Former assistant D.A. Kristen Lucena runs unopposed—so far—for judge seat
The giant in this year’s race for a bench seat on the Butte County Superior court is a slight woman with a shrewd legal mind and a passion for justice, her supporters claim. If she is the favorite this June, it’s because she has great endorsements and more than a decade’s experience in Butte County courts. She’s also coincidentally the only candidate; a young (especially for a judge) woman whose service as an assistant district attorney has earned her endorsements from a slew of seated and retired Butte County judges. It’s also earned her the enmity of at least one local defense attorney.
Born and raised in Chico, Kristen Lucena, 37, was educated at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and attended law school at Santa Clara University. But something kept drawing her back to her hometown.
“I was one of those kids that thought I was saying ‘goodbye’ to Chico when I left,” Lucena said in a recent interview, held in her sparsely decorated office on Fifth Street at the real estate law firm where she is currently a partner. “I was ready for a little anonymity and big city life. I wanted a big community but I found that even though I was glad I had that experience, I was really craving a small town and home.”
Lucena’s few wall adornments include a framed photo of her husband and two children, along with a promotional photo of the Butte County District Attorney’s staff dressed up as figures from the Elliott Ness prohibition-era of the 1920s. Her assistant D.A.'s badge is encased with the photo.
Lucena found her way back to Butte County in 1993, where she began an 11-year stint as an assistant district attorney under D.A. Mike Ramsey. Her rookie assignments involved filing scores of misdemeanor cases, but she soon moved up to felonies, and after proving herself there, joined the office’s Special Victims Unit, which prosecutes some of the most heinous and often heart-wrenching crimes in the county. Lucena said she took satisfaction in prosecuting child abusers, rapists and other hardcore criminals, but what really kept her going were the victims’ stories of survival.
“These people just had these horrible injuries and yet they’ve survived,” Lucena said. “I was able to find hope and encouragement from their stories.”
Lucena said she still keeps in touch with some of the victims of criminals she prosecuted, like the woman who was raped, beaten and left for dead by the side of Cohassett Road several years ago.
“The guy that raped her and beat her so badly. He had raped twice before,” she said. “This woman had horrible damage and disfigurement to her face and eye. She was an artist and has had to abandon her art for a period of time. I still keep in touch with her, and I’m motivated by her strength and her resolve to pursue justice.”
Lucena said she feels her experience at the D.A.'s Office will be an asset on the bench.
“I think I’ll bring a perspective to the court of understanding what these victims of violent crime have been through and the courage it takes to tell their story,” she said. “We want judges who are honest and fair-minded and who have the courage to do what’s right and what’s just.”
Her former boss Ramsey has wholeheartedly endorsed her, as have current Superior Court Judges James Reilly and Barbara Roberts, and retired Judges Darrell Stevens and Ann Rutherford. In fact, Lucena said that some county judges have been grooming her for a judges’ seat since her early days as a prosecutor.
“It feels really good that I’ve got such strong support, especially from judges I’ve tried cases in front of, that know my work and have been encouraging me over the last few years to take this path,” she said.
Yet not everyone in the local legal community is cheering her on.
Outspoken local attorney William Mayo said Lucena lacks the temperament to be a judge, based on his experience defending a client against what Mayo said were bogus charges. His client eventually plea-bargained for a lesser charge and received probation.
“I had a very difficult time with Lucena. I’m going to probably take an ad out in your paper saying ‘don’t vote for her.'” Mayo said, only half-jokingly. “There are a lot of people at the D.A.'s Office that are reasonable, they’re not out to screw you to the wall, they’re just doing their jobs. My experience with Lucena was that she was just a volcano ready to explode. It was a bitter experience and it wasn’t the usual experience I have litigating cases.”