Chapman Alumnus Gary Polk (JD ’08) has been appointed by Governor Newsom to serve as a judge in the Riverside County Superior Court. Polk has been a fixture in the Riverside County District Attorney’s office since passing the bar in 2008, and after fourteen years of service in a variety of roles there, Polk is coming to grips with this new, challenging, and prestigious opportunity.
For Polk, the journey to becoming a Superior Court Judge begins in an immigration law clinic run by Professor Marisa Cianciarulo while he was still a law student. At the time, Polk had aspirations of becoming a sports agent and was actively steering his career in this direction–à la Jerry Maguire–viewing a law degree as a necessary step in learning how to read and draft contracts. Professor Cianciarulo’s law clinic, it seems, had other plans in mind for him.
Part of Polk’s work in the clinic was managing a sexual assault case involving a minor who was seeking asylum in the U.S. Here, Polk learned about who he thought he was and what kind of lawyer he hoped to become. In the clinic, he developed a good rapport with his client and found he was energized by helping someone who found themselves at such a vulnerable point in their own life. He discovered that he would have to work hard to make the process as frictionless as possible for his client, and to ensure that justice and fairness set the tone of the case. “After that clinic,” he says, “I was champing at the bit; I wanted to put the skills I had learned to work. I wanted to help people.”
Passing the bar saw Polk taking a role in the Riverside County DA’s office, where he again found himself dedicated to service and, in particular, working with a vulnerable juvenile population in child sexual abuse and human trafficking cases. Polk’s ability to develop rapport and trust with vulnerable child victims led the way to early successes for him; as he puts it, “It was all about focusing on the kids, and a big part of the job was developing a good bedside manner… a need to focus on getting justice for the child and what that will look like while taking into account how this process affects them personally.”
When it comes to managing cases like this, Polk modestly suggests that his greatest strength comes from emotional consistency and never allowing himself to feel too high or too low about things. The goal, he explains, is to maintain an even, professional keel to the sort of work that can be emotionally draining at the best of times. “You have to just focus on the task at hand,” he adds, “it can’t be about your needs; it has to be about ensuring justice is served.”
Polk recognizes the value of representation and diversity in the profession, and particularly on the bench. “I never even thought [being a judge] was a possibility,” says Polk. “Growing up, I didn’t know any lawyers. I met my first lawyer when I was twenty! I just never saw any lawyers that looked like me.” At the Riverside DA’s office, he finally met a Judge who looked like him–the Honorable Richard T. Fields, whose judicious example inspired Polk. Even after that, by Polk’s modest admission, “I only really started to believe that I could [become a judge] two years ago when a colleague from Los Angeles pulled me aside and said I should do this.”
When quizzed about how he feels about the possibility of having to run for re-election Polk takes this in his measured, even-grained stride and, chuckling adds, “Well, that’s part of the job,” but similarly acknowledges that he wouldn’t mind spending the next ten years working as a judge in a juvenile court where his passion truly lies.
Gary Polk’s story is one of humility, modesty and empathy. He attributes this to the family values handed to him by his parents–in particular, fairness in all things–and the value in leaving something better than you found it. Polk offers a respectful nod to being fortunate enough to have had great people cross his path, folks who helped direct the course of his journey through the law, be they his parents, a twelve-year-old victim of sexual violence he defended, or a faculty member helping him to discover his limits and passions in a law clinic on campus. None of this seems accidental to him; every encounter has value for him, and every experience has had something to teach this extraordinary and self-effacing alumnus.
Here’s wishing the Honorable Gary Polk, Riverside County judge, every success as he heads out on this newest of adventures.