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041918 Judge Flores retires .jpg

Judge Rogelio Flores, shown in his Lompoc Superior courtroom, is retiring a month earlier than planned after 30 years on the bench.

Len Wood, Staff

After 31 years on the bench, longtime Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores will be hanging up his robes for good next month.

His lengthy tenure began in January 1987, when Flores was appointed as the first court commissioner for the North Santa Barbara County Municipal Court. In 1997, Flores was appointed to the municipal court bench, then one year later, he took the bench for the Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

During those 31 years, Flores presided over nine different courtrooms, 29 years in Santa Maria and two years in Lompoc, where he handled everything including drugs, mental health, domestic violence and felony trials. 

After dealing with health issues, and wanting to take his 12-week vacation early, Flores' last day on the bench at Lompoc Superior Court will be May 18, a month earlier than he planned. 

"It's been an amazing ride, the last 31 years; I don't regret anything," he said. "But I'll be 65 in June and I just thought last year that maybe it's finally time to say goodbye." 

A long road

Flores was born in south Texas in June 1953, before moving to Chicago with his family when he was only 6 months old. The family moved to the Central Coast in 1961 when Flores was 8 years old. His father was a carpenter by trade, and his mother a homemaker.

Both of his parents were educated only to the elementary school level in Mexico before they immigrated to the United States, but worked hard and raised six children together, all of whom established successful careers and obtained postgraduate degrees. 

"My family history is the definition of the American dream," Flores said. "My younger brother is a doctor, my sister is a schoolteacher, my older brother is a librarian and I myself am a judge." 

Flores also has two stepbrothers, both of whom are Vietnam veterans who now live in San Antonio, Texas. 

Flores grew up in the Nipomo Mesa area, graduated from Arroyo Grande High School in 1971 and went to college at UCLA, where he majored in political science.

Flores met his wife Arleen in 1972; they were married Aug. 7, 1976.

A career in law

He earned his law degree at UCLA in 1979, and was admitted to the bar later that year in November at age 26 before starting his career as a legal aid in Los Angeles for two years. 

When his oldest son Rogelio Jr. was born in 1980, Flores decided to leave L.A. and bring his family back to the Central Coast, where he ran his private practice as a criminal defense attorney for eight years before joining the Public Defender's Office. 

Just a few months later, he was named the first court commissioner of the North Santa Barbara County Municipal Court in 1987, at age 33. He spent half of his time presiding over traffic violations, small claims and the other half as a research attorney. 

His stepbrothers' military experiences were one of the biggest inspirations for Flores to help organize the first Veterans Treatment Court in Santa Barbara County. He started in Santa Maria in 2011, before starting another in Lompoc in 2016. He also presided over the Substance Abuse Treatment Court for 12 years before shifting to Department 7.

A huge champion for collaborative courts, Flores also served on the Collaborative Justice Courts Advisory Committees for the Judicial Counsel of California. He's traveled to different countries over the last decade such as Spain, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador to give lectures about drug courts. 

Career aspirations

Flores first became interested in the law when he was in high school, at the same time his father became involved with the Cesar Chavez United Farm Workers movement.

"I met Latino attorneys who spoke Spanish and worked for the California Rural Legal Assistance, and at that time, I never knew that lawyers could look like me," Flores said. "They showed me that I, too, could do this.

"I knew I wanted to help people with their struggles," Flores said. "As lawyers or judges, you have that power to affect change in a positive way."

He continued: "As a criminal defense attorney, I really wanted people to have a fair shot, to have their voice heard. I always kept that mantra, even more so after I became a judge ... it never left me." 

An uncle and a judge

Flores describes himself as a "fair but firm judge," and at the same time, everyone's caring, fun uncle while wielding the gavel. 

"I can be nice, and I believe in second chances, but don't mess with me," he noted. "I'm not to be lied to." 

He doles out advice not just to defendants who are on the calendar, but also to young lawyers after trial on the best way to go about their practice.

"I care about everyone in my courtroom and want them to succeed," he said. "These lawyers may very well one day become judges as well."  

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Flores said he doesn't see his courtroom as a colorless, soulless environment in which to punish people, but rather a place to heal people, and give them a chance to turn their lives around.

He remembers one case, from 27 years ago, involving a first-time DUI offender, age 19, who drove with a .46 blood alcohol content level. 

"I was new, and didn't know how to handle a case like that, but I ordered him to be remanded back into custody," he recalled. "However, I knew this was a special case, and later ordered him to enter a treatment program as soon as a bed was available."

One year later, as Flores was about to call his last case, he noticed a man sitting in the back of the courtroom, and asked if he was waiting for his matter to be called. 

"He asks me, 'Do you remember me, judge?'" and I didn't, and he reminded me that he was the one who had the 0.46; then I remembered him," Flores said.

"He told me he was celebrating his first full year of sobriety that day, and came to my courtroom to thank me. I began bawling my eyes out."

Everyone has a life story behind their case, and Flores has heard thousands during his time as judge -- from drug addicts, the mentally ill, alcoholics and post-traumatic stress disorder afflicted veterans. Keeping their stories in mind, Flores actively pursued a positive change in the justice system to emphasize rehabilitation over incarceration. 

"That's what the justice system should be like," he said. "We should proactively be improving lives. When you witness people change over time after getting clean, it just makes you want to go back to work the next day and call that next case because you can't wait to heal another person again." 

What's next?

Once Flores retires just a few weeks shy of his 65th birthday, he plans to stay busy -- carpentering, going backpacking/hiking, playing music and writing a book.

His book will focus on the cases he's presided over during his legal career, including his experiences with collaborative courts, in hopes of bringing about more positive change for rehabilitation in the justice system. 

Sometimes, he said, he'll dust off his robes and put them back on to fill in for other judges when they're on vacation. 

"I'll still be busy, but I'll be here whenever I'm needed," Flores said. "I've always wanted to be a lawyer, and a judge, and I can't imagine doing anything else. 

I'm convinced being a public servant involves a real service to the community -- I've always loved helping people and I hope I did that as a judge," he added.

"I want to thank everyone I met during my career in Santa Maria and Lompoc for giving me the opportunity to serve alongside them."

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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Courts/Public Safety Reporter