Why are you running for Superior Court judge in Santa Cruz County?
“Judge Montoya’s retirement leaves a vacancy that needs to be filled with someone with experience, a strong sense of justice, a deep understanding of the law, and love and understanding for this community,” Ortega said. “I have devoted my entire career to public service, so I’m stepping up to fill that role.”
What does the term ‘judicial temperament’ mean, and do you have a good one?
“I do have good judicial temperament,” she said, adding: “Judicial temperament means that you have the ability to leave emotions out of your rulings on cases, that you have the patience to listen to all parties and make sure that each side gets the attention that their arguments deserve. It means that you will be fair and that you will be unbiased, regardless of who the litigants are in your court.”
There’s a lot of discussion around mass incarceration in the United States, especially involving minority populations. What’s your philosophy toward incarceration and how should it be used?
“I think incarceration should definitely be used to protect the community from violent offenders. I think incarceration is also important when it comes to repeat offenders. But I think the focus on other types of cases should be on rehabilitation,” Ortega said, noting non-violent defendants with drug addictions or mental health issues.
“I think it’s important for the court system to be able to address those issues. I think it’s also important to have discussion about how the criminal justice system affects minority communities,” she said.
What’s your position on prison-only plea deals for non-violent offenders, such as those caught smuggling drugs at the border?
“I think you have to look at the circumstances of that individual person and the evidence in that case. Certainly, there are laws that require mandatory prison terms,” she said. “For example, if you’re caught smuggling methamphetamine, the minimum sentence that you can receive is five years and the maximum sentence is 15 years.”
“As a prosecutor, you have a lot of discretion, though, in taking cases out of those mandatory sentencing schemes. I think it’s important that judges have more discretion when it comes to sentencing.”
You know your opponent Joe Rueda well, since the two of you worked together in the County Attorney’s Office. Why do you think you’re the better candidate?
“I have done jury trials and I have extensive courtroom experience – that is something that is unmatched by my opponent. I also have administration and the leadership experience that is needed for the job,” Ortega said. “(Rueda) has not done a jury trial in the court where he now wants to be a judge, and I think that that’s important.”
She referred to Rueda as her friend and colleague, adding: “I respect the fact that he wants to be a judge, but I believe that he simply isn’t ready for that yet.”
You have a lot of experience with criminal prosecutions at the County Attorney’s Office. What experience do you have with civil cases?
“I’ve been working for the government my entire career, but that also involves occasionally helping out with civil work,” she said, noting experience with adoptions, guardianships, contract reviews, and settling disputes between homeowners and contractors.
“In addition to that, though, I think my experience in prosecution has had me develop a deep understanding of the law so I would be ready to jump into any type of case as a judge,” she said.
Do you have any experience with family law? What special skills do you think a judge needs to have to handle those types of cases?
“I have never handled a case that involves family law in the courtroom, but like I said, I have the experience in making very tough decisions. I have an understanding of the law that will help me in any field of law that I would need to preside over,” Ortega said. “I think it’s also important that I am a mother, that I have raised children, and I bring that unique aspect to the court, as well, when it comes to listening to and resolving family matters in court.”
With your strong ties to the County Attorney’s Office, how will you make sure to stay impartial as a judge? Will it be difficult to run against people you’ve worked closely with for years, or to make rulings that you know will disappoint your long-time boss, George Silva?
“As a supervising prosecutor, I made difficult decisions everyday and always with an eye toward achieving justice. I have always had the courage to decline cases where there is insufficient evidence, even when those decisions were not popular,” Ortega said.
“I have to look at every case, making sure that I protect the defendant’s rights, as well as promoting public safety and I will do the same as a judge,” she said. “As a judge, I will be fair to all sides without any bias.”
There are a lot of people coming through the local criminal court system who have drug addictions, and who need help, and who are hoping for help getting clean as part of their punishment. However, it doesn’t seem like we always have the resources available here to give them that help. What’s your take on this dilemma?
“I think all of these cases that involve drugs initially start in the Justice Court. (Justice of the Peace) Emilio Velasquez and I and other community partners started the drug court program, specifically to address those issues,” Ortega said, explaining that Velasquez has combined different resources in the county to get people help.
“We facilitate that by allowing them to not have a felony conviction on their record, to entice them to go to the counseling services and to complete the counseling,” she said. “That program has been very successful and I’m very proud to have been a part of its beginnings.”
Do you have any ideas for other new programs or services that could be offered by the local court system, or for improving existing programs?
“One of the things that I’ve heard repeatedly while I’m out campaigning is that people want better (online) access to the courts,” she said, explaining that the current webpage directs visitors to other counties’ websites to obtain certain forms. “I think we can revamp what we have, what’s existing, and change it so that it is specific to our courts.”
“Another thing that I would like to see is the (reopening) of the Sonoita Court,” Ortega said, referring to the closure of Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 at the end of 2018. “I think the people out in that area would be better served by having a court that’s closer to them.”
The County Board of Supervisors consolidated the Sonoita Court in a cost-saving measure. How would you approach the board in advocating for its reopening?
“I’m definitely not a fiscal expert… I respect their decisions. It is their responsibility to allocate the funds the way that they see fit,” she said. “However, I think it is fair to be able to advocate and talk to them about the possibility of reopening that court.”
Is there anything else about you or your candidacy that we haven’t touched on that you would like our readers to know?
“I want readers to know that voting is incredibly important, not just in a national election, but especially locally because it’s the local officials who impact them more directly,” Ortega said.
She also invited local constituents to visit her webpage to learn more about her background and campaign. “I believe that once they become informed and they learn more about me, they will see that I am the most qualified candidate for SCC.”