Michael J. Virga was a big man with a booming voice and a hearty laugh – physical characteristics that family and colleagues say were matched by his keen intellect and a passion for justice.
A Sacramento native, Virga spent two decades as a Sacramento Superior Court judge, handling such high-profile cases as that of Dorothea Puente, the Sacramento landlady convicted of murdering her elderly tenants at an F Street boarding house.
Virga died July 9 at age 84, following a years-long battle with Parkinson’s disease, said his son Michael G. Virga, who succeeded his father on the Superior Court bench.
“He was one of those judges that had a very special presence,” said Sacramento attorney Robert Buccola. “If you were ever to cast a trial movie, he’s the kind of guy you would cast as the judge.”
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Virga was a judge that lawyers wanted to be in front of, Buccola said, but they knew to stand up straight and be prepared. “And you better know the evidence code,” the lawyer said, “because Judge Virga knew it inside and out.”
He was a very imposing figure, yet he had a very kind demeanor, Buccola said.
“He was just a presence, very persuasive by the strength of his intellect,” said Art Scotland, a retired presiding justice of the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, based in Sacramento. He described Virga as “Mr. Charming,” saying he had a “wonderful way of cajoling and dealing with others.”
Virga was born Jan. 11, 1932, in his parents’ Land Park home, one of six children. His father, Michael P. Virga, immigrated to the United States from Sicily and his mother, Helen, was full-blooded Irish. “We called them Gaelic and Garlic,” said Michael J. Virga’s younger brother, John Virga, also a Sacramento attorney.
The elder Virga was a painting contractor, and Helen Virga was active in Republican politics.
The family often vacationed at Camp Sacramento in El Dorado County. John Virga recalled that on one visit, his brother tried to impress some girls, telling them he was 16. His “pesky” younger brother corrected him, saying “You’re only 15.” Michael then took John out in a rowboat and announced he was going to throw his younger brother into the river for blowing his cover. John begged him not to, and his brother relented.
“That was his first act of mercy,” John Virga said.
He said his brother saw himself as a judge who sought to ensure justice for those who wielded little influence. “He protected the rights of everyone,” John Virga said, “but especially the little guy.”
In a 1992 story in The Sacramento Bee, shortly before the start of the Dorothea Puente trial, Judge Virga attributed his sense of empathy to his experience as an athlete, saying, “I’ve been associated with everybody you can imagine. That’s something you learn in sports – you see the people. It doesn’t matter your color, your wealth, your background. It’s only important what kind of person you are.”
He was one of those judges that had a very special presence. If you were ever to cast a trial movie, he’s the kind of guy you would cast as the judge.
Robert Buccola, Sacramento attorney
Michael J. Virga was an all-city baseball and basketball player at McClatchy High School and earned a baseball scholarship to Santa Clara University. He played with some of the semi-pro leagues in the Sacramento Valley, said son Michael G. Virga. He also worked with his father on jobs that included painting the home of a local attorney, who helped inspire his interest in a legal career.
Virga was in ROTC in college. After graduating, he served two years in the U.S. Army, then returned to Santa Clara University on the GI Bill to earn his law degree.
Virga and his wife of 63 years, Betsey, were married in 1953. They returned to Sacramento, where Virga was in private practice before serving as a deputy district attorney and as Sacramento’s city attorney.
In 1970, at age 38, he was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1984, he left the Superior Court to join the law firm of Mort Friedman, but he found he really missed being a judge, John Virga said. In 1987, after submitting his name for consideration, he was reappointed to the bench by then-Gov. George Deukmejian.
Anthony DeCristoforo, a retired Sacramento Superior Court judge and lifelong friend of Virga, said Virga’s private practice experience gave him an appreciation of the challenges faced by lawyers in a private firm, who have to pay bills and juggle schedules, and that it helped him deal with attorneys in the courtroom.
In the early 1990s, Virga presided over Sacramento’s first serial murder trial. Morris Solomon, an Oak Park handyman, received the death penalty for killing six prostitutes in 1986 and 1987 and burying his victims in shallow graves.
Shortly afterward, Virga presided over the Dorothea Puente trial. A change of venue was granted due to the publicity the case generated in Sacramento. Although the trial was moved to Monterey, both the defense attorney and prosecutor requested that Judge Virga hear the case. Virga and his wife lived in the Monterey area for the duration of the trial.
John Anton, a retired Monterey Superior Court judge, said he and Virga became close friends during that time. When there was a lull in the Puente trial, Virga would offer to help out with Monterey court cases.
“He didn’t waste taxpayers’ money,” Anton said, noting that he “became part of the community.”
After the Puente trial concluded, Anton said, Virga invited the jurors to his home.
In addition to Virga’s son Michael G. Virga, his daughter Julie Virga earned a law degree, but instead of pursuing the legal profession, she opted to open Virga’s restaurant with her brother Greg.
“He always said he thought I’d make a great attorney, but he wanted me to follow my heart,” Julie Virga said. Her father, she said, was the restaurant’s best customer and had his own table.
Noel Ferris, a Sacramento attorney, said Judge Virga was a mentor to women in the legal profession and often encouraged her to consider becoming a judge.
Julie Virga said her father was, above all, devoted to his wife and family. He and his wife enjoyed dancing, particularly swing dancing, and they were avid tennis players, winning the doubles championship at Park Terrace Swim and Tennis Club. Michael G. Virga also recalled that his father organized a group of boosters to establish the Kennedy American Legion Baseball program for youth in the Greenhaven area and served as manager for several years.
In addition to his wife, Betsey, daughter Julie Virga and son Michael G. Virga, all of Sacramento, Michael J. Virga is survived by sons David Virga of Sacramento and Greg Virga of Davis, as well as five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. July 28 at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, 660 Florin Road, Sacramento.