Both candidates in the Nov. 6 election for San Benito County Superior Court judge are newcomers to politics, but they tout their extensive legal experience as attorneys who have practiced in a variety of areas over the years among their top qualifications for the job.
Gregory LaForge, who owns a private criminal defense practice in Hollister, and Jose “Omar” Rodriguez, currently an assistant county counsel for Santa Cruz County, are vying for the seat. The “no. 2” judge’s seat is currently occupied by Judge Harry Tobias, who is retiring at the end of this year. Tobias has served as San Benito County judge since 1993.
LaForge, 57, has practiced law in the county for 30 years. After earning his degree from Golden Gate University School of Law, LaForge applied for a job with the San Benito County District Attorney’s Office in 1989 and has “been here ever since.”
“I consider this my home,” said LaForge, who is married and has four children and three grandchildren—all of whom reside in San Benito County. “I’m not using this as a stepping stone for anything else.”
As a deputy district attorney who worked his way up to chief deputy DA for the county, LaForge prosecuted numerous suspects for a variety of crimes, including murder, kidnapping, arson, three strikes cases, rape and robbery.
After leaving the DA’s office, LaForge went into private practice as a criminal defense attorney. His firm contracts with the court for public defender services. LaForge has also practiced civil law, including divorces, adoptions, guardianships and personal injury.
He has been admitted by Chief Justice John Roberts to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. LaForge has also been appointed by the Hollister City Council as an administrative hearing officer.
“I’m fair, impartial; I have the judicial temperament that qualifies me for this position,” LaForge said. “That and 30 years practicing.”
LaForge also stressed his community engagement as a qualifying factor for the judge’s seat. This includes his membership in the Elks and Rotary clubs, as well as the Chamber of Commerce.
“I live and work in this county,” LaForge said. “I don’t hide when I’m at home. You’ve got to be able to meet the people you serve. I do that on a daily basis.”
Rodriguez, 37, grew up in Hollister and graduated from San Benito High School in 1999. The son of field workers who met in Gilroy, Rodriguez was the first member of his family to complete college. After attending Gavilan College, he earned his bachelor’s and law degree from UC Berkeley.
He and his wife have a 2-year-old son. “He’s the fourth generation of Rodriguezes to have lived in San Benito County, as my paternal grandfather immigrated here in the 1930s from Mexico, and my father grew up in San Juan Bautista,” Rodriguez said in an email. His mother immigrated from Mexico.
After receiving his law degree, Rodriguez returned to Hollister to work as a San Benito County deputy district attorney for about five years. “I prosecuted everything from DUIs to violent assaults, and I truly enjoyed the work because not only did I get to keep the community safe, but I also got to evaluate each case on an individual basis and then pursue what I thought was the most just and fair outcome,” he said.
About the time the recession of 2009 hit, Rodriguez moved into civil law, where he practiced in a variety of new areas including business law, real property law and environmental law, he said. “I have now practiced in courts all over Northern California, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Rodriguez said.
He now works for the Santa Cruz County Counsel’s office, helping defend that county from lawsuits and other civil matters.
“Most of my career has been in public service, which I truly enjoy because I get to pursue the just and right outcome, not just the outcome a private client wants,” Rodriguez said.
He added that his family roots in Hollister give him a unique insight to the challenges facing local citizens and “on holding people accountable for their actions while still being empathetic to the obstacles in their lives.”
Both candidates pointed to the sluggish pace at which cases move through San Benito County courts as an issue they would work on improving, if elected.
“Litigants shouldn’t have to wait so long” to see the outcome of their cases, LaForge said. “I’d keep the calendars moving as quick as possible.”
Rodriguez said, “I have a number of ideas for programs that could help the San Benito County Superior Court, including court-directed mediation for civil litigation…and electronic access to all cases so that people can easily see what’s happening in their cases.”
Rodriguez said he is aware of the funding challenges to such an electronic system, and he would push for such funds while working on judicial councils.
Rodriguez added he would like to improve the “self-help services” that are available at San Benito County Superior Court.
LaForge noted he would like to work toward establishing a veterans court in San Benito County if he is elected. Such a program would direct military veterans accused of criminal offenses to seek treatment for mental health issues and other services to keep them out of trouble.
LaForge noted he has firsthand experience working with veterans, many of whom he has defended as a criminal defense attorney. He acknowledged the funding for a veterans court might be a hurdle.
Both candidates said they were inspired to run for the judge’s seat by Tobias’ retirement.
LaForge said when he thought about running earlier this year, he approached Tobias and asked if he would be seeking re-election. Tobias said he was not. “I talked to my family, and we said it could be a good move,” LaForge said.
He added, “It’s time for a change—change for me, change for the bench.”
Rodriguez added, “I’m running for San Benito County Superior Court Judge to have a broader impact on my community.”