February 15, 2008

Stanislaus County Judge Distaso headed for Afghanistan

A prosecutor known for sending Scott Peterson to death row is going to Afghanistan for eight months as a soldier with the Army Reserve.

Joseph "Rick" Distaso is now a judge and his departure in April will leave the Stanislaus County Superior Court with a busy family law calendar to tend, so court officials hope Gov. Schwarzenegger fills at least one of five pending judgeships soon.

Appointments may be imminent, a court official said, because three candidates have been interviewed by the governor's office in the past two weeks.

"We're optimistic that the governor will make at least one appointment, if not three, before Judge Distaso leaves the bench," said Mike Tozzi, the court's executive officer.

Distaso, 41, declined to discuss his deployment.

He is married with two sons and notoriously media shy, declining to talk about his role as lead prosecutor in Modesto's biggest criminal case even after a judge affirmed Peterson's death sentence in March 2005 for killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner.

Distaso was appointed to the bench in October 2007, when the governor tapped him to fill the unexpired term of Judge Wray Ladine, who died from coronary artery disease. He is a Republican and must stand for election in 2012.

He has been a captain in the Army Reserve since he left active duty in 1996 and took a job with the district attorney's office. He is expected to perform legal work overseas. He was a member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps when he was on active duty and stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

Like California's 12,200 other reservists, the judge must give the Army one weekend a month, plus two weeks sometime during the year.

He will join 1,410 other reservists from California who are fighting the war on terrorism. The state has sent 660 reservists to Afghanistan and 750 to Iraq, according to Cathy Pauley, a Sacramento-based spokeswoman for the Army, who praised the judge for his commitment to his country.

Distaso leaves April 5, and his deployment is expected to run through the end of 2008. Members of the JAG Corps may be assigned to a variety of duties, such as advising commanders on the law, negotiating contracts or working as prosecutor, defense attorney or judge in a court-martial.

The court's Tozzi said he checked with the Administrative Office of the Courts, the governing body that runs the state's legal system, and determined Distaso is the only judge in California who is a member of the Reserve.

Distaso will earn his full salary of $178,789 while he is on active duty. Army pay is less, but the state will make up the difference.

Stanislaus County is waiting for Schwarzenegger to fill five judgeships, including three seats created in 2006 and two more created in 2007.

"Three people have been interviewed," Tozzi said. "So we're anticipating that we'll have appointments relatively soon."

The new seats are part of an effort to add 150 judges statewide over three years, mostly in the Central Valley and Southern California's Inland Empire, where the number of judges has not kept pace with growth.

Though the appointment process is a bit of a mystery, because it is confidential, it prompts talk in the legal community because the State Bar of California asks lawyers to comment on those who have applied.

Statewide, diversity on the bench has been an issue, with some groups pointing out that the state's population is 45 percent white while 70 percent of its judges are white and 73 percent are men.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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