work representing underrepresented groups on elections under the California Voting Rights Act, as Goleta and Santa Barbara City Councils and many special districts have been required to move to district, rather than “at-large,” elections. Beyond helping people resolve their disputes, being in private business allows me to do other activities worth devoting my professional time to.
Abolition of the death penalty is imperative. It has a disparate impact on minorities. Our legal system is flawed and can be misapplied. Our legal system has mechanisms for correcting many of those mistakes. In 1988 a jury found a defendant guilty of murder and attempted murder in a jury trial in my courtroom. I sentenced him to 41 years to life in prison. He came back to my courtroom four years later on a writ of habeas corpus. I read through the thick sheaf of pleadings and declarations and granted a hearing on the writ, which is rarely done. The hearing on habeas corpus lasted longer than the trial. I found that the trial had produced the wrong result. It wasn’t him. I ordered his release from county jail. Phil Dunn, the writ attorney, wrote about the case in his book When Darkness Reigns.
I teach “Law and Civil Rights” at UC Santa Barbara, and I teach about that decision. It was an eyewitness misidentification case. The defendant spoke to my class, along with Dunn and the senior deputy in the Ventura D.A.’s office. The Ventura D.A.’s office had funded an undercover operation to get the defendant’s cousin to admit his guilt in the shooting to a wired gang member in the prison. It was a war between the Santa Barbara and Ventura D.A.’s offices, one seeking to uphold, the other to overturn the guilty verdicts. I found myself managing that war, with a lot of twists and turns.
After speaking to my class, the defendant came to my house. I will never forget that. Talking to the defendant was kind of mind-boggling. He could have been a neighbor or a relation. Dunn was touting me because writs of habeas corpus are very commonly a one-word decision: “Denied.” He admired the fact that I had read through it, given it weight and credibility, and had the hearing. After hearing that, the defendant started tearing up at my house. Until then, he hadn’t realized that I could have written “denied,” and he would have been in prison for the rest of his life. What a tremendous responsibility we have.
After what the last administration did — turning civil rights laws on their head — there has to be a lot of activity on that front. Changes to women’s healthcare rights are major challenges. It’s two steps forward, one step back, and one step sideways. The legal structure is at the forefront of making forward history occur. King Hall sets students up well with a broad educational background. As an alumnus, I benefited tremendously.
Of what accomplishment are you proudest?
Being the first Latino judge in Santa Barbara County in 100 years. Working on major-impact cases and having some impact on the way they came out — like Bakke. Being able to make changes in the legal system that benefited major segments of the community, as I did with the drug courts. Developing the county court consolidation of the municipal into the superior court in a unified system under state control.
At the same time, I created a model for alternative dispute resolution programs in other jurisdictions by drafting the rules for the CADRe program as Presiding Judge of the Santa Barbara Superior Court. We can’t require ADR, but we can require litigants to sit through a pitch for it. They see that ADR can be a better, more cost-effective, less draining process. About 70 percent of people who go through the pitch choose ADR. Of those who opt into it, about 70 percent resolve their disputes. It takes case pressure off the court system and results in a better resolution sooner in the process.
Developing some of those systems that are changing the legal landscape has been very beneficial to my career satisfaction. In a changing society, there’s always something new on the doorstep. The legal system has to put its foot in that door, and is usually leading the way.
Why did you choose to attend King Hall?
For practical reasons and personal circumstances. I went to UC Santa Barbara as an undergrad. UCLA was my family school, and I was accepted there. And I thought seriously about it. I grew up in Long Beach. I wanted to do something different. It was a chance to give me some distance from my hometown environment. It was a lucky choice. At the time, Davis didn’t have the reputation of UCLA, but it was beginning to. It was a smaller law school environment and separated from distractions. (L.A. has plenty of distractions.) That was important at the time.
King Hall had a great faculty: John Poulos, Jim Hogan, Edward Barrett. Pierre Loiseaux was my contracts professor. He gave me a “C.” In 1985, California Chief Justice Rose Bird appointed me pro tem to the Court of Appeal. In a sailboat case, I wrote a definitive decision on express warranties which was written up in Witkin’s Summary of California Law. I sent the decision to Professor Loiseaux to show him that even his C students do well.
What is your favorite King Hall memory?
Some of my best friends are from my King Hall days: Joe Florendo ’79, who was on the bench in Hawaii for 30 years. Sidney Strickland ’75, the last Secretary of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
We had the “King Hall Follies,” with sketches and musical performances. A classmate got the dean of admissions to come up on stage, supposedly to get an award, but actually to get a pie in the face. For the most part, the faculty went along with it.
The faculty were willing to listen, help, and understand. Working with Oakley and Jones on Bakke was astonishing.
We were second-years during the Nixon impeachment hearings. We would sit and watch witnesses in these highly consequential legal proceedings on television every day. Talking about it as newbies in the law was a profound experience.
Professor Jim Hogan would call on students in his Criminal Procedure class, and we would stand up to respond to his inquiry. If we were not forceful and impactful, he would say, “STOP. This time in a loud, booming voice.” We had to start over and enunciate. At the end of the term, we knew he was going to call on one person. When he told him to speak in a “loud, booming voice,” the student had brought in a battery-powered megaphone and blasted it across the room.
Another time, we arranged for Professor Hogan to be called out of the room. He always had a wineglass with water in it to sip throughout class. While he was out of the room, someone replaced the water with vodka. He was good-natured about it. He laughed. Despite the pressure to produce, we had fun.
Do you have any advice for current law students?
They just have to dig in and realize that if they work hard, they get the golden ticket, their license to practice law. But most important, they have a wide array of options to do work that is meaningful both in a personal sense and for the society around them. The legal system defines us as a country. We do not have a homogenous race and ethnicity. We are an amalgam of people from around the world. As a Judge, I six times took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and inherently the laws that are promulgated under it. That same oath of citizenship is what makes you an American. To be part of that law creation and application process is a tremendous responsibility, but one of the most gratifying in this society. Get an education at King Hall and see the ways you can impact your society.