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Don Griffith for Kern County Superior Court Judge

Don Griffith for Kern County Superior Court Judge

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer – Don Griffith will be on the ballot for Kern County Superior Court Judge Office 36 in the upcoming primary election.  He was asked about his unusual career journey and how his experience teaching math to adolescents has enhanced his ability to make wise decisions for couples going through “the most stressful time in their lives.”

Griffith started his career as a middle school math teacher in Riverside with Donna, his wife of 36 years, and his son, Bryce, who is now a Marine Lieutenant.  He also served 13 years as a school board member. His original career plan was to move from teacher to school principal, but one day, Donna asked, “Hey dear, why not become an attorney?” Being a paralegal herself, she thought he’d be good at it.   

Griffith followed her advice and enrolled at California Southern School of Law.  He passed the Bar in 1992, began a solo practice in 1995, and became a certified family law specialist in 2014.  As a family law attorney, he represented both petitioners and respondents in Riverside County. That is until his career took still another turn.

Presiding Judge Colette Humphrey was looking for a family law attorney to preside over a new domestic violence and family law calendar in Bakersfield.  She found out Griffith had started a pilot program for domestic violence, so she had someone ask him to apply.  He did and was hired.

But after serving in that spot for just over a year, Griffith’s supervisor, Judge Stephen Schuett, was about to retire and wanted Griffith to take his place as a Commissioner in family court.  So, instead of retiring and having Governor Newsom appoint someone else, Schuett put his retirement on hold long enough for Griffith to be voted in by the Judicial Council.  Now that Griffith has served as Commissioner for over a year, Schuett suggested he run for judge to fill his spot.  Griffith said, “Being elected as judge gives continuity to the family court system in Bakersfield.”  He would be one of seven judges who preside over family law cases and one of only three who specialize in it.

Being certified as a family law specialist is a definite bonus for a family law judge, but excelling at math makes him even better.  “It’s important in family law to get it right” because the child and spousal support are big parts of a judge’s ruling.  He said some judges plug in numbers, but “the amount people make can get complicated” and can lead to either over- or under-reporting.  For instance, a teacher’s salary can easily be over-reported because they are only 10-month employees. “If they make $5000 a month, they don’t really average $5000 a month.  They average $4200 a month.” On the other hand, an employee can under-report his income if he is paid every other week and forgets the extra two weeks in a year.

Besides knowing math, Griffith’s teaching experience with adolescents also enhanced his ability in his legal career. He said, “I think it really helped me be a better attorney and a better court Commissioner.”

First, a math teacher must stand before the class and teach logically.  It’s the same in court. When arguing his case, “I had to present a logical reason why [the judge] should rule in my favor.”

Second, a teacher must be disciplined and organized.  Since math is a progressive subject, scheduling time to promptly grade papers is important. It’s the same with a judge. Griffith does not leave the courthouse until he has prepared for the next day by reading what both sides have filed.

Third, he learned patience. Griffith said, “Being patient as a math teacher is really important because “it isn’t everybody’s favorite.”  Many students have difficulty with it “so it doesn’t do any good to get angry and raise your voice with people struggling to learn.”  He said it’s the same in court. “Parties who are getting a divorce don’t necessarily understand everything that’s going on.”

And finally, Griffith learned compassion. He said, “I taught six periods a day with about 30 students in each class, so I dealt with 180 adolescents five days a week for an hour at a time.” He learned each student had different perspectives and needs.  In the courtroom, a practical way to show compassion is in his rulings for support. “Sometimes, when people are not as well off as others, $50 makes a difference.” He has seen judges who went from high school to law school to make a good living as a judge, and “$50 doesn’t mean a lot to them.”  Griffith’s first teaching salary was $16,000 a year, so “$50 bucks was a big deal.”

Compassion also needs to be shown in family court because it’s different than criminal and civil.  In criminal court, “Criminals know when they commit crimes, there’s a possibility they’ll be called to answer for them and may face jail time.”  Also, in civil court, “people involved in business, real estate, or rental properties understand from time to time, they’ll have a conflict and end up in court.”  But family court is different because “these people haven’t done anything wrong.”

One way Griffith showed compassion to his clients was by explaining the stages of grief.  These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  He said, “Couples who have agreed to marry and have children together never imagine they’ll oppose that person in a courtroom.” Now it is the judge who will make decisions on how they spend their money and raise their children.  “They can’t deal with this when it hits them in such a harsh manner.”   

If Griffith’s client were the petitioner, he would explain to him that he has most likely worked through all the stages and now is at “acceptance,” but his respondent wife “may not be there yet.”  Griffith would say, “This may be something completely unexpected, and you have to [be ready] for her to react in denial or bargaining, or [she might be] depressed.”  He said, “You can’t expect people who were just served divorce papers to say, ‘OK, let’s sit down and settle this like adults.’”

Griffith admits family law “is not usually a judge’s first choice for assignments, but it is his first choice.”  Many judges, even in family law, “were either public defenders or from the district attorney’s office, so they’re used to dealing in the criminal system.” But, having practiced 26 years in family law, he believes as a judge, he’ll have the ability “to bring stability and continuity to the Family Law Department” because, as Commissioner, he could be moved around.

Griffith has received endorsements from several community leaders such as State Senator Shannon Grove, State Assemblyman Vince Fong, Sheriff Donny Youngblood, three Kern County supervisors, the Bakersfield mayor,- and three councilmen, the mayors from McFarland and Taft, and 16 Kern county judges, including Ken Pritchard.  Pat Farris News Review Publisher has also endorsed him.

Griffith’s opponent, Nick Lackey, is an attorney in the District Attorney’s office in Bakersfield.  Even though this particular judgeship will not affect Ridgecrest, it is still a choice on our ballots because we are in Kern Co.