Interview: Dan Healy, Solano County Superior Court Judge
In his windowless office and courtroom at the Solano County Justice Center in Vallejo, Judge Dan Healy works to channel the spirit of Aloha.
Not the hang-loose attitude found in Hawaii, but the state’s Aloha Spirit law. The statute defines the Aloha spirit as acting with kindness, patience and humility while working in harmony and unity. A framed copy of the law hangs at eye level beside the door to Judge Healy’s chambers.
“It’s a real law in Hawaii,” Judge Healy says, smiling as he talks about the unique law. “The Aloha spirit is all about being cool, treating each other well. I try to do that always.”
Posters of Grateful Dead and Santana concerts, golf trophies, his father’s “Judge Healy” nameplate and other memorabilia adorn the current Judge Healy’s office. He became a Superior Court judge in January 2011 after 24 years in private practice and is currently assigned to Family Law Court.
“I used to say I never wanted to be a judge. I liked being an advocate. But I was getting a little frazzled by being an advocate,” he says. “And I like the idea that people who think like me are here.”
Judge Healy, 52, was born and raised in Vallejo. He and his wife moved to Benicia in 1989 and raised their two children here. While in private practice, he served as a judge pro tem several weeks a year plus volunteered with several organizations, including the Benicia Planning Commission, the Affordable Housing Affiliation, and the Solano County Bar Association. He had to give up many of his volunteer posts when he became a judge, but he remains on the board of Vallejo Community Access TV.
Why did you want to be a judge? It was a way to stay involved with the law. … The Planning Commission was one of the segues for me to becoming a judge. Being on the Planning Commission and chairing it, I thought, “I kinda like this, I kinda like making decisions rather than being the flame thrower.” I’d still be on the Planning Commission if I could. …
One of the reasons I knew maybe it was time to move on was that I got worse waiting for juries to come back. My anxiety would rise. I tried a lot of jury trials over the years. I became more fidgety, more impatient. I usually felt vested with the client.
Also, I turned 50 and I wanted to dial back on the business part of it all. That’s been a very nice thing about this gig. I don’t have to worry about payroll or clients calling me. The stress of that has diminished a lot. My nights and weekends are completely reinvented. For 20 years, I was in the office really late, on nights and weekends. Here I can go home.
What other differences do you see between being a lawyer and being a judge? Your duty is completely different. When you represent someone, your duty is to advocate a certain position. Whereas, as a judge, you have to let the process play out and keep an open mind. As an advocate, you are not responsible for the ultimate outcome. On the flipside, judges are responsible for that decision. …
I did criminal trials all last year. That’s a completely different thing. I could do work (while waiting for jury) as a judge. Before, I never could. Now I worry more about whether I made the right decision.
I made a decision today that’s going to be on my mind for weeks. That’s the risk associated with decision making. There’s the chance you make a wrong decision and someone gets hurt or someone dies. On the other hand, you could unfairly deny someone something because you misjudged them. It’s not a grind-your-teeth stress, but it’s still stressful.
Having kids is a good instructional tool because you learn as a parent that things are not always what they seem. It teaches you to take some breaths and remember to not sweat the small stuff. I think I’ve always been pretty mellow. I think that’s critical.
Do you have a philosophy you follow as a judge? I go back to the Aloha spirit, the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, empathy, equanimity. You have to be empathetic but not so attached that you can’t see the big picture. Even sane people are crazy in the courthouse. You have to be patient, listen, but not enable the insanity. You have to be respectful. Everyone wants and deserves to be listened to. You have to be calm in the saddle.
I encourage them to not blow their resources on ammunition, like 3rd World Countries who can’t feed people but are heavily armed. It’s so profoundly insane.
What is a judge’s role in the courtroom? Ten different judges will give you 10 different answers. Some people think you just call balls and strikes. I do have this social work model. I try to be equal parts motivating, monitoring and sometimes deciding. Last week I had a case where I kind of lost it and said, “Both of you guys suck.” Sometimes you have to get their attention. Most cases involve a certain amount of conflict, but only a pretty small number get to the level of “The War of the Roses.” We call them our frequent fliers.
Something I say often in these cases is “It feels like you’re here to win, but I have nothing for you. You may be right, you may have the most god-awful spouse ever, but we have to move forward and make a plan. You have these kids and you have to take care of them.”
What role does mediation play in Family Law Court? Right now we have mediation for money things and family law, but we don’t have it for neighborhood or school disputes. …
I see the need for mediation all the time with restraining orders. A restraining order is a bit of a time out, but it doesn’t solve the underlying conflict. With much of the stuff we see, just giving them an order doesn’t resolve the matter. It just gives one person a leg up, then they’re back in three weeks. For people living in the same environment—students at the same school, neighbors—you have to resolve that conflict.
What do lay people need to know before heading to court for the first time?
The first thing: If you can make peace without coming to court, choose peace.
The second thing: Separate your legal and financial goals from your emotional goals, and make sure you can tell the difference.
Also, have realistic expectations. A lot more often than people want to admit, they can’t get what they want from a court.
What’s surprised you about serving as a judge? It’s harder than I thought being part of a bureaucracy. I knew intellectually what I was going to do, but experiencing it is completely different. Everything from getting a light bulb changed to the bureaucracy and politics of decision-making. That’s the thing that’s troubled me the most, that’s been my biggest adjustment.