Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge George Eskin has served his last day on the bench and will officially retire from his 10-year term in October.
Eskin has been known to voice his opinions openly in court, particularly during sentencing hearings, and was often welcoming of media coverage in his courtroom. He is a big advocate for substance abuse and mental health treatment, favoring placements for rehabilitation over prison time in some cases. He also was instrumental in starting Santa Barbara County's Veterans Treatment Court, for which he gives a lot of credit to Deputy District Attorney Michael Carrozzo.
The March death of colleague Ed Bullard, a Superior Court judge in Santa Maria who died at age 59, made Eskin realize he wanted to retire now.
“I had a brand new granddaughter and I didn’t want what happened to Bullard to happen to me,” he told Noozhawk.
After graduating from UCLA’s School of Law in 1965, Eskin worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney in Santa Barbara and Ventura. He also briefly worked as an assistant city attorney in Los Angeles before returning to the Central Coast in 1981.
Eskin retired from his law practice in 1998 when his wife, now-state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, was elected to the Assembly. He has worked on many nonprofit boards, the California Mock Trial competitions and the county's Teen Court program. He also hosted and DJ’d several radio shows locally and even had a go at a voice acting career.
He said he hadn’t planned to apply for a judicial appointment, since he would miss being an advocate.
“I thought sitting on the bench would be very boring,” he said. “I thought it would be hard to just sit back and watch and listen, which turned out to be a little bit true.”
His former supervisor with the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office was the judicial appointment secretary and encouraged him to apply, despite the fact Eskin was already 65 years old.
Eskin was appointed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and found the bench to be a rewarding experience.
“I am proud to say, and don’t hesitate to say, I learned something new every day — about people, about the law, about the human condition, about different areas of occupation,” he said.
“You don’t become a judge because you know it all — you don’t. You become a judge because someone in the governor’s office thinks you would do a good job."
Eskin says his experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney made him uniquely suited to consider both sides of every criminal case that came before him.
If he could change one thing about the system, he says he would require all district attorneys to work in a public defender’s office for a year and have defense attorneys work with the DA for a year so they can better understand cases from both sides.
He also believes the criminal justice system needs a different approach to drug offenses, with an emphasis on treatment.
“I think there are far too many people sentenced to state prisons as a result of addictions that should be treated as soon as possible instead of prison as a first option,” he said.
Several cases have stuck with him over the years — even haunting him — but he says his favorite thing about being a judge is what the public often dreads the most: jury selection.
“It’s just amazing to me to see how the composition of the jury evolves from the first 12 in the box to the final 14, and the cross-section of the community that it represents,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the cross-section doesn’t extend to ethnic minorities, though we’re seeing more Hispanics participating in the process.”
Eskin has also been an advocate for media coverage in his courtroom, and believes the media are the public’s access — sometimes the only connection — to what goes on in court.
Reflecting on his 10 years, he says there were some parts of the job he hadn’t prepared for.
“One of the aspects of the job that I didn’t anticipate, that is disheartening, is the extent to which we’re isolated," he explained. "Judges are isolated not just from the legal community but the community at large, because of all the prohibitions and things that could be seen as inappropriate, like being seen at functions where litigants or attorneys could be.
“It’s the public perception of how it reflects on the integrity of the judicial office that contributes to making the job so isolated. It’s not terribly compatible with my persona.”
The rules are complicated by the fact that Eskin is married to a politician who fought high-profile election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 while he was on the bench. He can host a fundraiser and accept donations — judges are on the ballot every six years — but if Jackson hosts one with the same people a week later, he can’t be there.
“The rules require me to hide in the bedroom or leave the house, because of the potential appearance that my judicial integrity would be impaired or compromised by being there,” he said.
It was difficult not being able to support his wife as much once he became a judge, he said.
Eskin will probably be filling in at Superior Court until a replacement is appointed. Superior Court executive officer Darrel Parker said it could take 18 months to replace Eskin, due to the long qualification and appointment process.
Eskin plans to keep serving as the announcer for UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball games and as a mentor/judge for the California Mock Trial competitions.
And, of course, he’ll be spending some more time with his wife and his grandchildren.