After offering hope to countless people who have passed through his Substance Abuse Treatment Court over the past 12 years, Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores is in a position to find encouraging words useful himself, as he bids goodbye to the program he helped create and so treasures.

Starting Monday, Flores will move to a trial courtroom in Department 7 of Santa Maria’s criminal division. Judge Kay Kuns, who now sits in that department, is moving to Department 3 to preside over the drug and mental health treatment courts. Both departments are at the Lewellen Justice Center in Santa Maria.

The Substance Abuse Treatment Court is an arm of the Santa Barbara County Probation Department, and offers offenders with drug, alcohol and mental-health problems a choice to get clean in an 18-month program or go to jail.

“Grow where you’re planted. That’s my motto now,” said Flores, citing an expression on a card given to him by a colleague.

“I’m going to be the best trial judge I can be,” he said, adding that he plans to carry with him to his new job what he’s learned about substance abuse and mental health.

“I’m a firm believer in the drug courts ... but we’re required to rotate assignments from time to time,” Flores said. “I’m ready to handle trials and (preliminary hearings).”

He said that court administrators asked him to take on the new assignment in order to help with the busy case load in the trial courts.

Many years ago, Flores served as a trial court judge. He has been a Superior Court judge in the county for 26 years and switched courtrooms seven times during his judicial career.

Kuns, a relatively new judge who was sworn in as a judicial officer in December 2008 after being appointed to the bench by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has Flores’ support as she takes on the new challenge.

“She’s going to be a wonderful drug court judge,” Flores said. “She’s not only bright and very intelligent, she’s got a heart of gold.”

Flores said he looks forward to assisting Kuns as needed, and will continue with his advocacy of those afflicted by substance abuse and mental illness.

Flores will also continue handling Veteran’s Treatment Court, which started a year ago and has been picking up speed since.

Although Flores is looking forward to a change after 12 years presiding over the drug courts and 16 years of involvement with the program, which he started, he is sad to be leaving the program, his courtroom staff and others he has worked closely with through the years.

“Walking away from something that you’re somewhat comfortable with is always a difficult step,” Flores said.

He said the toughest part of moving on is leaving his court clerk of 15 years.

“You develop relationships with people,” Flores said. “It’s really been kind of an emotional roller coaster to pull up roots and move somewhere else.”

Over the past month, Flores has been telling those who appear before him in court that he will be leaving.

“I don’t like surprises,” he said.

The judge noted that people struggling with substance abuse sometimes deal with change in an especially difficult way.

Flores has no intention of abandoning those he has developed a relationship with in his court programs.

He even plans to attend upcoming graduation ceremonies for drug court treatment program participants.

“They know that I’m still going to be very involved with them,” Flores added.

Flores has ruled the Substance Abuse Treatment Court with a loving but firm hand, and has helped change many lives during his tenure with the court.

He has earned the admiration of not only colleagues, but program participants, who Flores often greets with a warm hug.

In the 16 years since drug court was established, more than 1,000 people have graduated. The successful graduation rate has been estimated at between 50 percent and 60 percent.

Flores has been hailed for his work with the treatment courts, and was just named judicial officer of the year by the Chief Probation Officers of California.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge Arthur Garcia said it is common for judges to rotate courtrooms and assignments.

Garcia said he believes the rotations are a “good thing,” and has experienced the benefits of changing assignments first hand.

“Each time, I bring something new. It’s a challenge when I go into a new assignment, but I think it’s a good intellectual challenge,” Garcia said.

He said he believes moving Flores to the trial courtroom will be a positive change as well.

“I fully anticipate he’s going to come in and be a super trial judge,” Garcia said. “He’s done it before. He’s going to have a different slant on things, and that’s a good thing.”

Garcia also praised Kuns, and said he has high hopes for her in the treatment court.

“Judge Kuns I know is a passionate judge, and I know she’s going to do a wonderful job in the specialty court.”

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Executive Officer Gary Blair said the drug treatment courts are like Flores’ “baby,” and he’s done an excellent job with the program.

“I just think he puts his heart and soul into his (work) and he’s to be commended for that,” Blair added.

Chris Matosich, a psychologist with Santa Barbara County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, said the loss of Flores in the drug courts will be an adjustment for the community.

Many people were able to become clean for Flores when they couldn’t for anyone else, Matosich said. He cared about them and encouraged them to be honest with him and themselves.

“He had this instinct about people. He respected them, and so they respected him,” Matosich said.

“Many clients had not experienced that (respect) before in their personal lives,” he added.

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