The Call to Service – Interview with Hon. Benjamin T. Reyes II
Judge Reyes is one of the newest additions to our bench. In a recent conversation, he discussed some of the factors and events that preceded his joining the bench in Contra Costa.
I was born at the United States Naval Station Subic Bay, Olongapo City in the Philippines. My family emigrated to the United States when I was very young. My dad is a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer and my mom a retired school teacher. As the son of a career sailor, I felt a strong call to military service very early in life. I played a little intramural volleyball in school, but my biggest commitment was to the varsity JROTC cadet battalion drill team. I was not only the battalion commander of the 165 cadet corps, but also the captain of the drill team. The team choreographed its own routines, based on military drill sequences. We would march in Veterans’ Day parades and other events where we executed precision drills with M1903 rifles. We won a competition in my sophomore year of high school. I joined the United States Army Reserves after high school and enrolled in the Army ROTC program while attending college.
As a Filipino American, my parents had emphasized respect for elders, the value of hard work and a sense of community service. These values instilled a sense of humility in me that I have tried to inculcate in my kids. I am also fortunate that both my parents are living. One of the perks being that they frequently invite us over so the whole family can enjoy a traditional Filipino meal. I like to state that my body was made in the Philippines, but my mind was formed in Berkeley and that my being transcends all cultural boundaries.
College and Law School
I attended UC Berkeley as a Political Science major. I also took courses in Military Science and business. I was a member of the U.S. Army ROTC program while attending Cal-Berkeley and also worked part time at the University of California Police Department as a community service officer. In the summers between my academic sessions, I attended Army training at various locations, including Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri; Ft. Benning, Georgia and Ft. Lewis, Washington. Upon graduation from college, I was offered a regular army commission as a Second Lieutenant. I was unable to complete my term of service because I was injured in a parachuting accident, so I decided to build on my interest in community service and service to others by going to law school.
After Law School
I worked in a wide variety of settings for two decades before coming to work for the court. I spent many years as a city attorney – a job that was great preparation for my work as a judge because city attorneys handle everything that comes into the city, including litigation. In my case, this meant handling cases that varied from code enforcement, to First Amendment issues, premises liability, excessive use of force allegations, land use, and competitive bidding cases. As chief legal officer for the cities I served, I also directly advised the mayor, council members and the city management team on a wide variety of municipal law issues, ranging from compliance with open meeting laws, to ethics, elections and ballot measures.
I was an Equity Principal (partner) at Meyers Nave in Oakland right before my appointment to the bench. Among other things, the firm expanded my base of legal knowledge to include environmental issues. One memorable case involved Northern California Power Agency (NCPA). NCPA owns geothermal generators at the Geysers field near Calistoga. NCPA pumps waste water into the steam field; the water increases steam in a geothermal bed, generating electricity. One of my projects was to help build a solar project that powered the pump station that transmitted the wastewater up the hill into the steam field. Here’s a more practical way to think of it: when you flush the toilet in Clear Lake, you generate electricity in Alameda, Palo Alto and in the Silicon Valley.
Outside of Work
My wife, Susan San Juan Reyes, and I have two college age children. My kids have been taking karate lessons since they were 5 and 6 years old. At some point, I somehow convinced myself that it would motivate my children if I would join them. The end result is that I have been taking karate lessons with them. They are both much better than me, but I did earn my green belt. I’d like to earn the black belt – but at my current rate of progress, that might be 20 years away!
Fortunately, we also participate in less strenuous activities. My son and I are very active in Boy Scouts. I am an Eagle Scout and he earned his Eagle badge in 2015. I like scouting because it instills a sense of citizenship and service. My son’s Eagle Scout project was to build a solar-powered fountain for his elementary school’s garden.
My family and I love to travel when we can. I particularly enjoy Italy, especially Venice. One of my favorite experiences was getting lost in Venice. There aren’t any maps – and when you get lucky enough to find one, it’s usually wrong, or in Italian, which I don’t speak very well! We wandered through all sorts of alleys and came upon a store selling Venetian home-made licorice. We liked it so much we ended up buying 3 – 4 pounds of the stuff! On a more serious note, I am a student of history and political systems, and there is plenty of that everywhere in Italy.
I’m a longtime resident of Alameda. Many years ago, the Carnegie Foundation donated a library building to the City of Alameda. After the Loma Prieta earthquake, the building was rendered unsafe. The City received a state grant to build a new library and the Library Foundation was formed. Under my tenure as President of the Alameda Free Library Foundation, we raised more than half a million dollars for the ABC Campaign. This campaign raised money to fund A (art), B (books) and C (children’s reading room). We curated art for the library, expanded the book collection by 30%, created a new digital library with 20 computers, launched an internet café and created the children’s reading room. The library recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
I also teach trial skills courses at Stanford Law School and at the University of San Francisco School of Law. I think it’s important to teach law students the importance of enforcing and upholding the law and to develop good habits and formidable skills early in their careers.
My proudest professional moment was when I was appointed as a judge. It’s an honor to be selected by Governor Jerry Brown, particularly for someone like me who does not have the traditional criminal law background. After 24 years of public agency work – working towards the improvement of neighborhoods, cities and special districts, I am very much looking forward to continuing my service full-time as a judicial officer.
Two Swearing In Ceremonies?
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was unable to attend my investiture ceremony in Martinez, so she was kind enough to hold a private ceremony for my family and me in the Supreme Court one week before the ceremony in Contra Costa. My wife, my kids and my parents were there, along with other family members and members of my old law firm. I am humbled that the Chief Justice took the time to do this for my family.
I was also sworn in by Presiding Judge Jill Fannin and joined this legendary bench in July. Everyone has made my family and me feel welcome. I am looking forward to sharing this new phase of my life with the kind and hard-working people of Contra Costa County.