Michael S. Williams was sworn in Thursday as the newest Napa County Superior Court judge in front of a roomful of past and present judges, attorneys and other officials gathered at the Old Courthouse.
“This is an awesome responsibility and I take it with humility, great seriousness and a deep sense of purpose,” said Williams, after his wife, Michelle Frisch, helped him don his judicial black robe.
The ceremony came a week after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Williams, 66, to fill the spot Judge Stephen Kroyer vacated 18 months ago after he was diagnosed with cancer. As an appointee, Williams will serve the rest of Kroyer’s term, which ends in 2014.
Williams, a longtime Napa resident, is a veteran of the courthouse. He worked for the Napa County Public Defender’s Office for a decade before he was hired in 1996 to work as a research attorney for the Napa courts. Later, he became the courts’ general counsel before he was appointed court commissioner in 2001.
On Thursday, present and retired judges and others took turns to congratulate Williams and praise his work ethic, intelligence, his perseverance, as well as his sense of humor and his commitment to his family. Napa County Supervisor Bill Dodd and others noted Williams’ unusual resumé, which includes years as a union machinist and a stint with the Peace Corps in Africa.
Presiding Judge Diane Price said Williams was the hardest working court officer she knew.
For more than five years, she said, Williams handled the least glamorous and most difficult court assignments, including child support, domestic violence, family law cases for parties who were representing themselves and child abuse cases.
“It was a very difficult calendar and not only did he handle those assignments without complaint, he enjoyed those assignments and he handled them with enthusiasm,” Price said. “That speaks a lot about Mike’s empathy, compassion, and his commitment to ensuring that there is justice for everyone.”
Retired Judge Ray Guadagni, who recalled the day Williams came to his house on the spur of the moment to install a swing set for him, teased Williams for becoming a judge at the relatively old age of 66.
“Mike, you’re an inspiration to senior citizens everywhere,” Guadagni said.
Guadagni, who also praised Williams’ parenting skills, introduced a short video of the new judge playing with his son, David, now 20. The video, which included shots of Williams and David sumo wrestling, drew laughs in the audience.
Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein and Acting Public Defender Ronald Abernethy also extended their congratulations. So did Court Commissioner Monique Langhorne-Johnson, who also applied for the bench to fill Kroyer’s spot and thanked him for his mentorship.
Longtime Deputy Public Defender Jess Raphael, an unscheduled speaker, said Williams acted as a mentor to him when he joined the public defender’s office in 1989. Raphael also recalled how Williams, as the public defender, defended a homeless woman who had become one of Napa’s iconic figures.
“He’s an absolute mensch,” he said, referring to the Yiddish term for person with integrity and honor.