Pedro V. Castillo was appointed a Magistrate Judge by the United States District Court for the Central District of California in January 2021. Before his appointment, Judge Castillo served as a Deputy Federal Public Defender in the Central District of California for over 27 years, trying over 45 cases to verdict. As a DFPD, Judge Castillo participated in the Court’s Substance Abuse Treatment and Reentry (STAR) program, a partnership between the Court, U.S. Probation Office, Federal Public Defender, and U.S. Attorney’s Office. He also served as a member of the District’s Conviction and Sentence Alternatives (CASA) team, a post-guilty plea diversion program that offers a creative blend of treatment, sanction alternatives, and incentives to effectively address offender behavior, rehabilitation, and the safety of the community.
Judge Castillo was born in Mexico and raised in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Arizona College of Law.
In this interview, Judge Castillo shares his experience transitioning from advocate to neutral and his views on what makes a good and successful advocate and on the importance of civility and professionalism in the courts. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What made you want to be a judge?
I became a public defender to help people—that was my goal, to be an attorney for people in need and to help them on a one-on-one basis. I did that for close to 27 years and received a great amount of satisfaction from it. In my time as a DFPD, I’d done pretty much everything. I’d done more than 45 trials and briefed and argued cases before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. When this opportunity came up, I saw a different way to serve and, with my wife’s prompting, I applied. I’m glad I did. I loved my career as a Deputy Federal Public Defender, but I love this job even more.
How have you found the transition from being an advocate to being a neutral? From handling mostly criminal cases to both civil and criminal cases?
As a judge, you’re obviously not an advocate, you’re not in the trenches, you’re not fighting. You are trying to find a just and sensible result under the law and the facts. That may not please either or both sides, but it’s what we have to do and I’ve grown into the role and I’m comfortable in it.
As to handling both civil and criminal work, it’s been challenging but it’s like anything else—it’s experience, it’s being in there, it’s doing it and knowing the rules. I was very comfortable in a criminal courtroom, but I’ve put in a lot of time studying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Thankfully, the transition has been pretty smooth. I’m comfortable in the robe, I’m comfortable in the seat. I am not saying I know it all, of course, but I’m growing into it. I am very happy and blessed to have this opportunity.
What would you say has been the hardest or most challenging part of serving as a magistrate judge?
Probably the amount of writing. We do so much writing in our district, particularly in civil cases. And I have wonderful law clerks who help me in this endeavor but that has been the hardest and most challenging part. You have to distill the briefs and figure out the relevant issues and write an order that is clear and concise. And the records can be voluminous, whether it’s habeas cases, civil rights cases, or Social Security cases, where we have to sort through huge records, including medical records, to see if the Social Security Administration got it right or whether the case should be remanded. We also have to keep the cases moving and orders flowing. It’s a tough job. It’s challenging, but it’s also fun!
What is the best part of the job?
Being able to impact people’s lives. I’ve helped settle some cases and it’s a wonderful experience getting lawyers and parties to an agreement. That’s been wonderful and I’ve enjoyed that.
I’ve also enjoyed having hearings, even through Zoom. I like seeing the parties and counsel. Hopefully we’ll get back to a courtroom setting in the near future. I like the back and forth and seeing people. My former career as a public defender prepared me for that and made me fluent in that one-on-one personal interaction. I also like making decisions. I like issuing an order and feeling that it’s right. I can’t control whether people are pleased by my rulings, but I do the best I can. On civil cases, one thing I always do is acknowledge plaintiffs because it is their case, it’s their lawsuit. Same on the other side with defendants. In criminal cases, I acknowledge defendants and also the prosecution and let them know that I understand what is at stake. Everyone in the courtroom deserves respect, and I like to show that.
What has surprised you most about your new role?
How nice my chambers are! I didn’t expect that.
It also takes time to be comfortable being called “Your Honor.” My wife likes to joke that other people can call me “Your Honor,” but she won’t!
What experiences or individuals have influenced your approach to judging?
I’ve seen a lot of judges over my career as an advocate – a whole spectrum of folks. I wanted to be someone who was fair to both sides and understood the issues on a real and analytical level. But I also wanted to be someone who understands the dynamics of the courtroom. I want to know who is there, what is at stake, and how the parties feel about it. I want to be a judge who is tuned in.
I’ll tell you one experience I had that did shape me when I was a DFPD. It was a tough case. I fought really hard. We went to trial twice and we hung it both times. The third time we asked the Court to dismiss the case. The government ultimately agreed to dismiss the case but the judge in the case told me, “I’m not here to take sides, Mr. Castillo. I’m like a baseball umpire, I call balls and strikes.” And I thought to myself that was true, but the Court can also eject a party when the party is not playing by the rules. And that’s the kind of judge I want to be.
Do you have thoughts on what makes a good and successful advocate?
I appreciate someone who is prepared and knows the case really well, someone who is ready to answer questions. I am the type of judge who will ask questions. I want to dialogue with the lawyers. If they can change my mind based on the facts or the law, I’m open to it.
My advice to lawyers appearing before me is to be prepared and be ready; if you don’t know something, tell me that. Don’t try to sidestep it, don’t try to be coy. Just tell me what you know. If the answer is, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” that’s totally fine with me. Those are the advocates I appreciate – people who are prepared – and, if they have a weakness in their case, they’re ready to acknowledge that.
On writing, my advice to lawyers is to keep your pleadings short. If you can write a motion and say it in 10 pages, rather than 30, do it. Judges have limited time. Focus your writing. Focus on the controlling Ninth Circuit law and keep it short. That goes for attachments and declarations too. I don’t need 100-200 pages.
The Central District of California maintains Civility and Professionalism Guidelines for all attorneys appearing before the Court, as well as for judges. Can you speak a little about the importance of civility and professionalism in our courts?
The Guidelines are important. They are on the Court’s website and I refer lawyers to them. I have done that. Where lawyers are uncivil or used inappropriate words, I issue an order requiring the lawyers to familiarize themselves with the document. The Guidelines are pretty extensive. It’s kind of like the Golden Rule for lawyers, but a lot more intense. It details things like answering phone calls and emails, being cordial to each other, and meeting and conferring before you bring issues to the Court.
But it also addresses judges. Judges are required to promptly address cases, treat everyone in the courtroom with respect, etcetera. I think it’s important, particularly now where people are angry about so many things. You don’t want that anger to come into the courtroom.
Counsel in civil cases, and somewhat in criminal cases, disagree and take it personally and feel like they have to win. But those lawyers should be mindful that they have to represent their clients well and if their clients were in the courtroom and saw some of this behavior, maybe they wouldn’t agree with the way the lawyers are talking to opposing counsel, or whatever the case may be. It’s not helpful or useful for lawyers to resort to name calling or finger pointing. It builds resentment and reflects poorly on the lawyer.
You have to elevate the conversation. You want to build a reputation for being a good advocate, not an angry and belligerent one. Your reputation follows you, and if you are not professional, the judge will know it and everyone in the courtroom will know it.
Interviewer Information: Judge Castillo was interviewed by Eddie A. Jauregui and Allison Westfahl Kong. Mr. Jauregui is a partner at Holland & Knight. His practice focuses on internal corporate investigations, corporate compliance and training, government enforcement, white collar criminal defense and complex business disputes. Ms. Westfahl Kong is a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, California. Any views expressed herein do not reflect the position of Holland & Knight, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or the U.S. Department of Justice.
 The Guidelines may be found here: https://www.cacd.uscourts.gov/attorneys/admissions/civility-and-professionalism-guidelines