The last the public heard of Salcido, the Commission on Judicial Performance was formally reprimanding the sitting San Diego County Court Judge for using her courtroom to create audition tapes for a Judge Judy-style television show. Salcido accepted the censure for 39 allegations of misconduct and resigned from the bench. However, she didn't relinquish her "Judge" title, and she's using it—with the qualification that she's retired—on her new business cards.
Actually, she has two new cards, one for each of her new hats. She's practicing law under the name “Honorable Legal Services” and watchdogging the court system through the Judicial Action Watch Society (ominously abbreviated as JAWS), a new advocacy organization she founded. She's certainly not shy about showing her face at the Hall of Justice, choosing the coffee shop right in front as the setting for a January interview with CityBeat.
To be fair, Salcido would've made a kick-ass TV judge. She smiles easily and possesses the gift of gab; she's self-deprecating, but also sharp-tongued when it comes to her enemies. She says what she thinks, what she knows, what she's heard. She confesses her own naiveté, grumbles about her ex-husband and openly accuses one of her former colleagues of describing her as “nice tits, but difficult to work with” behind her back.
“I have a big mouth,” she says. “I don't know when to be quiet. I'm telling you everything I know. That's just the way it's going to be. I don't know how to change that. It's a defect in my personality.”
In the year since her fall from grace, Salcido says she's been recovering by putting down her story in book form. The working title of the memoir is Silence Kills: Or How Career Suicide Saved My Life, and it promises to be a tell-all account of politics, waste and injustice in the county justice system. It will also be a memoir of how Salcido accomplished her dream, then lost it.Salcido was first exposed to the courts as a child through her father, who's also an attorney. She says she began reading law books when she was 8, and by the time she was in high school, films like Kramer vs. Kramer inspired her to become a judge.
“I was like, ‘You can be a great attorney all you want, but it's the judge who decides what's going to happen,” she says. “I reached that goal at age 37, which, in retrospect, I was way too young for that job.”
Salcido graduated from UCLA School of Law and immediately went to work for the Los Angeles County District attorney's Office, where she made a name for herself by prosecuting a high-profile trespassing case against a priest who'd blocked an abortion clinic. After taking time off to raise her first child, she went into private practice with her father in San Diego, defending corporations in civil cases. The money was good, she said, but the job made her miserable, and she returned to public service as a deputy district attorney under then-D.A. Paul Pfingst.
Within her first year, she received a call from Lynn Schenk, the former Democratic member of Congress who was then serving as Gov. Gray Davis' chief of staff, asking Salcido to submit an application for an open judgeship in San Diego.
“It was easy for me because it was something I wanted to do since I was in high school,” she says. “I planned everything out when I was 30. I made a file. I called it ‘The Honorable File' and [all the documentation] was there—opposing counsel, the judges, the departments, case numbers, ready and handy, but I didn't expect to use it for 10 years.”
Salcido was appointed to the bench in 2002 and worked first in family court, then drug court in East County. She describes her experience as a constant battle, with her supervisors telling her that she needed to “go along to get along.” Salcido says she was accumulating enemies in both prosecutorial and defense circles as she refused to rubberstamp plea deals. In 2010, she filed a lawsuit against her supervising judge, Peter Deddeh, alleging he pressured her to provide “Chevy justice” to minor cases and “Cadillac justice” to higher-profile ones. The case was eventually thrown out by the California Court of Appeals.
“If you ask anyone who knows me, I'm incorrigible,” Salcido says. “I can't sleep well at night if I were just to say, ‘Well, I want to keep my job as opposed to doing what I think is right or asking the right questions.' I made some mistakes along the way. I'm not going to say I was the perfect judge. I had said some things I shouldn't have said, but not so much that I deserved to be run out.”
Salcido admits that she gave her opponents the ammunition to take her down when, on two occasions, she allowed cameras in the courtroom to record proceedings for a potential TV show. Salcido says she doesn't see what the big deal was since the footage would not have been broadcast and the San Diego judicial system had already been dissected on television through the “Crime & Punishment” documentaries that ran on NBC from 2002 to 2004.
It may be what she said on the tape that did more damage. In the 23-page decision issued in Nov. 2010, the Commission on Judicial Performance outlines 39 different incidents of judicial misconduct, including Salcido leading the audience in “Woo, woo, woo” call-and-response cheers and disparaging court clerks as being “cucumbers.” Salcido says she didn't ham it up for the camera. Rather, she always used humor, she says, and likens her court room to M.A.S.H.—“You had to laugh or you'd cry”—and compares her bailiff to the Medea character from Tyler Perry's comedy films. Her unconventional demeanor was meant to reach defendants on a personal level, she says.
“We were supposed to encourage them to be applying for jobs, so I would also say things like, ‘You can't be wearing hoochie shoes to court and expect me to believe
you're not wearing them to your job interview,'” Salcido says. “But ‘hoochie shoes,' I guess, is another term a judge is not supposed to say. I didn't get a judge vocabulary guide. I thought, Let's make this person see how the little things in life may be sending out impressions they don't want. Maybe I could've used that advice myself.”
Salcido decided to stop fighting the case after suffering what she calls a “mini-stroke,” due to the stress of the investigation and the end of her second marriage.
Today, Salcido's reentering the legal community. With her law firm, she plans to offer flat-fee services to clients rather than hourly billing. Through JAWS, she'll observe court hearings and educate families on how to advocate for themselves and understand proceedings. She's also advocating that California do away with judicial elections. She says her colleagues supported her reelection campaign, even though it was common knowledge that she was under investigation, because her defeat would indicate the court was weak to external attack.
“The whole idea of it to me just reeks of corruption,” she says. “Judges should not be in the business of courting votes and seeking endorsements from other elected officials. Special interests, politicians and wealthy donors run San Diego's court system.”