Santa Barbara County Superior Court Executive Officer Gary Blair is retiring after 37 years of being a steadfast advocate for new construction projects, innovative case management software and public access to the court system.
Looking back, he says he can trace his career to an unlikely source — his tonsils.
It was the late 1970s and Blair, a UCSB student about to graduate, was accepted into law school in San Diego. Complications from a tonsillectomy made him very sick and he had to defer his acceptance. Meanwhile, he says, he realized just how many lawyers there already were in California, and how much debt he would have to shoulder to move forward.
Instead, he enrolled in UCSB’s master’s degree program for public and social affairs and got an internship with the District Attorney’s Office. A job was created there within a few months, and he became the director of the new victim assistance program that helped victims keep track of court appearances, get property back and otherwise navigate the criminal justice system.
The former administrator of the Superior Courts left in 1978 somewhat “under fire” and things were falling apart, which is when Blair applied and got appointed by the seven-judge panel in 1979. What really dates his start is the fact that of the seven judges, five were appointed by Gov. Ronald Reagan and one was appointed by Gov. Pat Brown.
“It’s been a dream job for me. I’ve loved every second of it,” he said. “You become an expert in all kinds of areas you never would have thought. … It’s all because of a pair of tonsils.”
Countless news agencies have him to thank for the access to court documents during Michael Jackson’s criminal trial in 2004 as well. Making court documents available online as soon as they’re filed was illegal at the time, but Blair successfully argued for an exception for high-profile cases.
“That was fun,” he said. “That was kind of an interesting moment in my career.”
The California Judicial Council, which is the governing body for courts, debated the issue for three hours before coming to a tied 9-9 vote among its members, Blair said. In an unusual move, then-Chief Justice Ronald George decided to cast a vote and to allow it as a one-year pilot program.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court received the Ralph Kleps award for creating the website with court documents and media information relating to the Jackson trial. Blair said he even organized media parking areas, satellite truck coordinates and sent out email blasts announcing each newly-filed document to journalists in 43 countries.
The exception for high-profile cases is now a permanent rule and was used in San Mateo County for the Scott Peterson case, Blair said.
Another highlight of his career is hosting a California Supreme Court session in the historic Anacapa Street Courthouse’s Mural Room.
The county put in a huge sound system and portable air — since there is no air conditioning and “horrible acoustics” in the room — and 900 local high school students got to experience the three-day Supreme Court in session in 2006. It was televised live and students watched remotely in three courtrooms, and each got a short time to watch in person, Blair said.
California’s court system has gone through a huge transformation in the past two decades, including the switch to having county courts funded by the state instead of counties. The switch happened in 1997, and there have been severe cutbacks since 2008. Blair said Santa Barbara County Superior Court is looking at cuts of $2.5 million to $4.5 million just for next year.
He said he has seen a drop in 45 staffing positions as well, including 15 people who are leaving within the month by taking incentives to retire early or just leave.
Another big milestone was in 1998, when counties combined their Superior Courts with municipal and justice courts after Proposition 220 passed. The Santa Barbara County Superior Court has grown considerably since 1980, from 10 judges and 35 employees to 24 judges and more than 250 employees.
Blair has overseen multiple construction projects during his tenure, and the effort to get a new criminal courthouse “has been kind of my baby” in recent years, he said.
Santa Barbara’s project has been long approved for Senate Bill 1407 grant funding, but since the bill was passed in 2009, nearly $1.5 billion of court construction funds have been diverted to the state’s general fund or to bankroll trial court operations. All SB 1407 projects have been either canceled or delayed until the construction funding re-materializes.
The new building would consolidate all of the criminal courtrooms and use the 1.3-acre Hayward Properties at 1025 Santa Barbara St., which already has been purchased for the project.
Blair has advocated for the project before multiple state committees and argues that it’s vital to have all criminal operations housed in one modern, secure building. Jail and prison inmates are escorted through public hallways, across Figueroa Street and up public elevators from the basement holding area to their court hearings, and Blair says it’s a serious safety concern.
“You see this chain gang of custodies in orange jumpsuits going past the buses of international tourists; it’s bizarre,” he said.
He’s also proud of the many programs to help people navigate the court system, such as the free Family Law facilitators and Self-Help Center, which partners with Legal Aid. His replacement — who will be announced soon — will be finishing the transition to electronic records and case management. All civil case documents should be available online by the end of the year, with traffic and criminal cases following that, Blair said.
He is officially retiring Aug. 5, but he said he thinks he will end up coming back to do some work, perhaps as a consultant, after six months of relaxing with his family.
“It’s hard to go from 100 miles per hour to 10 miles per hour — I’m looking for something in between,” Blair said.
He already has plans to go camping with his his wife, Ana, and twin 13-year-old daughters this summer and take the trailer out to Lake Casitas in Carpinteria.
A retirement event is planned for the evening of Friday, July 19 at El Paseo Restaurant, 813 Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara.