By George Stahl
Special to the Sun
For the past three-and-a-half years, the Kern River Courthouse has been staffed by members of the East Kern, Ridgecrest Superior Court. Along with Judicial Court Assistants, and other staff, the Sherriff’s Kern River substation has been supplying deputies to fill the positions needed to run a court. Bailiffs, and security deputies have been on hand all these years also. Among these, reserve volunteer deputies have filled in as needed, both in the lobby and in the courtroom.
At the forefront of all of these people is one woman in a black Judge’s robe who attempts to keep order and purpose to all of the work done here. Her name is Judge Pro Tem Vikki DelPellegrino. From the time the idea of reopening the courthouse in Lake Isabella was presented to her, DelPellegrino was on board. For 2 years, due to budget cuts, the court in the KRV had closed its doors. All of the cases that came out of the KRV, Sherriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, Fish and Game, civil disputes and unlawful detainers (also known as evictions), were forced to appear in either Bakersfield or Ridgecrest.
In 2015, after being approached by Daures Stephens and members of the American Legion Riders of Chapter 711 in Lake Isabella, an announcement came from the Superior Courts in Bakersfield. “The Court has plans, pending final confirmation of our 2015-2016 budget allocations, to restore limited court services to the Kern River Branch Court that serves Lake Isabella and surrounding areas,” wrote then Court Administrator Terry McNally in an e-mail. He said the plan was to open the court one day a week, on Wednesdays, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
“The limited services include small claims, limited civil and infractions which would include motor vehicle and other citations from law enforcement and government agencies,” McNally wrote.
“The Court will be using a volunteer pro tem judge for hearing the matters. Pro tem judges are not compensated,” McNally wrote.
It was DelPellegrino who answered that call for a volunteer judge. A veteran, retired Kern County Deputy District Attorney, DelPellegrino prosecuted cases ranging from homicides, to child abuse, to sexually violent predators, none of which she would have to deal with in the KRV courthouse. Prior to the KRV, she had been traveling throughout Kern County as a pro tem judge for various jurisdictions in various capacities. With her widespread knowledge of the law, she is a type of renaissance woman, with different degrees of expertise in each. On top of that, perhaps her most valuable talent is the way she is able to identify with a wide variety of people, circumstances and confidence.
As a prosecutor for 20 years, DelPellegrino will admit that she saw the absolute worst of society, but at the same time, she saw the best and strongest of humanity. It is from this viewpoint and vantage point that DelPellegrino has been able to be fair, just, and compassionate from the bench. Even when the verdict is not in the defendants’ favor, they manage to give her a sincere ‘thank you’ and a smile as they leave the court room, knowing that, if nothing else, they were given a chance to be heard by the judge.
“Judge DelPellegrino is fantastic,” said Superior Court Judge Ken Pritchard, Supervisor of the judges of East Kern. “We have been able to move most of the workload here from Ridgecrest and Bakersfield that fall into this jurisdiction. More than that, the fit has been perfect. The staff absolutely love her, and she has a connection with the community,” Judge Pritchard said. “One thing about a judge in a small town. They are either hated or loved by the people. This community really loves their judge, I know.”
“It will be sad to see Judge DelPellegrino go,” Pritchard continued.
After three-and-a-half years, Judge Pro Tem Vikki DelPellegrino is moving on. Along with her husband, her dog, Indiana, and her cat, Cheetah, Judge Vikki is moving to Arizona, where she plans to retire. “Everyone here has been amazing, including the people who have had to appear before me. I have a special place in my heart for this community and for the people here,” Del Pellegrino said. “The staff is wonderful and they have helped me to do my job and have made it a lot easier on Wednesdays mornings. We were only here one day a week, but we did a lot from 8 a.m. to noon. I have made a lot of new friends working here and have gotten to know some really good people. I’d like to thank them for everything they do. Thank you to Judge Pritchard and Judge Green for guiding me when I asked for your help and thank you to Kern Superior Court for hearing what Daures had to say three years ago,” DelPellegrino said.
“We are going to miss Vikki every day. She has been great to work with,” said Sara Berry, the Judicial Assistant at KRV. “Working with Vikki was not work. It was fun. She is fantastic. We all love her and will miss her, but wish her nothing but the best,” said Jodiee Sherouse, who has been a clerk at the KRV branch since it reopened.
It took a crew of people to keep the courthouse running, but it was DelPellegrino who showed clearly how one person can make a difference. DelPellegrino was definitely a major part of the courthouse reopening, and she was a driving force behind keeping it running, but despite rumors to the contrary, “At this point, we have every intention of keeping the court in the Kern River Valley open. We’re working out some particulars, but we are not intending on closing it down,” said Judge Pritchard. “Have fun in Arizona, Vikki!”
Editor’s Note: Kern County Superior Court PIO Kristen Price confirmed that the KRV courthouse will be covered by the Ridgecrest bench as it was when it was a full service court.