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Tracey Gallagher, who has served for 17 years as a public defender, is running for Kern County Superior Court Judge. The spot will soon be vacated by current judge Ken Pritchard, who plans to retire. / Laura Austin Photo

Tracey Gallagher, local attorney, to run for Superior Court Judge

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–

Tracey Gallagher spoke to the Indian Wells Valley (IWV) Republicans about her run for Superior Court Judge last Friday at Casey’s.  If she wins, she will replace Kenneth Pritchard, who plans to retire.  Gallagher has served as a defense attorney for the Kern County Public Defender’s Office for the past 17 years.  In an interview after her speech, Gallagher spoke about what inspired her to become an attorney, her hard work to get there, her experiences as a public defender, and her judicial philosophy. She also shares a little about herself.    

Gallagher, 58, was inspired to become an attorney by the movie Erin Brockovich.  “I had just given birth to my daughter, and I watched how one woman was helping that community and the children.”  The movie stars Julia Roberts, who plays a paralegal who was instrumental in building a case against PG&E involving groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California.  Gallagher said, “That movie moved me so much and I just wanted to make a difference. If she can do it, I can do it.”

To make that kind of change, Gallagher enrolled in Ridgecrest School of Law.  She said, “I was working full time doing maintenance for Sierra Sands School District and raising a two-year-old daughter. “I had the passion, the drive, and the will to achieve what I was going to do.”

Former Judge Charles Porter was one of the law instructors. “He’s tough!”  She said she would never forget what he told the class the first year.  “He looked around at the 30 students and said, ‘You’re going to have to pass the toughest test before you hit the State Bar Exam, and that’s the Baby Bar.’”  Porter told them only three or four would pass it because “they’re very serious about lawyers.” The Baby Bar’s pass rate is about 27 percent or less.  It has to be taken after the first year for law students attending certain law schools.  It can only be taken three times, and if not passed, the student loses all his credits.

Gallagher said, “I took what [Porter] said seriously!” She passed the Baby Bar the first time, finished law school, and passed the California Bar, all while working full-time and raising a daughter.  She originally wanted to practice federal law, but one day, while working on Base at the old Murray school, she got a call from the head of the public defender’s office, Mark Arnold.

She said, “I remember I had on a bag of tools, a radio, and steel-toed boots.” Arnold told her she could go home and change and then they would talk. “He hired me on the spot.”

Gallagher asked if he wanted to see an example of her federal work. Arnold told her no.  She said, “He told me, ‘There’s one thing about you I like – you’re tough.’”  He told her Kern County is a tough county and whether it be the DA’s or the public defender’s office, they hire trial lawyers. They must know how to argue before a judge. She said, “It’s [the defendant’s] constitutional right to have a trial.”

Gallagher shared some experiences she has had with young people as a public defender.  “You get young people 18 or 19 years old who go out and do something silly, nothing that puts society at risk.” She asks what they want to be when they grow up. Some say a safety officer or a sheriff. “I tell them they can’t do those things with a record, so I try to work with them.”  She said she talked to the DA’s office to “see if she can.”  If they “prove to us – if they go and do whatever they need to do, then they’ll never be charged with it.”  She said some of these youths now work as safety officers, deputies, and drug counselors. “One even works for NASA.”  She said, “Each kid is a different case – everything is not cookie-cutter.”

Gallagher spoke about her judicial philosophy.   “I’m a constitutionalist.” She said the Constitution is the “very foundation of this country.”  She said it should be “the guide in every decision and every ruling that makes its way up the Supreme Court.”  She mentioned the many rights Americans have, such as the Fourth Amendment. She said people should be “safe and secure in their homes. A man’s home is his castle.”

She also mentioned the Second Amendment and cited a recent attempt by Governor Newsom on January 1st.  Senate Bill 2 was introduced by him and restricts gun owners with CCWs from carrying guns in parks and churches. Gallagher said, “How else are they supposed to defend their kids at parks? They’ve been totally vetted!” This bill is so “overly broad” that Sheriff Donny Youngblood has instructed his deputies not to follow it. “Kudos to him.”

Describing the judge’s demeanor, she said, “A judge must oversee the courtroom.”  As a trial attorney, Gallagher has seen courtroom scenes where people get upset, name-call, or slam doors.  She said, “No! No! This is a courtroom!”  She even tells her own clients to respect the courtroom if they are “acting up.”  She said a judge’s duty is “to make sure that decorum remains in the courtroom.”   

If she becomes judge, she will never say,  “I don’t want to see you back in my courtroom again and if you do, I’ll throw the book at you!”  When a judge says something like that, “he is going against the Constitution’s presumption of innocence.”  He should never pre-judge. Defendants should always start with a clean slate.

She cited a case in Ridgecrest that happened years ago.  A high school coach was charged with touching a student.  Eventually, the girl’s friend came forward and said it was not true. Her friend accused him of “touching her” because she was mad about having to dress out for PE.  Gallagher said, “Was that charge bad? Yes, but a judge cannot pre-judge.  You listen to the charges.”   

