Michael J. Gaffey is a judge of the Superior Court of Alameda County in California. He assumed office in 2005. His current term ends on January 6, 2025.
Gaffey won re-election for judge of the Superior Court of Alameda County in California outright in the primary election on June 5, 2018, after the primary and general election were canceled.
Gaffey succeeded Jack Gifford.
A transcript of this podcast is easily available at lovethylawyer.com.
Go to https://www.lovethylawyer.com/blog for transcripts.
Hon. Mike Gaffey, Judge of the Alameda County Superior Court. Judge Gaffey previously served as an Alameda County Deputy District Attorney and as the Chief Administrative District Attorney of Santa Clara County. He founded the gang prosecution unit and prosecuted numerous serious felony cases prior to his appointment to the bench.
He is a thoughtful judge who cares deeply about striving for fairness in the criminal justice system.
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Attorney at Law
Hon. Mike Gaffey / Louis Goodman – Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: Hello, and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Where we talk with real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect.
Now hearing criminal jury trials and preliminary hearings, he has served as Chief Supervising Judge of criminal courts in Alameda County. Prior to his judicial career, he served as a Deputy District Attorney in Alameda County and as the Supervising Deputy for Administration in the Santa Clara County District attorney's office as a Prosecutor, he handled hundreds of serious gang cases and developed a special gang unit and perhaps most impressively. He [00:01:00] taught history in high school.
Mike Gaffey. Welcome. Thank you very much.
Mike Gaffey: Good afternoon.
Louis Goodman: Well, it's really an honor to have you, what assignment do you have right now?
Mike Gaffey: Department 701 of the East County Hall of Justice and we're essentially a trial department. There isn't a trial in, then we fill in taking preliminary hearings every day or settling cases, taking pleas, doing whatever motions.
Louis Goodman: How long has it been a judge?
Mike Gaffey: I took the bench in February, 2005. So just a little bit over 15 years now.
Louis Goodman: And when were you admitted to practice law?
Mike Gaffey: I took the bar in July of 84. I think we were the first group to take the three-day bar. And so when the results came out in November of 84, that's around Thanksgiving, that's when I was sworn in.
I think that's when I first met you. Very well, could be.
Mike Gaffey: Yeah. I remember you were in the DA's office in those days and that's where I ended up.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Mike Gaffey: Well, I was born in San Francisco and then my dad worked for American President [00:02:00] Lines at a steamship company. So he was transferred different places, but I was born in the ---.
We stayed here for a few years before going to Southern California on a new assignment for my dad. I went to high school at St. Francis in locking me out of California, which is right outside of Pasadena. Before we did that. He got transferred to Hong Kong. So we spent a few years in Asia for four years, from 64 to 68, and then came back and went to high school and college in LA.
Louis Goodman: What did you think about living in Asia?
Mike Gaffey: Same time, 64 to 68 in Hong Kong. Of course, Hong Kong was a British crown colony. In those days, the Chinese, the Mao was in power in China and they basically controlled Hong Kong. If they didn't agree to exceed to the cha the British, they could have walked in there any day of the week and take it over, but it was a cash machine for them, but they control the water supply.
They control the food supply without their acquiescence and agreement. The Hong Kong would not have existed. During that time there was a cultural revolution went on in [00:03:00] the mainland and Hong Kong felt the effects because there was a big percentage of the people in Hong Kong were communist sympathizers.
And so you'd see big demonstrations of the guys with their mouth hats on and the holding the little red books. And, you know, there'd be waves of people out there. And I can remember my parents taking me out to watch some of these demonstrations because they were demonstrating at the kept the American symbol and town was the Hilton Hotel.
And that was kind of a visible from a distance. And we could go and sit on the Hill and watch. All these demonstrations and very organized and very, very kind of polite. They didn't break any windows. They didn't do anything in terms of damage, but it was just the show, of course, that we're here, you know, we're, they controlled a bunch of unions, the communists that, so it was an interesting time to be there.
And you're kind of like a witness to history in a way. Wasn't the cultural revolution itself, but it was one of the ripples of the cultural revolution.
Louis Goodman:. So then you came back to Southern California and you went to high [00:04:00] school.
Mike Gaffey: Sure. Yeah. St. Francis was a Franciscan High School, but there are a branch of the Franciscans.
So I'm four years there and then went to UCLA for two years. So, you know, my class, there was about a hundred guys at, that was an all boys school. And then to go to UCLA where your freshmen classes are like 300 people. I was completely overwhelmed. I was a little bit of a fish out of water in such a huge change.
