A historical swearing-in ceremony Monday afternoon in Santa Maria celebrated the appointment of the first African-American to sit on the Superior Court bench in Santa Barbara County.
With her family watching from the front row and fellow jurists in the jury box, Denise Hippach took the oath of office administered by Presiding Judge Gustavo Lavayen.
Hippach, 46, of Grover Beach was one of two new judges appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 7.
Judge Stephen Foley was sworn in that day, but Hippach needed time to clear her cases before switching jobs.
She will bring a wealth of experience to her role as judge, Lavayen said, calling her smart and tough.
“She’s going to be excellent on the bench, I have absolutely no doubt,” Lavayen said.
He also called the appointment of the first African-American judge in Santa Barbara County overdue.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Lavayen said, before becoming the first to refer to her as “Judge Hippach.”
Lavayen couldn’t resist pointing out that, like himself, the new judge came from the Santa Barbara County Counsel’s Office.
Hippach, senior deputy county counsel since 2018, most recently has handled cases in juvenile dependency cases, some of the most complex legal situations aimed at keep children safe, Lavayen said.
Court staff and attorneys filled the Santa Maria courtroom for the ceremony.
‘I am humbled to see all these faces,” Hippach said. “This has been such a long road, and it’s an incredible moment. “
Previously, she served as a deputy attorney general at the Idaho Attorney General’s Office from 2016 to 2018, and was deputy prosecuting attorney at the Canyon County, Idaho, prosecutor’s office from 2015 to 2016.
Hippach also worked as a panel attorney at the Judicial Council of California’s Court-Appointed Program from 2014 to 2018.
She was a deputy county counsel at the Los Angeles County Counsel’s Office from 2008 to 2014, staff attorney for Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers from 2007 to 2008, and deputy district attorney at the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office from 2004 to 2006.
She’s not the only local judge to have started a career in Riverside County.
Judge Stephen Foley, who also was appointed Oct. 7, and Judge Patricia Kelly both previously worked as prosecutors in the Inland Empire before joining the local District Attorney’s Office and then being appointed to judicial seats.
Hippach earned a law degree from the University of Southern California.
She will fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge James E. Herman, while Foley has filled the seat of Judge James Voysey, who retired but has continued to serve to help with the backlog of cases.
After completing orientation, Hippach likely will be assigned to the arraignment court in Santa Maria.
Despite the governor’s two recent appointments, one more vacancy exists in Santa Maria created by the retirement of Judge Timothy Staffel.
More vacancies could pop up in the coming months since at least one other judge reportedly has been mulling retirement.