Judge John Phillips
John Morgan Phillips, born 1942, was a precocious child born to loving, hardworking parents who were products of the Depression. His father was a Grip at Fox Studios, and his mother, a devoted homemaker. He would adore and care for his best friend and younger brother Bobby, born with Downs Syndrome, Bobby’s entire life.
When I met John in late 2009, his portrayal of his formative years was accented by rebelliousness, but those who knew him at the time described him as athletic, smart and funny. He graduated from Culver City High School in 1960 after inexplicably, according to his wife, being voted “Best Dressed.” Following his 1964 graduation cum laude from California State University Long Beach, he joined the National Guard Reserve, and served until 1970. Law School at Boalt Hall followed. John married his lifelong partner Patti in 1972. They have three grown children, two adorable grandchildren, and one very opinionated dog, Otto.
Reports of his doggedness as Monterey County’s Assistant District Attorney are widespread. Appointed to the Monterey County Superior Court in 1984, John excelled at running an efficient calendar, ensuring lawyers knew their place, and that justice was fairly administered. “You had to prove yourself to him in his courtroom. He would test you,” said Denine Guy, herself now a Superior Court Judge. “But once you passed, he became a mentor.” “What a bear,” agreed DA Jeanine Pacioni. “You never wanted to appear before him unprepared. He would let you know what he thought. He made us all better.”
In the 1990’s, the nation was ardently putting bad guys behind bars, passing the “three strikes” laws that dictated to judges the sentences they must levy. Phillips could see that these younger and younger “criminals” would choose a different path, if given the choice. Just as the law was drawing tighter and tighter circles around a judge’s ability to use judgment, the community was struggling to find solutions to complex crime problems, and providing fewer and fewer options for its young people.
Known as a fierce competitor on the racket ball court and such a regular at the Sardine Factory Bar that one of the bar stools boasts his name on a brass plaque, John became the loudest and most persistent voice in favor of developing alternatives to incarceration, especially for youth. “You send these young people to prison, and they learn to become harder criminals,” he said. John’s obsession became Rancho Cielo, a place where first-time youth offenders who want a different path can finish their high school diploma and learn job readiness skills. But the story of how he got there paints a picture of a very determined man who doesn’t understand the word, “Can’t.”
John founded the 501(c)3 Rancho Cielo, Inc. in October, 2000, with a Board made up mostly of County Supervisors, Judges and law enforcement leaders. Later, when John complained to friend Ted Balestreri that the project wasn’t moving quickly enough, Ted would say, “You’ve got to get rid of the “Honorables.” You’ve got to get business people on your board.” John raised funds for a feasibility study on his project, which concluded that it could not be done. “He was depressed for weeks,” his wife Patti said. But he would not let it go. John had been eyeing the old Natividad Boys Ranch property for some time, but the County told him that it would cost “millions” to bring it up to code. Used as a storage graveyard for old county-owned furniture and equipment, the property no longer had a source for potable water, and the buildings were condemned. Some thought he was crazy – they couldn’t see what John could see in that dump. John persisted, and when the County finally agreed to lease the property to the newly-founded non-profit Rancho Cielo, Inc., some in the community were behind John’s vision. Folks from the local construction industry, led by friend Don Chapin, swarmed the campus, removing hundreds of truckloads of garbage and rebuilding the structures with donated labor and materials. They were able to save the original gym floor, covered in two feet of bird droppings. Fueled by John’s single-minded vision and his sheer refusal to hear the word, “can’t,” Rancho Cielo now had a home.
Well, almost. There were some who remained skeptical and using bureaucracy as a tool, refused to allow occupancy. Looking back, John proudly tells the story –horrified at the time-- that he held the record for “red tags” while he was Presiding Judge of the Monterey County Superior Court. An equally driven Don Chapin suggested he call a press conference to rally the residents of the county behind the idea that giving our young people opportunities at Rancho Cielo would be better than incarcerating them. This broke the log jam, and the Silver Star Program, founded as a public-private partnership with Rancho Cielo and Monterey County’s Probation, Office of Education and Behavioral Health Departments, was able to move to its current home on the Ranch. Once the students were on campus (2004), fundraising could begin in earnest, as those who might have been skeptical could see the positive effects for themselves.
John ran the property and the programs himself in those first years after he retired from the bench. He pressed his wife Patti into service to do the books. Needless to say, this was not the retirement she had imagined. John would later say that, “Patti resents the Ranch so much she refuses to serve ranch dressing at home,” but those of us who know her know that he would have been utterly unable to accomplish his dream without her help.
In 2013, John is at the Ranch every day of the week as a volunteer. He manages the capital improvements and gets after students who litter. He knows where every conduit is buried and how many fish are in the pond. He tirelessly speaks at service clubs and gives tours to visitors. He and Patti entertain in the Academy Dining Room on Friday nights, and he hires the Youth Corps to fix fences on his own property. He counsels the kids on how to handle their legal issues, and is disappointed like a father if they fail to do so.
And above all else, he is still unable to hear the word, “Can’t.”
Susie Brusa, Executive Director of Rancho Cielo, 11/09 – present
In 2014, retired Judge John Phillips was elected to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors for District 2. Although he stays closely informed on the activities at the Ranch, he has stepped off of the Rancho Cielo Board of Directors in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. The Board elected its first Non-Founder Board Chair, John V. Narigi, VP and GM of the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa. A terrific business man, John Narigi has demonstrated his commitment to Rancho Cielo at every opportunity as he leads the Board towards the future.
Susie Brusa, April 2016