After a couple of years, I've managed to get a transfer to Loyola Marymount, down in the ultimate LA close to the LAX Airport.
Louis Goodman: Did you find the Loyola experience was sort of thing it did in the sense?
Mike Gaffey: I think I liked the UCLA was quarters. Loyola was on semesters, quarters go by really quickly.
And I liked that. I liked that you could take more classes. I liked that the education that I got it UCLA freshman year. I had a great history professor among many great history professors, but I had a really neat kind of a tutorial with [00:05:00] about 10 students. And this guy who was, had written the textbook, but he was, he just had his reading in English, the Greek Iliad and the Odyssey and Herat Asus, and all these original sources, which, you know, you don't do that everywhere.
It was kind of like a great books type of experience there. And then, so I was into a lot of ancient Greece and ancient Wellman, and then Byzantine history. And then you should at Loyola, I seem to focus more on American History. So I was kind of a History major throughout, but really loved history and continue to love history today.
When you graduated from college, did you go directly to law school?
Mike Gaffey: No, I, when I got out of college, I decided to go teach and through one of my previous teachers, when I was in high school was teaching at a High School and Junior College it's run by the collegians called the Don Bosco Tech, like Rosemead, California down by the Pomona Freeway in East of East LA.
[00:06:00] So that is a kind of a school that you go to classes in your academics, and then you take a Technical Degree. So after five years, you can, instead of a four year high school, after five years, you get a degree in, could be electronics or metallurgy or automotive or HVAC, you know, they, they give you a skill .
Louis Goodman:: And you were teaching history?
I did teach History and American Government and World History.
Louis Goodman: How long did you do that?
Mike Gaffey: I stayed at BASCA Tech for two years. And then I hadn't, you know, my mom had been a teacher and she was really in favor of having another teacher in the family. So I did that. I had thought about going to law school, but in my mind it was better to pay off my student debts first and then go to law school and to pick up more debt going to law school.
So I taught for two years and then I thought, well, but teach one more year. So I worked as a Substitute Teacher in a couple of school districts in that area. And the day-to-day sub and then worked like as a guy behind the bar at [00:07:00] a little cafe at night. So it'd be up till two in the morning or whatever, and then get up at six in the morning when you get the call and say, Hey, go to this Junior High or this High School or whatever.
So those were fun times when you're in your twenties to do such things.
Louis Goodman: So keeping an order in a courtroom is child's play compared to those jobs.
Mike Gaffey: Being a day-to-day sub is a challenge.
Louis Goodman: So you decided to go to law school. And what prompted that decision?
Mike Gaffey: I think when I had my debts paid off, then I decided I'd apply.
And that's why I applied to a couple of places. There was a guy in our parish who was a graduate of Notre Dame. He'd been in the, I don't know, the air force or something. Then he became a DA in LA County. And then he was a Commissioner to Lake County. He went on to become a Superior Court Judge and then became a Federal District Judge in LA.
When I knew him, he was a Commissioner and I said, Hey, I got into like Loyola and Santa Clara, USF and Hastings. What do you think of how to do? And he said, well, I could, you know, you can, you can go there. [00:08:00] It's more of a national school. The others are more regional schools. And so, you know, you could pretty much have a good experience at Hastings.
And he knew that I had family in the Bay Area. My grandparents were all up there and cousins and aunts and uncles, and everybody was still in the Bay Area. We were the only ones that left. So. It worked out that way. I went to Hastings.
Louis Goodman: And what was your experience at Hastings? Like did you enjoy that?
Mike Gaffey: Did enjoy it, you know, you kinda think, Oh, I got into law school. I must be pretty smart. And then, you know, by the end of the first week of law school, I realized there are a lot of people that are really smart and most of them are smarter than you. So you know, it was, I wouldn't say your come up, but it was a kind of a shock to go.
Wow. These people are really smart.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, that was my take on it too. When I got to Hastings. I mean, you know, I'd always been like one of the smartest kids in the class and then all of a sudden Hastings and like, you know, I'm just keeping up.
Mike Gaffey: No, but it's nice to know that there are people way smart out there who can be the best doctors and the best dentist [00:09:00] and all that kind of stuff.
That lawyers too, you know, there's room for everybody to succeed. It's just, you just have to realize you have a certain place and that's where you bond.
Louis Goodman: Do you think that having taken some time off and been in the working world, teaching, having some real world experience focused, you in terms of your experience in law school?
Mike Gaffey: It did make me realize you can't sweat all the minutiae. You kind of have to focus on what's the having had a job, you know, where I thought teaching was hard because the first year or two you're teaching material that maybe you haven't had classes in, you know, I was teaching the focus that I had on history.
