Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday appointed a longtime court commissioner to the Napa County Superior Court’s bench, filling one of two vacant judge positions.
A court commissioner since 2001, Michael S. Williams, 66, succeeds Judge Stephen Kroyer. Kroyer retired in May 2011 after he was diagnosed with cancer.
Williams, who applied to become a judge more than a year ago, learned he was being appointed from a call from the Governor’s Office at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
“I was speechless for a while,” said Williams, who celebrated his appointment by opening a bottle of wine with wife, Michelle Frisch, a psychotherapist.
He plans to be sworn in next Thursday, he said.
Presiding Judge Diane Price issued a statement saying, “We are very pleased with the governor’s decision. Commissioner Williams has been a dedicated and tireless judicial officer in the many assignments he has had while with the Napa Superior Court. This is a well-deserved appointment and we look forward to working with Commissioner Williams in his new position.”
A longtime Napa resident, Williams worked for the Napa County Public Defender’s office for a decade before he was hired in December 1996 as a research attorney for the Napa courts. He later also served as the courts’ general counsel until the court appointed him commissioner in 2001.
As a commissioner, Williams has presided over a wide range of cases and court-ordered programs. His assignments have included domestic violence, restraining orders, bail and custody, traffic ticket hearings and the family law/juvenile division. Lately, his assignments have included misdemeanor cases.
Born in San Francisco to a city planner and a social worker, Williams was raised in Berkeley with a twin sister, Cathleen, an attorney in Sacramento. An older brother is a retired school teacher.
Williams did not set out immediately on a legal career. After graduating from Berkeley High School, he attended San Francisco State University but left to travel and work in Europe and the Middle East.
He then attended UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in agricultural economics. He worked as an economist and joined the Peace Corps in 1974, serving two years in Swaziland. After leaving the Peace Corps, Williams worked two years in Botswana, where he helped develop an educational program.
After returning to California, Williams worked for nine years as a machinist for Fabco in the East Bay, making truck parts. Williams served as a union shop steward for the International Association of Machinists. While he worked for Fabco, he began attending night law school at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, graduating in 1986.
His sister encouraged him, said Williams, who wanted to do criminal defense work. “I was very lucky to be hired by the Napa County Public Defender,” he said.
“Also, I could not tolerate the boredom and repetition of factory work, so I had to find a career that was interesting, and I found it,” he said.
Williams still enjoys working on machines, maintaining a 1974 BMW motorcycle and a 1979 Volkswagen camper. Williams and Frisch have a son, David, who attends Chico State University. They are members of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley.
Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein said Thursday he looks forward to working with Williams in his new role. Ron Abernethy, acting public defender, also welcomed the news. “This is an excellent appointment,” Abernethy said.
“With his background as general counsel for the court and then as court commissioner he can step into any assignment in the court and hit the ground running,” Abernethy said. “Michael is a thoughtful and fair individual and is an excellent addition to our local bench.”
In the meantime, the seat vacated by retiring Judge Raymond Guadagni in September remains unfilled. Lieberstein said he has applied for that position.
Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said Thursday the seat to which Williams has been appointed will be up for election in 2014. The term is six years. The judge’s annual compensation is $178,789, according to the Governor’s Office. Williams is a Democrat, the Governor’s Office also said.