Is there anything that Judge Keith Faulder can’t do in a courtroom? No, probably not. After all, he’s been a crusading lawyer for the defense and a crusading lawyer for the prosecution. For eight years, he served in the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office, including a stint as the interim DA, after the death, in 2006, of Norm Vroman who was elected to the post.
Now, as nearly everyone knows—at least everyone who has run afoul of the law in northern California or read about crime and criminals—Faulder is a Mendocino County Superior Court Judge. Five days a week, he holds forth in Department A on the second floor of the courthouse. Under his black robes he wears a shirt, a tie and a jacket.
In his chambers—which boasts a mandala from Nepal and a large, eye-catching sketch of Don Quixote—Faulder ponders the cases on his docket. “I thought if anyone would be the patron saint of court attorneys it would be Don Quixote,” Faulder said on an afternoon when he thumbed through a copy of the California Judicial Handbook. He stopped at the section titled, “Rules Concerning Media Interviews” and read the salient passage: “Make sure you know what the reporter intends to cover before agreeing to an interview.”
This reporter explained that he wanted to cover Faulder’s life in the law, no holds barred, but no down and dirty questions, either. “I’m not doing an exposé on you or the court,” this reporter said.
Like Quixote, Faulder is on a kind of crusade. Indeed, he believes in the Rule of Law—which is no small matter these days—though he also knows that laws aren’t sacred or written in stone. Roe vs. Wade, he pointed out, is a good example of how laws change because of something called “political climate,” which seems to shift every time there’s a national election.
Faulder remembered that the men closest to Richard Nixon argued that if the president did it, it had to be legal — and that Nixon was forced out of office.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about President Trump or Governor Gavin Newsom,” he said.
Faulder believes in The First Amendment, though he does not condone hate speech. He also defends civil disobedience in the tradition of MLK and Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, who went to jail to protest US military intervention in Mexico in the 1840s. In law school, Faulder wrote and published an essay about the duty to practice civil disobedience. But he also believes in civility in and out of the courtroom.
The whole time that he’s been in the thick of the California criminal justice system he’s seen harsh sentencing in the wake of the “Three Strikes Law,” which was adopted in 1994, and less harsh sentencing after the repeal of “Three Strikes Law” in 2012.
He’s also watched as Mendocino County marijuana cultivators went to jail and to prison, and he’s observed the decriminalization of cannabis offenses and a reduction in sentencing. “Felonies have been dropped to misdemeanors and more emphasis has been placed on drug treatment not on punishment,” he said. In fact, in the nearly three decades that Faulder has been a lawyer and a judge there’s been a quiet revolution in cannabis law, not only Mendocino County, but all across California.
As a criminal defense lawyer he played a part in a revolution that has been engineered without guns or bullets, though some cannabis growers, lawyers and activists risked their livelihood and their freedom to alter and amend the law.
“I like to think that I’ve made a difference as a lawyer and as a judge in the lives of some people,” Faulder said.
In high school he wanted to be a ski bum. In college at UC Santa Cruz he studied philosophy. He still remembers the work of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, the author of Discipline and Punish. Faulder still has a philosophical cast of mind, though as a judge he can’t indulge in philosophy. “I have to pay close attention to the facts and the evidence in each and every case,” he said. “I have to listen not only to what is being said, but how it’s said. I also have to think about possible exceptions that the attorneys on both sides might make and anticipate what’s coming next in every trial.”
Faulder’s romance with the law began in San Diego where he and an older brother ran a Private Investigator firm, “Faulder Et Al.” Keith was one of six brothers whose parents were both schoolteachers. At home nearly everyone in the family watched “Perry Mason,” though not “Dragnet.”
“I had a hard time identifying with Joe Friday,” Faulder said.
Working as a PI, provided Faulder with his first taste of the nitty-gritty legal system. To this day, he remembers the Perry Mason-like case that he pursued when a wife hired him to snoop on her husband and thereby help her win a divorce and freedom from an impossible marriage. “She had to prove infidelity on the part of her husband,” Faulder says. “I drove an ordinary dark gray pick-up truck. The husband had no idea I was tailing him all the way to his mistress’s house in LA.” He added, “As a PI, it helps to have stealth.”
What he learned as a PI, he said, was “persistence and patience,” two lessons he has carried through his life. “My PI work also got me a court job as an investigator working on death penalty cases after I graduated from law school.”
Faulder has also had a life beyond the law; the mandala on the wall in his chambers is a memento from an excursion to Nepal where he climbed Mount Everest in 2014. Well, not to the very top of the world’s highest mountain. But about 25,000 feet above sea level. On his computer, Faulder showed images of himself climbing the Khumbu Ice Fall on the Nepali side of Mount Everest. “It was scary and exhilarating and beautiful,” he said. He has also climbed Kilimanjaro in Africa and the highest peak in South America.
Still, there are few parts of his life that are separate from the world of the law.
“I met my wife because of two murder cases, one of which I was handling,” he said. “She handled the other one. In my case, the accused—6' 8" and 300 or so pounds—strangled five prostitutes who didn’t pay their debts for drugs. After he killed them, he stuffed their bodies into dumpsters and set them on fire.”
Faulder’s wife-to-be defended a man accused of killing seven women; he stabbed them to death ritualistically. “Those cases brought us together,” Faulder said. He added, “There are extremely dangerous people out there. I’m not surprised that Richard Pryor once said, ‘Thank God for prisons.’ We do, indeed, need them.”
Later that afternoon over lunch, a short walk from the courthouse, Faulder recounted the history of the criminal justice system in California, the construction of San Quentin and its pivotal role today as the “reception center” for all people in northern California entering one prison or another.
“In terms of human history, prisons are a relatively new invention, and so are trials in which the defendant has the right to a lawyer,” he explained. “When kings had absolute power, they demonstrated that power by ordering men condemned to death to be drawn, quartered and disemboweled.”
This reporter asked, “Are we more civilized now?”
Faulder replied, “I don’t know.”
What does he know?
“After twenty-five years in this community I know its perimeters,” Faulder said. He added, “I know that I want to use the law to help people break the cycle of criminal behavior. I want to give people the opportunity to correct their own mistakes.”
“Have you regretted any sentences you meted out to convicted criminals?” this reporter asked.
Faulder paused for a few moments and replied, “Nothing comes to mind.”