Didn't I was good in American History and I was good in the Ancient part of the history curriculum of World History, but some of the more modern things I had to kind of get up to speed on. And so I thought, you know, you have to kind of learn how to gauge your time and where you're going to focus your energy.
So I thought I'd learned a little bit in that regard and that helped me with law school.
[00:10:00] Louis Goodman: You’ve been doing this for a long time, having been a Prosecutor and being a Judge. What is it that you like about being in the legal field?
Mike Gaffey: Well, I actually liked going to court every day. Some people do some people don't, but yeah.
From what I started as a DA I just, I knew coming out of law school, you don't know everything. But I I'd like to learn. I'd like to listen. I'd like to go to court and see things that either I'm doing it or somebody doing it, that I can watch them and figure out how it goes. I probably drove my supervisors crazy.
Cause I was always asking tons of questions and you know, some of them would give you the answers and some of them would say, Hey, go look it up and don't fuck with me.
Louis Goodman: Well, you know, really one of the things that in my own life most proud of is that, and I don't know whether I had any part of this with you, but when you first came to the DA's office, it was you, Kevin Murphy and Pat Baron were kind of assigned to me as law clerks. I've [00:11:00] always been very proud of the fact that you and Kevin both got to be Superior Court Judges in Alameda County. And Pat had a very successful career in Government and Sacramento, whatever small part in those careers that I had. It's just really been a matter of pride to me that I was there at the beginning.
Well, thank you though, you know, I learned from everybody that I ask everybody questions. I remember watching you and trial when we were in Hayward, the courthouse down there. I remember, you know, when you're, if I was a law clerk, that was probably after I was a law clerk, but yeah, no, it was, it was fantastic.
Louis Goodman: So I take it that you would recommend to someone who is interested in a career in law.
Mike Gaffey: Iwould, I would very much so. Yeah. You know, Especially, I think once maybe you do get the same amount of inquiries when you're a lawyer. But I think when you're a Judge, people kind of seek you out, go, Hey, I got a cousin or a niece or a kid that wants to is thinking about this, you know, would you talk to them?
Louis Goodman: What advice would you give?
Mike Gaffey: Yeah, well, I think a lot of them. You know, they think that they, there's only one way, one kind of law or something. And there's so many different areas of law. There's Civil, there's Probate, there's Criminal, there's Family. And within those, then there's, those are just the disciplines that the court has to offer.
But then there's other things in terms of you could go work for a Corporation and just work on contracts, you could do land use, you could do, you know, all kinds of regulatory law. It's really, if you can, if you have an interest in any one thing, there's probably some legal line that relates to that interest.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. No, I agree. What about, what would you say to an attorney who was thinking about a judicial career?
Mike Gaffey: What would I say about to an attorney thinking about a judicial career? That is, again, that's hard to say. I think the job is somewhat different now than when I first came in.
Obviously we're all being impacted with COVID and that, so we're kind of in a stilted [00:13:00] situation where we're not able to do everything we want to do, but it seems like we get a little bit more pulled into the administrative state as time goes on just in the 15 years that I've been doing this, it seemed like there was a lot more flexibility in Judges and their ability to handle things certain ways.
And just as time goes on and we get a little bit more of this layer of I, other than to call it the administrative state. I don't know what else to say, but that ties your hands or limits your ability to be flexible.
Louis Goodman: So how does like being on the bench differ from your expectation of it? If it does.
Mike Gaffey: Well, I think one issue is I find it a little bit more isolating than I appreciate it.
I think as a practicing lawyer in DA's office, whether it was Alameda County or Santa Clara County, you know, you can walk down the hall and talk to five or 10 different people [00:14:00] in the matter of a half an hour, you know, bounce ideas off them and things like that. All the judges are a little bit more attuned to their assignment and their case loads. And it's not quite as easy to do those kinds of things. So I think you're a little bit more isolated and I would just warn people about that. If you're really social, it can be a little bit of a
Louis Goodman: I've had just touches with the experience of judging and that I sat as a Pro Tem Traffic Commissioner, you know, quite a bit really, but I've sat in every seat in that courtroom.
I've spent a lot of time as a Prosecutor and plenty of times as a Defense Attorney and getting on the bench and looking at the courtroom from that perspective, is just to me incredibly different. And I'm wondering if that's your experience and if you'd comment on that?
Mike Gaffey: It is really different. I think having your judicial demeanor is one of the hardest things to learn.
