July 2019
Tips from the Bench: Judge Kenneth J. Medel

By Mellania E. Safarian

Clark Hill PLC

Since 2010, Judge Medel has been a San Diego Superior Court judge. He presides over Department 66 and handles civil cases. It was an honor to sit down with Judge Medel for our “Tips from the Bench” series.

1) What was your path to the bench?

Judge Medel was born and raised in Downey, a suburb of Los Angeles. He graduated from the University of California, Irvine where he studied Philosophy and received his Juris Doctor from the University of San Diego. According to Judge Medel, his path to the bench was characterized by “theatrical” endeavors from a young age. Beginning with little league baseball, then performing in a musical band, playing football in high school, and finally studying drama at UCI, his life seemed destined for public performance.  His inspiration for attending law school was threefold, (1) what do you do with a “philosophy” degree? (2) his father randomly commenting, throughout his youth, “you’ll be a great lawyer one day!” (3) and the clincher, seeing the movie Paper Chase.  

During law school, Judge Medel took a trial advocacy practice course which inspired him to pursue a career as a trial attorney. With some luck, he landed a job at San Diego County’s District Attorney’s Office where he spent seven years developing trial skills. Two years were spent in the fairly new Gang Unit, where he specialized in violent felonies committed by street gang members. The practical challenges presented by gang cases taught him the importance of finding a way to do justice in the face of significant obstacles. His time as a trial lawyer at the district attorney’s office was the cornerstone for everything that followed.

Judge Medel spent the next 23 years in private practice defending medical malpractice cases. During his 30-year long career as a trial attorney, he tried 40 jury trials in criminal court and between 30-40 civil jury trials. Still, he never considered pursuing a career as a judge. But, at the encouragement of several of his peers, Judge Medel finally applied to become a judge and was appointed in July 2010.

2) Any tips for newer attorneys appearing in your courtroom?

Judge Medel recommends a combination of humility and confidence (whether you have it or not) in approaching a discovery strategy, motions and trials. He strongly recommends having a game plan that you execute as best you can without appearing to doubt yourself. Above all, Judge Medel recommends being respectful to everyone, including difficult opposing counsel. It never serves you well to show disrespect to opposing counsel and can be particularly perilous if you do so via correspondence. Reconsider sending mail or e-mails that taken in isolation paint you in a negative light. Since your reputation is everything, it is important to rise above the immediate controversy and be honorable in all circumstances. Ultimately, when you leave the practice of law, you want to be known as the person that treated everyone fairly, cooperatively and professionally.   

3) What kinds of government law related issues do you encounter as a judge? Any special considerations?

There are unique issues the Court faces as to government entities. For example, compliance with the Government Claims Act can complicate the statute of limitations analysis. Many lawyers are not aware that most hospitals are “public entities” and subject to the Government Claims Act. And certain protections and immunities apply to government entities which are otherwise not available in civil cases.

Typically, Judge Medel encounters government law issues in cases involving public entities, such as police and fire departments and hospitals.  He tackles government law issues when ruling on petitions for writs of mandate, where a claimant receives an adverse judgment from a public agency (e.g., being denied a state benefit) and now seeks a reversal of that decision. Likewise, he rules on challenges to referendums, where either a political entity or private group seeks to invalidate a referendum petition as false or misleading. Other times, Judge Medel presides over civil rights actions or employment actions brought against public agencies. 

Although a government employee himself, Judge Medel is required to be unbiased in such cases and feels no political pressure to rule in any particular way. At the end of the day, he must follow the law but strives for a proper legal result that is also practically fair and just.