by Jack Mayne 
Judge Veronica Alicea-Galván (pictured above, left) believes her most important job as a municipal court judge in Des Moines for the past eight years has been to explain to people the often-mystical process of justice.
The need to explain is especially necessary if defendants are immigrants from other parts of the world where judges, police and other officials are not trusted, and often feared.
Galván said the municipal and district courts are the first courts most people ever encounter, and that those who are from other countries and who are not familiar with the process here may sometimes think judges are in charge of police.
“We have to explain to them, no, we are not, they are a separate branch of government.”
Appointed by governor
Galván’s last day as Des Moines Municipal Court judge was Friday (Jan. 30) and on Monday she will become a judge of the King County Superior Court at the Kent Regional Justice Center. She replaces Judge Greg Canova, who retired.
Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her in mid-December.
“Veronica is a highly respected judge and a strong voice in the Latino community,” said Inslee. “She brings a passion for justice and a dedication to her work that will serve the court well.”
The city has appointed Sumeer Singla as the interim municipal court judge. He will serve until the next election in 2017.
Court in Spanish
Galván’s Des Moines court has been the only one in the state that provides sessions conducted in Spanish, but why is that in a state with such a large number of Latinos?
“First you have to have a judge that speaks Spanish,” she said, and there are few of them in the legal profession.
“It take more than just being bi-lingual, you have to be bi-lingual (with) a vocabulary that not everyone has – the legal vocabulary,” she said.
The justice system in this country is “very hard to understand” if you come somewhere with a very different method of legal procedure.
“When you tell people that folks are going to sit in judgment of the facts, the only requirements they have to have are to be 18, not have a felony and be a citizen – to us that is a very liberating idea … but to others that is a very frightening idea.”
That we have a court system more friendly to people “is a testimony to our system of justice, that there is a rule of law, that there is a due process that is followed … and citizens expect … the rule of law.”
“We have people from countries where the rule of law doesn’t exist so the concepts we are trying to operate under, not just the language, but the concept itself of due process” is completely foreign to them.
She says being bi-lingual does not make a person an interpreter.
“The ability to actually listen to somebody speaking, remember what they said, and translate it … and act as that conduit of communications is a pronominal skill. It takes a lot of practice. I think the state of Washington is one of the states that is a model for other states in the interpreter certification program.”
That program is good for ensuring quality interpreters in the common languages in the area such as Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, but much more difficult with languages not so common in the area, such as Afrikaans or Eritrean, “because we have immigrants from all over the world.”
A recent survey said there are over 200 languages spoken in the state, including indigenous or tribal languages.
Galván said she had a situation in her court where she had an interpreter translate an indigenous language into Spanish and “a relay person” to translate the Spanish to English.
“We have to find unique ways to try to communicate effectively with the people that appear here so that they understand what the expectations are and, hopefully, they understand what we are doing here.”
She says she tries to explain the system as much as she can.
“I want people to think they have been heard,” Galván said. “You may not like the result. The fact that I didn’t dismiss the case, does not mean you were not given fair treatment. The question is, was everything considered, were you heard and was the decision rendered within the possibilities available to me, and hopefully, by the time they leave, they understand that.”
There often is a large number of people in the court, on one of her last days as municipal judge, she had 75 people before her – and that is not unusual for the Des Moines court, she said.
Some cases take longer than other, some people need the process explained, while others understand and are quickly processed.
Judge Galván will have to run for election this November for the remaining year of her predecessor’s term, and then seek election again in 2016 for a full four-year term.
In Washington state, and 29 other states, judges are forbidden to themselves seek campaign donations. Campaign donations must come from outside and separate sources.
However, Galván said there is a Florida case now before the U.S. Supreme Court over whether forbidding judges from soliciting campaign donations inhibits their rights to free speech.
“The most absolute, fundamental right we have is to elect the people to represent us,” Galván said, “but a judge does not serve as a representative of the people. We are here to ultimately represent justice, (we) should be beholden to no one,” she said.
“If we really want to maintain some neutrality we can’t allow (soliciting for campaign donations) – I don’t think it looks good for judges to be soliciting for donations.”
Galván says she loves the job of being a judge.
“I hope that anybody who takes on this kind of job – when they put on that robe it confers authority, but it is a mantle of service,” she said.
Outside the Box
In Des Moines, Galván had to understand the “limitation for funding for the city, the budgetary restraints and to think “outside the box, to try to provide court services to the people who use our court,” she applied for outside grants.
One of the first she received a grant for was money to have public defenders appear at arraignments. Having a lawyer there to advise the defendants of the charge, and alleviates the prosecutor from “the awkward position of both having to explain the legal ramifications, giving legal advice, when they are prosecuting them.”
She is credited by the city with securing over $200,000 in grants to benefit the community not only for public defense services, but for secure a van for transporting prisoners to and from court; providing for security improvements to the courtroom; and obtaining technology upgrades that resulted in court being “almost paperless,” Galván said.
Of course, she is proud of providing Spanish language access to the court.
First elected judge
Judge Veronica Alicea- Galván has been a judge since 2002 she was appointed as an administrative law judge to conduct administrative hearings, develop the record, and issue decisions for most state agencies and some local governments. Then in 2007, Galvan was appointed at the municipal court judge in Des Moines.
The city later made the position elective, and in 2012 Galvan became the city’s first elected judge. The Des Moines court has a contract with the City of Normandy Park for its municipal court services.
Galván is a former assistant city attorney for the city of Seattle who earned her law degree from the University of Washington and her bachelor’s degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminology from Western Washington University.
She has been an adjunct instructor at the Seattle University School of Law, where she taught a continuing legal-educational program emphasizing multilingual legal education. She was the president of the District and Municipal Court Judges Association. Galvan was awarded the Juez Excepcional Award from the Latino/a Bar Association of Washington in 2014.
In her judicial career, Judge Galvan has presided over a broad range of cases, from traffic infractions to homicide allegations to complex licensing issues.
Judge Galvan graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1994. After graduation she accepted a position as an assistant city attorney with the City of Seattle. In this capacity she was a member of a unit specializing in the prosecution of domestic violence offenses, as well as elder and child abuse matters.
Later, she served as prosecuting attorney for the City of Federal Way, where she continued to advocate on behalf of victims and to champion community safety.