It took me, I don't, well, some might say [00:15:00] I haven't learned it yet, but walking in when that courtroom is full before you, before our days of COVID and every seat in that audience is full and you've got to be, it really teaches you to be prepared. You got to have everything read. You can't just shoot from the hip in a court like that.
You really have to work at being up on your game and you have to learn the time when you're going to call certain stations. I know this case was going to be at this case. It's going to ring me out. Okay. I'm going to call that as the last one before the break. So I got a 15 minute break before I have to make another decision.
All those kinds of things. You only learn by doing it. And if you've been a calendar deputy in a department, As a DA or the Public Defender or, you know, even if you've just, maybe just you're in private practice and you come in and you watch all these things, you get a feel for how those things are and you kind of want to gauge the Judges to how to do things.
And then the judge is kind of gauging the council.l [00:16:00] Having a judicial temperament is a hard thing to be comfortable with in the beginning.
Louis Goodman: I really thought, I think having every eye in the courtroom on you is something that for me anyway, you know, walking into a, just a crowded traffic court, I found really scary the first few times I've done it.
And I don't think I've ever really gotten used to it.
Mike Gaffey: Yeah. I think for me, 513 was a great experience for me. I don't know that I, we don't do anything perfectly, but I think for me, it always was you kind of have to compartmentalize each case. Some attorney may do something that's gonna get you a little bit riled up, but you have to let the next attorney and his client know or her client now that their case is a different case.
And whatever happened with that last case. Isn't really affecting your judgment in this case. It's hard to do that, but my perspective is a good, [00:17:00] the majority of the time, hopefully much higher than just 50%. I was able to do that and still would be able to do that. I think you get a little bit more comfortable with it as time goes on.
And I think that's always my concern. Is it just each kind of each case the client and the attorney know, the facts of their case, what the issues are in that case. And you're going to make whatever the decision is. You may make it in their favor. You may not, but you're not doing it without due consideration.
Having read all their papers and reviewed the file, knowing what the issues are and that was back in the days when we had paper files. So we were sitting there with a whole stack of files on your bench. And pull it out, whatever it was that you needed to look at. So that's different now that we get these computers.
Louis Goodman: Well, since you brought it up, what do you think about the computerized files as a working tool? As opposed to the paper files?
Mike Gaffey: I kind of had to learn it immediately because it was in a calendar that had to, I had to know these things. So I learned it. It's not, [00:18:00] I think the younger Attorneys or the younger Judges, the newer Judges probably come from environments where it's more understandable that all these computer systems I was, didn't grow up with computers.
I mean, you know, when I applied to law school, you typed up a letter and you set it up and that was it. You didn't do anything online. You didn't have email. So word processing, when I got to law school was a big deal. It's not as easy as having a paper file in front of you, but sometimes the clerk's office would lose the file or not be able to find it.
It's in another department somewhere. Then you'd have no information, you just continue the case. So I think it works to the advantage of being productive in that you have everything there.
Louis Goodman: I remember when the Odyssey first came in a few years ago and I looked at and like was a little confused by it, but I very quickly realized, and I said to many of my colleagues who were upset by it, I said, you know, six months from now, we're not going to know how we lived without this thing.
I think that's true, but I agree with [00:19:00] you in terms of, it's often easier to look at a piece of paper, but from kind of an overall working the system. There's really nothing like these computers.
Mike Gaffey: That's true. I think we're not going to go back to the buggies and buggy whips. We're going to proceed and take advantage of this.
Louis Goodman: Do you think the legal system is fair?
Mike Gaffey: Well, I don't think I would be doing this if I didn't think it was fair. So yes, I do think it's fair. There's always injustice everywhere. I mean, throughout history there's been a justice, I guess is what I mean? No, nothing is perfect. But the sense that you have a right to a trial and you have a right to have 12 people from the community, hear the evidence and make a decision.
I think that's better than some countries. So I think from the perspective of you have these rights and you can, we have certain processes that are in place not to say that they're always right. We know that, but we have to be conscious and trying to [00:20:00] make them as right, as often as.
Louis Goodman: Let me shift gears here a little bit.
What sort of recreational pursuits do you have that kind of keep your sanity?
Mike Gaffey: I’d say generally, I like to walk. I used to be a bike rider a lot, or just to jog, but as you get a little bit older, it's easier to walk. And so I walked a fair bit, try to get in, you know, 10,000 steps a day, but that's not always possible depending on what you're doing in court.
Louis Goodman: What kind of things keep you up at night?
Mike Gaffey: What kind of things keep me up at night? Well, when the kids are in college and they're, you know, going out of state or whatever they're doing, going to private colleges, usually it's how are we going to pay all these bills? But other than that, I'd say, as I get older, the thing that I think about is my mortality, you know, or the thought, I mean, again, going back to the Greeks, you know, they'd sit around and look it up the stars and they'd think about, well, how did all this happen?
