Contra Costa Court Scholarship’s Swan Song

Nearly 30 years ago, members of the Contra Costa bench sought a way to honor Judge Richard E. Arnason on his retirement from the bench after 30 years and decided that establishing a scholarship program for former criminal offenders was a fitting tribute. Since Judge Arnason continued to serve as a judicial officer, any scholarship could not be in his name so the local bar (both public and private) came to the aid of the bench and thus was born the Contra Costa Court Scholarship program. During much of its lifespan, the Contra Costa County Bar Association administered the scholarships and spearheaded fund raising. Contra Costa law firms made up the bulk of the donations and the firm of Gagen McCoy in Danville for years endowed a scholarship.

In 2004, the Court Scholarship program expanded to include the Tom Oehrlein Memorial Fund in memory of a long-time Court Scholarship board member and public defender who died prematurely from cancer. This fund was largely sponsored by the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office. The Court Scholarship eventually incorporated in 2008 as a 501(c)(3) under the name of the Contra Costa Court Scholarship Fund.

The scholarship program offered scholarships ranging from $500-$4000 to applicants who suffered from a criminal (or juvenile) record to enable them to attend academic or vocational schools and thereby break the cycle of poverty, addiction, and crime. The scholarships supplemented traditional financial aid so were often granted to cover child care, gas/transportation, Internet service, computers, etc. which traditional aid did not cover.

For those of you who did not know Judge Arnason, he handled primarily criminal matters during his tenure as a judicial officer and made every person who came through his courtroom feel like they mattered. He always had a kind word for people, even when he sentenced them to prison. His kindness and civility extended to the many scholarship recipients over the years as he usually presented the scholarships at a lunchtime ceremony in his courtroom.

In 2002, the Court Scholarship program held a moving tribute to Judge Arnason modeled on the then-popular program “This is Your Life.” The tribute took the audience on the journey from Judge Arnason’s humble origins in rural North Dakota to his status as the longest sitting Superior Court judge in California at the time. That tribute attracted over 180 members of the Contra Costa legal community and all proceeds went to benefit the Scholarship program. Judge Arnason finally served his last day on the bench on January 13, 2012, at the age of 90, after serving 49 years on the bench. He left in style as he walked in front of a large crowd of well-wishers who lined both sides of a city block in downtown Martinez. In August 2012, at an honorary lunch for current and past scholarship recipients, the Fund changed its name to the Richard E. Arnason Court Scholarship.

In the nine years since 2012, many of the judicial officers and lawyers who knew Richard Arnason retired and have been replaced by people who never knew Judge Arnason. It became more and more difficult to sustain interest in continuing this legacy. The scholarship Board continued to meet, interview applicants, and grant scholarships through 2019. However, due to lagging interest from both the legal community and the Bench (now composed of so many judicial officers who never knew Judge Arnason), the Board made the decision to dissolve the non-profit corporation and donate the Scholarship’s remaining funds to the Kennedy-King Memorial College Scholarship Fund, Ltd—founded in 1968 and based right here in Contra Costa County.

Judge Richard E. Arnason passed away on December 3, 2015, at the age of 94. The Contra Costa Court Scholarship Fund, aka The Richard E. Arnason Court Scholarship, for nearly 30 years, helped more than 104 former offenders change their lives and stay out of the criminal justice system. Not a bad legacy. Contra Costa Court Scholarship—we bid you adieu.