Photo by Emily Sawicki

An investiture ceremony last Friday formally inducting Gilbert Rodriguez into his role as a Superior Court judge for the County of Los Angeles was a full-circle moment for the lifelong Santa Monican.

During the ceremony, Judge David De Alba, a friend of Rodriguez from their time studying law at UCLA in the 1970s, stood on the steps of Santa Monica City Hall and gestured over the heads of onlookers — family, friends, and fellow law professionals from all over California — toward what is now Tongva Park. 

It was there that Rodriguez’s father, also named Gilbert, first lived when he arrived in Santa Monica.

“This is so special, because the place where his father lived, when he — Gilbert, his father Gilbert — first came to the United States with five other young Mexicans was right across the street in an apartment building where that park is,” De Alba, now a Sacramento County Superior Court judge, said, “when his father was working as a busboy at the then-Miramar Hotel over on Wilshire Boulevard. And Gilbert thought, ‘Wow’ — where his dad started.”

The elder Rodriguez was himself a longtime Santa Monica resident and proprietor of the eponymous Gilbert’s El Indio Restaurant on Pico Boulevard. Gilbert died in 2019 at the age of 90, but his wife (and Judge Rodriguez’s mother), Carmen, was in attendance during the ceremony on Friday, alongside family members from the United States and Mexico.

Rodriguez chose his friend De Alba to administer his oath of office.

“How proud the Rodriguez family must be watching you here today, Gilbert,” De Alba continued. “We know your father’s watching, and he’s watching everything. And it’s too bad he’s not here, but I’m sure he is so proud of you.”

Rodriguez, a longtime attorney with a law office next door to the family restaurant, grew up in Santa Monica and graduated from Samohi before going on to UCLA for both his bachelor’s and law degrees. He accepted an appointment to the Superior Court from Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year after Superior Court judge Patricia D. Nieto stepped down mid-term. 

The ceremony was charged with emotion and full of laughter.

Standing at the podium after taking the oath of office, Rodriguez reached into a plastic bag and produced a vibraslap — a 1960s-era percussion instrument that features in songs like “Crazy Train” by Ozzie Osbourne and “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix.

The newest LA County Superior Court judge was in the middle of an anecdote about a conversation with a fellow judge, Bobbi Tillmon, discussing whether or not he would get to perform music in his new role on the judge’s bench.

“Instead of a gavel, I’ll be using this!” Rodriguez recalled telling Tillmon. He hit the instrument, producing the signature rattling sound. The audience — family, friends, and fellow law professionals and judges from all over California — laughed and applauded.

“I take the job seriously, but we all gotta laugh sometimes,” Rodriguez added a few moments later.

In his remarks, Rodriguez thanked Newsom for offering him the opportunity to serve as a Superior Court Judge.

“Governor Newsom, I want to thank you — I know you’re real busy. Thank you,” Rodriguez said. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve my community. Thank you for letting me join this association of very special people who have been nominated or elected to do the best that they can, under the circumstances that sometimes are not the easiest in the world.”

The new judge went on to reflect on the challenge of being a judge and representing a community that will look to him for guidance and decisiveness.

“I’ve always made — in my heart — the decision to help others. But that was easy, to help others,” Rodriguez continued. “To make a decision that affects others is going to be more difficult, because somebody is going to get it right. Somebody’s going to get it wrong. I just want to do the right thing. I want to be able to continue to contribute to my community — not as a player, but as a neutral referee. Somebody who will make the decisions and somebody that can say, ‘I did the right thing for the right reason.’”

Rodriguez also thanked Santa Monica Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who sat on the stage behind the podium, for helping facilitate the ceremony outside City Hall, as well as former mayor Tony Vazquez. Following the ceremony, those gathered enjoyed a reception with food, dance and music in the courtyard behind City Hall. 

The ceremony last Friday, July 29, installed Rodriguez into the role for a term that will end in 2025. Superior Court judgeship terms last six years and there are no term limits.

emily@smdp.com