And what's going on here? [00:21:00] And so, having many years of Catholic education and reading the Bible and all that kind of stuff, you're like, okay, I believe that this is the beginning of the rest of eternity and how what's the shape I'm in. If my maker were to call me today, your mortality, where are you going to be?
What's the rest of eternity going to be for you. And, so I think about that. And I think about that for people that I know that are either sick or passed away, you know, family members. So it's kind of a keeping me up at night. A lot of times you just spend some time thinking about those things and then say some prayers for the people that need it the most.
And hopefully you can go back to sleep.
Louis Goodman: Say you came into some real money, you know, $3 or $4 billion. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Mike Gaffey: I probably would, one of the things I like doing right now, I've got a little bit more freedom to do right now is work maybe before COVID I was working with the Missionaries of Charity in San Francisco, go there, and they had some food outlets for a lot [00:22:00] of the homeless in San Francisco, in different areas.
And I've worked there with them. She knows the charity, or, you know, Mother Teresa is a group of nuns. Right. But then since COVID, I've kind of gotten into a different charity, which is up in the Napa Valley, where there, you got a lot of farm workers who are out of jobs. And you've got a lot of people that work in the restaurants up there that the restaurants are all shut down.
So a lot of those people are getting crushed by the COVID closed down. So there's a charity up there where we do two distribution every other Friday or every other Saturday. So I go up there and do that. And so if I had a pile of dough, some most of it would probably make sure your family's taken care of a little bit, but then we try to do things along those lines to help.
There's a lot of things that can be done. And I wouldn't have a clue as to how to do them, most of them, but. I think some charities like that that are helping local communities would be a good way to go. I would like at some point maybe to get a camper and drive around the country, but you know, that probably has to wait until I retire.
So of course I had all that. No, then that wouldn't be the issue. Right. So maybe I could [00:23:00] do that too. Well,
Louis Goodman: I mean, I guess that's part of it is, I mean, would you retire, would you buy a camper? Would you buy a private jet? I mean, you could, I mean, if money just were not in question.
Mike Gaffey: I don't want to separate myself from the rest of humanity.
I don't want a jet. I don't want to, you know, I can get on a point like anybody else. Now, if the government says you need to do certain things, maybe I wouldn't want it yet, but at this point I'm okay. I don't need that. Yeah, getting a camper, going to live a two-way campground every hundred miles or so, or every 500 miles.
That would be fine with me. I wouldn't need to get on a plane.
Louis Goodman: I don't need a private jet, but I think I would always fly first class because I'm six, three and sitting in a coach seat is always well that's.
Mike Gaffey: That would be a good call.
Louis Goodman: Let’s say, you had a magic wand. You could change one thing in the world, legal world or otherwise, what would that one thing?
[00:24:00] Mike Gaffey: Well, right now, if I could change one thing, it would be, you know, just to get this COVID thing addressed and done and over with. So we can kind of go back to that some sense of normalcy in our returned to our lives.
Louis Goodman: One message that you would really like to put out to the world. Do you have some notion of what that might be.
I think it would be somebody made the world. It's not here by accident. It's not just a bunch of protons and the trends and all that stuff banging around. And if we get our heads away from our cell phones and we look up at the stars at night and start thinking those questions, why are we here?
What are we doing? What is the meaning of life? That would be the message I'd want to get out. I mean, people that believe that we're here for, because God made the universe. He made the universe, made it for us. He wants us to be good to the universe. Be good in the universe and be with him forever.
So that's where I'm coming from. I guess that's, you know, there's redemption is always there. We're never perfect. He [00:25:00] doesn't expect us to be perfect. He expects us to try. I think that was one of Mother Theresa's thing. She says you don't have to be, you don't have to do, what is you set out to do?
You just have to set up and try to do it, you know? So I think that's the message that everybody needs to hear.
Louis Goodman: Judge Gaffey, thank you so much for joining me today on Love Thy Lawyer. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
Mike Gaffey: Thank you for the invitation Lou, it's always good to talk to you and I appreciate you taking the time to interview.
Louis Goodman: That's it for today's episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and subscribe to the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. I promise I'll respond. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs, and information.
Thanks as always to my guests who share their wisdom and to Joel Katz for music, Brian Matheson for technical stuff and Tracey [00:26:00] Harvey. I'm Louis Goodman.
Mike Gaffey: I don't know that I've answered your question, but I've talked for a few minutes.