Jan. 23 2013 10:01 AM

Goodbye, vast right-wing conspiracy; hello, small misdemeanor court

Illustration by Adam Vieyra
    Judge Gary Kreep's court is now in session.

    It's Thursday morning and Kreep, easily San Diego's most controversial new judge, is checking his hair in the flat-screen monitors that he'll use to arraign inmates via live video. He's wearing a white tie over a white shirt beneath his robe and nursing a large coffee. Mostly Hispanic men sparsely populate the three rows of the gallery. On the other side of the bar, the court professionals—the deputy city attorney, public defenders, the bailiff, clerks and support staff—are almost all women, giving Kreep on his raised seat a distinctly patriarchal perspective.

    He is clearly loving his first week on the job.

    On Jan. 7, Kreep said goodbye to his old life when he was sworn into office. For decades, he'd headed up the United States Justice Foundation, a nonprofit law firm notorious for its hard-line conservative lawsuits. On the side, he was a long-time right-wing campaign operative, the legal counsel to the Minutemen and a leader in the "Birther" movement, which believes President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. According to Kreep's ex-wife, he was making upwards of $400,000 a year and cashed it in for a $178,789 salary as a Superior Court judge.

    The legal community gasped when Kreep eked out a surprise win last June over career prosecutor Garland Peed. The worry was that Kreep's politics—particularly his anti-LGBT positions—would influence his rulings, especially if he was assigned to his first choice, family courtInstead, they were hoping Presiding Judge Robert Trenta costa would bury him in a lesser court where he could do the least damage.

    That seems to have happened. Geographically, the room is hard to find: Take a sharp U-turn after entering the courthouse, walk until you're almost out the exit, turn left and follow the corridor. Department 3 is the last courtroom. You can just see Kreep's face through the tiny window.

    With his new assignment, Kreep was also buried in the legal process; the decisions he makes are largely procedural and involve only misdemeanors and probation violations.

    "It's not the type of department where a person's political leanings, be they far right or far left, are really going to enter into the decision-making for a judge," defense attorney Victor Orsatti says. "If there's people that are worried about this particular gentleman because of his political beliefs, I don't believe they need to worry about anything."

    Historically, the courtroom has been assigned to court commissioners, non-judge attorneys granted limited powers to make decisions in low-level cases.

    "The commissioners handle a lot of the more, for lack of a better word, tedious or mundane cases, which frees up the judges to handle complicated trials, jury trials and things of that nature," attorney Lance Rogers says. "The courtroom deals with fines and treatment programs and classes, and the jail time or custody [Kreep] is likely to impose in the larger context of cases is usually smaller, usually not dealing with prison, certainly not death-penalty cases."

    On the docket today: A man in his 40s would like to have his hearing early or postponed because he has a job interview; an older Marine vet who demands to be addressed by his full rank and wants to withdraw his guilty plea to some misdemeanor infraction even he doesn't really understand; a young shoplifter and his mother hoping to score the teen another chance. Then a parade of inmates appear via video.

    Kreep powers through the seemingly dry work, dispensing with cases quickly and thoroughly, but with a hint of self-deprecation.

    "I get confused easily," Kreep says by way of apology to one defendant, a young Mexican immigrant in a dazzling blue, button-down shirt, when he has to stop to double check himself. "New judge. Idiots like me have to get into this a bit before we're smart."

    He also attempts a little banter, schooling one lawyer on the origin of a "wobbler," an offense that could be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. When a female Mexican-American attorney approaches the bar, Kreep digresses from the proceedings.

    "I love your accent," Kreep says. 

    "I'm Mexican," she responds. He asks if she's a Mexican citizen. The defense attorney says no, she's a U.S. citizen.

    "I wasn't planning on having you deported," he says, and folks in the courtroom chuckle.

    Kreep's appointment isn't without irony. For many years, Department 3 was the domain of Commissioner Sandra Berry, who, according to Gay & Lesbian Timesmade history when she became San Diego's first openly gay judicial officer. Kreep, on the other hand, has been at odds with the LGBT community for decades. Then there's the matter of his bailiff's wall art: Among a collage of baby photos is a print of the cover of Ebony magazine's special issue, "Black Cool: The 25 coolest brothers of all time," featuring Kreep's nemesis, Barack Obama, in sunglasses and a sharp suit. Those belong to Deputy Sheriff Piper Paulk, an African-American woman with elaborate makeup and tinted hair, who's been with the court for almost a decade. If Kreep's going to succeed, he'll need Paulk's help.

    "She's the one that really keeps that courtroom moving in an orderly fashion," Berry says. "We have to deal with the female [inmates] in the courtroom. They come in per son, so she's responsible in getting them organized, bringing them in and keeping them calm."

    Throughout the morning, Kreep begins to reveal his position on certain policies. He declines a city attorney's request for a no-bail arrest warrant, saying he thinks it is unconstitutional. He also rejects the prosecutor's argument that one defendant charged with public drunkenness should remain in jail while awaiting trial because he's a "drain on resources," having generated 66 different 911 calls in 2012. Ultimately Kreep decides not to release him because of prior failures to appear, but halves his bail to $10,000.

    "You have wide discretion to release someone on their own recognizance, on a promise to appear, or to change the bail amount, either lower or higher, depending on the charge," says Berry, who retired in 2010. Because the court handles in-custody arraignment—people who have not made bail—the defendants tend to be indigent, often homeless people charged with crimes related to chronic alcoholism.

    "Probably the only positive impact the court can have is to motivate them to go into the Serial Inebriate Program [SIP], the alcohol recovery program," Berry says. "That's really their only source of hope. Some are in desperate need of treatment. Some have a history, or a growing history, of arrests for being drunk in public. It tends to be a revolving door of being in court and being on the streets."

    Kreep seems committed to stopping the merry-go-round every time he finishes a hearing.

    "Don't take this the wrong way," Kreep says to each defendant, "but I hope I never see you again."

    Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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