Michele M. Castillo
Superior Court Judge, Ventura County
First Latina to serve on bench in county, public defender for nine years
What is your educational background? What were the main hurdles in becoming an attorney?
I attended Buena and Santa Barbara High Schools, UCLA (graduated with two bachelor of arts degrees, one in history, the other in women’s studies), Thomas Jefferson School of Law (J.D. degree), and the University of Oxford (Oxford, England, earning a certificate in international human rights law and the international rights of women).
The main hurdle towards becoming an attorney was financial. Law school is very expensive. I worked several jobs and took out student loans to pay for my education.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer and specifically a public defender?
I became a lawyer because I was drawn towards social justice. It is a passion that I developed at a very young age. I became a public defender because it allowed me to think outside the box, be creative and represent those who could otherwise not afford an attorney.
Why did you decide to move from being an attorney to a judge?
My motivation for becoming a judge came from the following: to insure that justice prevails, uphold the integrity of the justice system, uphold laws, improve society (MLK Jr., “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress”), provide equal access to justice, which would increase the public trust and confidence in the courts, and lastly, to serve my community. I am dedicated to being a public servant.
How many cases have you worked on as a public defender and as a judge?
I was a public defender in Fresno, working in juvenile dependency and delinquency, misdemeanors and felonies. As a public defender in Ventura, I also worked in juvenile delinquency, misdemeanors, felonies, probate, mental health court, veterans court, homeless court and hospital courts. Throughout my 12-year career, I worked on thousands of cases.
As a bench officer, I worked in family law (I served for almost two years as a Superior Court Commissioner, handling domestic violence, school, transitional housing, workplace violence, civil harassment restraining orders, child support, child custody and visitation). As a Superior Court judge, I have presided over felony and misdemeanor jury trials and am now assigned to a misdemeanor arraignment court, where I handle hundreds of cases every day.
How many women justices are there in Ventura County compared to men?
There are currently 32 bench officers in Ventura County. This is comprised of four commissioners and 28 judges. We currently have one open judge seat (due to a recent retirement), and when that is filled we will have 33 bench officers. As of right now, there are six female bench officers: Judge Nancy Ayers, Judge Colleen Toy White, Judge Patricia Murphy (presiding judge), Judge Tari Cody, Commissioner JoAnn Johnson and myself.
You are the first Latina on the bench in VC. What hurdles have you faced as both a woman and of Latin descent?
When I was in junior high (specifically eighth grade), I was in the process of signing up for my classes in high school when my soon-to-be high school counselor asked me what classes I was interested in. I responded, “Advanced-placement English, algebra, honors science” and the like, whereupon he responded, “Well, those classes are hard. Don’t you want to take basic English, cooking class, basic math?” When I asked him why I would want to do that, he stated, “Won’t you be in the home in a few years?”
After graduating from UCLA, I worked as a substitute teacher at various elementary schools. One day, I arrived early to my assignment and was busy in the classroom getting ready, when the recess bell rang and the kids started lining up outside the window to the classroom. I heard one child yell out in an excited manner, “Hey, we have a sub today and she is Hispanic!” When the students came into the classroom, some of them told me that they had never seen a Hispanic teacher before. These experiences led me even more to serve as a role model for my community, fueled my desire to go to law school, become a lawyer, and now work as a judge.
What message do you have for women who want to follow similar professional paths as you?
Not to sound cliché, but work hard and don’t let anything stop you. Set goals for yourself and take the appropriate steps to get there.
The best advice from one of my mentors was this: “Michele, two things will always follow you: your reputation and your integrity.” I practiced law with this in mind every day in which I was a practicing lawyer, and I conduct myself in accordance with this advice every day that I am on the bench.
I am fortunate to serve the citizens of Ventura County, the county in which I grew up.
I am also fortunate to serve on the bench with my judicial colleagues, all of whom I deeply respect, and I am equally fortunate to work with a wonderful court staff.
I have a surreal feeling each and every day that I drive to work and hear the words “Your Honor.”
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