U.S. District Judge Edward J. Garcia, an institution in the Sacramento legal community even before he was a federal judge, has decided to hang it up his robe that is, not his softball uniform.
The physically fit Garcia, who will be 84 in three weeks, said he plans to continue playing the game he loves into the indefinite future. His prowess on the diamond is the stuff of legends, backed up by stat sheets reflecting astronomical batting averages and most-valuable-player trophies, some in national tournaments.
"I was fast," he said of his time as a three-sport high school athlete. "I can still run like a 7-year-old," he added, a slight twinkle in his eyes.
He took up softball when he was discharged from the Air Force in 1949, and has "always played, no matter what else was going on in my life."
On the federal bench, where he has served 28 years, the Sacramento native leaves a legacy of industry, intelligence and integrity "the Three I's," he says, and he demands them of himself and others.
He has a reputation as a hard-nosed conservative. He is both, but he is much more. By the account of many even the most liberal observers he is fair, he is able to see all sides, and his politics have never deterred him from strict adherence to the law.
"He has an almost frontier sense of justice, where those who hurt others are guaranteed to suffer in return," said Timothy Zindel, an assistant federal defender.
"But when a defendant is before him on a matter not grounded in evildoing, he readily sees the difference, is the first to criticize the prosecution, and the defendant has nothing to fear."
Caro Marks, until recently a Zindel colleague in the federal defender's office, called Garcia "absolutely even-handed." He is "an equal opportunity intimidator and really smart," she added.
Speaking from the other side of the criminal justice ledger, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner called Garcia "fair and by the book. You can't B.S. Judge Garcia, no matter which side you are on. If you say something to him, you better be able to back it up."
A 'careful listener'
An accurate measure of Garcia's standing among his peers is the cordial relationship he maintains with U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, the senior jurist on the Sacramento federal bench, whose liberal reputation puts him at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
When Garcia came on the federal bench, Karlton recalled last week, he recognized his new colleague as a valuable resource on criminal law because of his long tenure as a prosecutor and then a state court judge.
Numerous times over the years, Karlton said, he consulted with Garcia on sentencing, especially in the days before mandatory guidelines.
"It wasn't that we held the same personal views," Karlton said. "But he knew the value of a case and I could talk to him in a sensible way."
They developed a camaraderie, and Garcia sought Karlton's advice from time to time, which Karlton regards as a "compliment."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan, who clerked for Garcia, said he believes "no-nonsense" is the most apt description of his old boss.
"I also saw in him and many people don't understand this about him a critical and careful listener," Brennan said. "Lawyers love to talk, and some didn't like it when they weren't allowed to get on their soapboxes.
"That did not mean he would not listen. He often had questions he wanted addressed, and attorneys who understood that and were responsive had real opportunities to make a difference, and the better ones did."
For those who label Garcia a pro-government judge, there are countless cases that refute that notion, Brennan said.
As an example, he cited the long forgotten, little noticed case of Tech. Sgt. Edward Radillo, who sued the Air Force when it tried to kick him out because he responded to a drug rehabilitation program touted by Travis Air Force Base officers. Radillo, in trying to qualify for the program, admitted he occasionally smoked marijuana.
Garcia prohibited the Air Force from discharging Radillo, citing "the devastating psychological impact of an abrupt loss of contact with his friends, co-workers and the military community."
Such an action "represents a form of banishment from the only community he has known for his entire adult life," the judge found. He also noted that "the stigma of a drug-related discharge will very likely impair, if not prevent, civilian employment for Radillo."
Railyard worker's son
His mind still sharp, Garcia has a physique, honed by weightlifting and swimming, of a man at least 25 years younger. But he tires more easily now, he said, and he wants to leave the bench while he is able to perform at the top of his game.
He sent a letter last week to Anthony W. Ishii, chief federal judge in the Eastern District of California, notifying Ishii he will retire Nov. 30.
A proud and private man who shuns public attention, Garcia will not stand for a retirement celebration. He is his least favorite subject, unless he's in a small, controlled setting where he trusts everyone.
To him, an ideal social occasion is sharing good conversation, good wine and good food with present and former staffers and law clerks on a Friday afternoon in his chambers.
"My friends like me for who I am, not what I am," he said in a lengthy interview last week.
That's one reason he loves softball. "The members of my team have mutual respect for how we play the game and support each other," he said. "Nobody cares what you did for a living. Everybody is equal."
If a visitor to Garcia's 13th-floor chambers asks about his early years, he can, if he chooses but rarely does, get up from his desk, move to a floor-to-ceiling window facing east, and point to the spot where he grew up in the Alkali Flat neighborhood on downtown's edge.
He can point to an area now a parking lot across the street from his former family home that was the site of St. Joseph's Academy, where he and his brothers and sisters began their schooling.
He can take three steps to the bank of windows facing south and point to the railyards where his father, Susano Garcia, worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad as a mechanic for nearly 40 years, and where Garcia and his siblings would run to meet their dad when he got off work.
"That's why I asked for this spot in the building," when the federal courts moved into their new home at 501 I St. in 1999. "Brings back a lot of memories," he said in a barely audible voice, almost to himself.
Even in the 1930s, there were street gangs.
"It was the 'C Street Gang,' " in Alkali Flat, Garcia recalled. "They knew me. I knew them. But I never got involved. All but one of them ended up in prison."
Respected by his peers
The Garcia children were all good students, the judge said, "mainly thanks to my mother," Maria, "an extremely devout Catholic," who took her job as a homemaker very seriously.
Garcia went on to carve out an enviable academic record, graduating with honors from St. Joseph's; Christian Brothers High School; Sacramento Junior College (now Sacramento City College) and the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law.
Rarely does someone qualify for law school, especially one as prestigious as McGeorge, without an undergraduate degree from a four-year college.
Garcia managed to be interviewed by the dean and was accepted. He attended night classes and worked full time during the day to supplement his GI bill.
His sights had originally been set on St. Mary's College in Moraga, but the family couldn't afford it.
Armed with his license to practice in 1959, he applied for a job at the public defender's office in Sacramento, but there were no vacancies. He was told, however, that the district attorney's office had an opening, and was asked if he would consider being a prosecutor.
"I said, 'I just want a job,' " Garcia remembered.
He went immediately downstairs, talked to District Attorney John Price and was hired on the spot. He rose to chief deputy, commanding the respect of the judiciary, the defense bar and his fellow prosecutors.
In 1972, Gov. Ronald Reagan tapped him for the Sacramento Municipal Court, which has since been merged with Superior Court. In his 12 years there, he was elected presiding judge four times by fellow members of the court.
Reagan, by then president, bestowed the coveted lifetime appointment to the federal district court in 1984.
Garcia said he has never known why Reagan chose him for these positions.
"I don't know whether it was a political decision based on the fact I am a Mexican, or because he thought my record made me the most qualified," he said. "Either way, I don't think I let him down."