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Santa Barbara Courts Facing More Vacancies as Three Judges Announce Retirement Plans

Three Santa Barbara County Superior Court judges will soon retire, prompting a process to refill the vacancies.

Judge Denise de Bellefeuille of Santa Barbara Juvenile Court will be the first to retire later this month, Judge James Iwasko of the Santa Maria Division will retire in early December and Judge Frank Ochoa of Santa Barbara’s Anacapa Division will follow suit in early January.

All three recently announced plans to step down, although at least de Bellefeuille and Iwasko will stay on some in the interim, according to Presiding Judge Arthur Garcia.

He said it’s a bit early to know whether Ochoa will help out while Gov. Jerry Brown's office searches for a permanent replacement — a process that could last six months or longer.

“We just got back up to full staffing,” Garcia said, referring to recent appointments and reassignments. “Now we’re going to be short again. It’s nice for them to retire, but it’s hard on the court because you lose all the experience.”

De Bellefeuille has served in the Santa Barbara Municipal Court the past 20 years, since Gov. Pete Wilson appointed her to the bench in February 1994. 

After the municipal and superior courts consolidated four years later, de Bellefeuille, who is married to Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge James Edward Herman, became a Superior Court judge and transferred from criminal to a newly-formed civil division, where she presided on general civil, limited civil and family law matters. 

She currently presides over Juvenile Court, but isn't the presiding Juvenile Court judge, and she also still handles some civil matters.

Iwasko, 70, was appointed to the bench by Gov. Gray Davis in October 2002, presiding over the Lompoc Division before he was reassigned last month to Santa Maria’s Department 9.

He was a practicing attorney for 27 years and in 1997 was appointed to serve as the family law commissioner for Santa Barbara County.

Ochoa will retire with more than 30 years of judicial experience. Gov. Brown appointed Ochoa, a UC Santa Barbara graduate, to be a Municipal Court justice in 1983.

At 32, Ochoa was the youngest judge in the state at the time and the court’s first Hispanic judge of the century. He became a Superior Court judge in 1996.

Garcia said qualified candidates, who must be lawyers with at least 10 years of practice experience, can apply for the open positions, which are usually filled in the order judges step down.

A California State Bar judicial committee will review and interview applicants, whose names will be forwarded to the governor’s office for final consideration and appointment.

“It can be a rather lengthy process,” Garcia said. “Certainly, we’d like to have it done as soon as possible. The work doesn’t go away. But we’re not going to be without support.” 

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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