Judge David Sotelo named Social Sciences distinguished alumni winner

David Sotelo
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Sotelo

When David Sotelo graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1983 (Merrill, politics) he was older than most undergrads, married, and the father of two small boys. 

It may have been a test for the East Los Angeles native to balance studies in political theory with raising a young family while also working but it was consistent with a desire to challenge himself.

Today, Sotelo is a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, appointed in 2002 by Gov. Gray Davis and reelected in 2010. And he's winner of the 2013 Distinguished Social Sciences Alumni Award at UCSC.

The award is presented each year to a Social Sciences graduate whose career is characterized by sustained and exemplary contributions to society through research, practice, education, policy, or service. It will be presented Friday afternoon at a reception at the Seymour Center at Long Marine Lab in conjunction with Alumni Reunion Weekend.

"David was a great inspiration to me during our undergraduate days," wrote David Korduner (Merrill, '85, politics) in nominating Sotelo. "He was thoughtful and wise, generous and kind, humble and hard working. He was the kind of person that I could only hope to become,"

"It was a great experience," Sotelo recalls of his UCSC days. "I was older, a parent, and a homeowner. Most of my fellow students were considerably younger, a few clearly attempting to discover a 'counter-culture' experience their parents may have had."

He remembers his classmates as "fun people asking important questions, not going to college just to get a job."

Early choice

Sotelo said he chose UCSC while still in Balboa High School in San Francisco. Though born in Los Angeles, the son of a Baptist minister, his family moved to San Francisco when he was 10, living in the Mission and Excelsior districts.

It was the early 1970s and he was in the school library. "I saw a Santa Cruz catalog, saw a photo of students living in a teepee and said 'That's were I want to go.'"

His path to Santa Cruz was a circuitous one when his plans changed and he wanted to attend art school that included a scholarship. That morphed into a year at California Baptist University in Riverside after his father insisted he go to a Baptist college instead.

The next summer, back in San Francisco, he met a young woman he'd known in fifth grade. They married, she attended San Francisco State – carrying their newly born first son on stage when she received her degree – then graduate school at San Jose State. Sotelo put school on hold and started waiting tables to support the family.

His wife, Margaret Leal-Sotelo, later got a lecturer's job at Cabrillo College, and the family moved to Felton. (Today, she is an assistant provost in the UCLA's executive vice chancellor's office.)

 In the early '80s, Sotelo went back to school, taking summer classes at UCSC, son number two was born, and he got a job waiting tables at Deer Park Tavern.

When he graduated he had thoughts of pursuing a Ph.D. in the history of consciousness. His wife sat him down: "'How many waiters have Ph.D's?'" she asked, and he opted for UCLA law school.

Love for criminal law

"I fell in love with criminal law," he said. "It's applied philosophy – how we live together – and politics all wrapped in one."

His first job out of law school was in a Beverly Hills law office. Two years later he wanted to apply to the public defender's office so he could defend poor people accused of crimes. Then a law school professor told him that as a new attorney "you will make a mistake, everyone does. Who should pay for your mistakes? Your client sitting next to you?"

"I thought I should challenge myself," he said, and also applied to the district attorney's office.

Both offices offered him a job. Both offices were in the same building but on different floors. "The question was, on that Monday, at 8:30 in the morning, which floor do I go to?"

"I challenged myself – and got off on the prosecutors' floor."

 Sotelo said his years as a prosecutor opened his eyes. "All the victims looked like my people," he said. "I'd tell my friends, 'I am a civil rights attorney.' I am representing poor people."

In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, Sotelo was recruited to be part of a team prosecuting police and government officials accused of abuse or other criminal activity. It wasn't long before "I knew I had to do something else" and he received an appointment as a Court Commissioner in East L.A.

Successful drug court

As a Court Commissioner he was challenged to help start a non-adversarial drug court in East L.A. It's a cooperative approach for hard-core addicts in which the district attorney, public defender, judge, and a contract vendor work as a team to help addicts keep themselves clean. Daily drug tests are part of the program along with counseling.

Of 17 drug courts in Los Angeles County, Sotelo says his was the most successful. "I felt like I was back in my dad's church, guys who graduated would cry."

Ten years ago, after his appointment to the superior court, he helped start a teen court at a Los Angeles high school. That work, challenging teens to examine their behavior, continues today.

In addition to presiding over criminal trials, Sotelo is also working with the Museum of Tolerance to hold teen courts on issues of intolerance. In the program called SHADES (Stopping Hate and Delinquency by Empowering Students), teens take testimony from victims and suspects and pass sentences.

"It's a variation of teen court," he said, "our focus is on bullying."