All judges have a “Model Code of Judicial Conduct.”  Gallagher referred to Canon 3, which addresses the judge’s obligation to “perform duties of the office fairly, impartially, and diligently.”  The judge’s courtroom demeanor is important. Subhead 3 states a judge should be “patient, dignified, respectful, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity. A judge should require similar conduct by those subject to the judge’s control, including lawyers to the extent consistent with their role in the adversary process.”

Besides their demeanor in court, a judge must stay informed of new laws.  Gallagher cited a recent case against two marines “who went to the wrong home or something.”  She defended one of them. As the case began, she presented the fact that “there was a preliminary injunction.”  Because she kept up with this new law, the case was dismissed.  She said, “I have to stay up on the law and that’s important for a judge.” If he does not know the new laws, his rulings can be overturned on appeal, and “California laws are always changing.”

Gallagher does not believe in reducing sentences or letting prisoners out early.  She is not part of the “good ol’ boy network,” and if the DA and public defender were to present her with some kind of plea deal, “it is not incumbent on the judge to accept it.” She said Ridgecrest has a fentanyl and trafficking problem. “Am I going to be soft on someone bringing in 200 pounds of fentanyl? No way.”  She said some are “career criminals and never seem to learn.”  Her priority is “keeping our community safe.”

But Gallagher admits there is a balance.  She said, “Sometimes I get cases with young people who don’t stand a chance. Their parents are drug addicts and this is how they grew up.” But, with some, she gets to know them and realizes they really do want to “break the cycle.” So, she keeps that in mind as she works with them and begins to see changes.  She said, “That’s the most rewarding thing to me.”

Gallagher wants the voting citizens to know what kind of person they are voting for, so she shared a little about herself.  She said she loves this “strong town” and loves the military.  “China Lake is one of the biggest research and development Bases in the country.” Ridgecrest has “the brightest minds,” and when she tries cases in front of juries, she said, “at least half the jury is from the Base.”

Gallagher’s father “was a lifelong serviceman.”  When he was stationed in England, he met and married her British mother, who was one of 14 children. Eventually, her father got a job at China Lake when Gallagher was 18 years old.  She has now lived in Ridgecrest for over 35 years.

Gallagher believes in parental rights and thinks parents should spend time with their children. She said she read to her daughter, Alexandria, even in the womb.  She said she is very excited about what her twenty-something daughter has accomplished so far.

After graduating from Immanuel Christian School, Alexandria went to Cerro Coso and then graduated from Arizona State University.  She maintained a 4.0 GPA and was placed on the “Dean’s Medalist Honor” list.  After graduating with a double degree in English and History, she applied to schools in Europe and was accepted to Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute in England. There, Alexandria completed her master’s degree and is now applying for a doctorate at Cardiff University in Wales.  Gallagher said, “We will see where her wings will land. I’m so proud of her.”  She said Alexandria “is an old-fashioned girl like her mom.”

Now that her daughter is away, Gallagher lives “the most boring life.” On weekdays, “I work, I come home, I watch old movies from the 40s and 50s – like with Doris Day, and I read.”  She said, “Very rarely will you see me in town unless I’m at a restaurant.” She’s a “private person who doesn’t run around socializing with people.”  On weekends, she is “reading a pile of cases so that I can keep up on the law.”

Gallagher likes to give back to the community.  When she was younger, she donated 100s of pounds of dog food to what used to be called “Santa Pawz” in Inyokern.  She said “I do what I can. I’m very caring.”

  The audience members asked a few questions last Friday.  One lady asked if she thought the Constitution was “a living and breathing document.”  Gallagher said, “It is not.” She cited Justice Scalia, who said, “It means what it says, and it says what it means.”

A senior citizen was concerned that the man running against Gallagher, William Schleiff, lives in Bakersfield.  She said, “How often is the judge in the courtroom?”  Gallagher said the woman was concerned that if Schleiff won Pritchard’s open seat, he would be traveling back and forth to Ridgecrest four hours every day.  The audience “wants local and they were very vocal about it.”

Another question was asked about the 10 Commandments. She asked if Gallagher would post them in her courtroom if she were the judge.  Gallagher said, “The Supreme Court addressed that issue and decided if they were posted in the courtroom, the state would violate the establishment clause.”  She said we may not agree with some of the rulings that come down from our highest court, but “it is our job as a judge to follow how they have ruled.”    

In closing, Gallagher said she has a favorite quote by Theodore Roosevelt and sees her hoped-for position as judge in a similar light.  Roosevelt condemned the man who sat on the sidelines, criticizing strong men who stumbled. Instead, he gives credit to “the man who is actually in the arena – whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, and who is striving valiantly.”  This man may “come up short again and again because there is no effort without error or shortcomings.” But if this man fails, “at least he fails while daring greatly.”

Gallagher said, “It’s the man in the arena that matters.  He’s in the trenches – in the courtroom every day and is fighting to uphold the rights given to us by our country’s Constitution.”  She shared a story about a military officer who was wrongfully charged and if convicted, would lose his retirement and his honorable discharge.  She said he wanted to give up, but Gallagher said, “You’re either going to give up, or you’re going to take that towel and wipe your brow and go back in that ring.” He did, and he won his case.