Twenty years ago, when he first ran for judge, Lloyd G. Connelly sat down to talk to the man he would soon replace on the Sacramento Superior Court bench.
"I asked him, 'Why are you retiring?' " Connelly said of his conversation with the late Judge Horace Cecchettini. "And he said, 'I've put enough men in prison.' "
Connelly has since come to the same realization that hit Cecchettini in 1992. "At the moment of my death," Connelly said, "there will be scores of people in prison that I put there." It is a reality that has become embedded in his own consciousness, "a weight I now carry."
Now, it's the 66-year-old Judge Connelly who is about to retire. He has other reasons for stepping down, but he said the awesome power of a judge to bury criminals under prison terms that don't expire until they die has come with a burden that requires constant re-examination.
Connelly ordered them locked up in numbers too big to count: cop killers like Dundell Wright, rapists/murderers like John Anthony Bertsch and Jeffery Lee Hronis, gang killers like Steven Duran. Every time he sentenced somebody to prison, Connelly said, he took a moment to "fully appreciate the humanness of it," to "make sure you're not doing stuff automatically."
"You wouldn't want a judge who didn't understand that is a weight, an obligation," he said. "You do it. You're comfortable in your decision. It's the right thing to do. But it's still a very hard decision."
When he retires at the end of the year, Connelly will leave the downtown courthouse with a reputation as one of the best judges in town.
He won election in 1992 after having previously served as a Democratic assemblyman and as a Sacramento City Council member. He said that after 20 years on the bench, the job has worn him down a bit. He's had a couple of health issues. He's been further affected by the recent death of his good friend and former staffer Tim Howe.
Mainly, Connelly said, he wants to do other things. He wants to travel and live in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico or Nicaragua, teach a little bit, maybe English, in Spanish-speaking developing nations.
By looking at him, Connelly might not be the first person you'd take for a judge. His long blond hair is in a ponytail that falls below his shoulder line. Beneath the robe, he wears the occasional Jerry Garcia tie, and always, a pair of black sneakers for the frequent jogs he takes through the downtown streets.
Rumpled or not, Connelly's name is always on the short list when lawyers talk about who's the best judge in town.
Deputy District Attorney Eric Kindall, a homicide prosecutor who handles some of the highest-profile cases in Sacramento County, called Connelly "one of the best judges I've ever seen."
"He is one of the best trial court judges ever over there," Kindall said. "He is extremely bright brilliant. Nobody works harder in terms of understanding all the issues coming before him. He's a man of absolute integrity."
For the defense, veteran lawyer Mike Wise said Connelly "is a fantastic judge" who "will be truly missed."
"He's very thoughtful," Wise said. "He's very careful. He has a great judicial temperament. He is remarkably intelligent. His patience and willingness to go back to the law, to make sure he's right, to research the issue, is what makes him a great judge."
Connelly is "an icon," according to Sacramento's presiding Superior Court judge, Laurie M. Earl.
"He is the one judge who everybody, universally, has such respect for," Earl said. "He's incredibly smart, very well reasoned, very well grounded."
Despite his heavy criminal caseload, Connelly is best known as Sacramento Superior Court's go-to judge for writs when litigants challenge government agencies over assorted decisions.
Right now he has three big pending cases that he'll have to resolve sometime after his retirement date: UC Davis Medical Center is after Sacramento County to pay up on indigent health care; the League of California Cities doesn't like the state paying for criminal justice realignment with vehicle license fees the cities used to receive; and Connelly is bound to get a headache sorting out Colorado River water rights in Imperial County.
Millions of dollars sometimes hundreds of millions are at stake in the writs that come to Connelly. Sometimes there are so many lawyers in his courtroom it seems they could nearly fill a section at Raley Field.
Most of the time, there's no specific case law to resolve the issues, so Connelly's decisions provide first legal blushes that he says have held up well on appeal.
"They're pretty messy," Connelly said of the writs. "You just listen. One of the secrets of being a good judge is, you never rule until you're ready. Sleep on it overnight. Ask another judge a question, just to have a conversation."
When it comes to criminal law and putting people in prison, it always ends with Connelly in conversation with the criminal sitting in front of him. He came to his office with a reputation as one of the Capitol's most liberal legislators, but he pops the worst of the criminal class as hard as anybody. He ordered death for Hronis and Bertsch, though he has since asked to be taken off capital cases since he opposes the death penalty.
In Juvenile Court, Connelly said he diverted 95 percent of the youths he saw out of the justice system.
"The authority you have here is different in the sense that you don't need anybody else's vote," the old legislator said. "The decision you make, the sentence you impose, that will be it. This is not a vote in a committee, or the Senate has to do this, or the governor has to sign on."
Connelly said he loves the smell of the law books. He gets goose bumps when he struggles with issues and reads how judges wrestled with similar problems 150 years ago and forged legal pathways into the future that somehow collided with his 21st century present.
"Human behavior repeats itself, and the law changes because we figured out we were wrong in some areas," he said. "I take great comfort in that. I find that soothing."