Valley Voices

Immigrant and ‘kid from Mariposa’ enter law school Hall of Fame

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, left, congratulates Fresno County Superior Court Judge Houry Sanderson on her induction into the SJCL Alumni Hall of Fame.
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, left, congratulates Fresno County Superior Court Judge Houry Sanderson on her induction into the SJCL Alumni Hall of Fame. San Joaquin College of Law

Two people, who started from very different places and vastly different interests, found themselves both being honored at the Robert E. Coyle Federal Courthouse.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Houry Sanderson and Arthur G. Baggett Jr. were inducted into the San Joaquin College of Law Alumni Hall of Fame Sept. 14.

Sanderson, a 1987 graduate of SJCL, arrived in the United State as an immigrant from Lebanon when she was just 13-years- old. Her parents had prepared her for the transition and her English language skills were strong, but she still felt like she didn’t quite fit in.

“Nobody can say your name,” she recalls. “That hasn’t changed, but now they call me ‘Judge.’” (It’s pronounced HOOO-ree.)

As a child, Sanderson learned about the 1915 Armenian genocide and the fate of her grandparents and their communities. The knowledge of these atrocities paved the way for her interest in law, although her mother probably knew she was going to be a lawyer long before she did.

Sanderson recalls having an argument for every situation when she was a child and her mother responding, “Stop playing a lawyer.” After she passed the bar, her mother would respond to the same arguments by saying, “Stop being a judge.”

Sanderson graduated from Fresno State with a bachelor’s degree in business law before enrolling at SJCL, where she clerked for Tom Campagne’s law firm. She stayed on as an attorney for a year after passing the bar.

Next, at the Fresno County Counsel’s Office, she worked with her counterparts in the Public Defender’s and District Attorney’s Offices, practicing dependency law. Judge Sanderson’s next move was to the District Attorney’s Office, where she remained until her appointment to the bench in 2005.

Inductee Art Baggett, who graduated from SJCL in 1993, came to the law school from a completely different background. He had stellar science credentials, including a master’s degree in environmental science from Antioch College. Still, he notes that for “a kid from Mariposa up in the mountains, I’ve come a long way.”

His interest in law came after being elected to the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors in 1986, when he realized land use issues and general day-to-day politics were based on understanding the law.

His political mentor, Congressman Tony Coelho, and Park Superintendent Bob Binnewiess, convinced him that law school would provide a huge benefit in his position; it was something neither of them had pursued, and regretted.

As a longtime resident of El Portal, Baggett had to overcome many obstacles to attend law school. His full-time county supervisor position, along with the hundred-mile commute to SJCL, was a lot. He figures he drove over 60,000 miles during that time, incurring only a single speeding ticket.

Gov. Gray Davis appointed Baggett to the California State Water Resource Control Board in 1999, and again in 2003. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger re-appointed him. There, he ran an agency with over 2,000 staff and 44 attorneys, and personally presided over most of the water rights hearings.

Baggett notes he spent “12 years on the Water Board, dealing with the Harvards and the Stanfords,” but having attended SJCL, he was not intimidated.

“I had the basics,” he says. “I am comfortable with the pedigreed Rhodes Scholars.”

As a scientist and teacher, Baggett has been on the faculty of Yosemite Institute and the University of California’s Sierra Institute, served as adjunct faculty for Fresno State’s Department of Chemistry and continues to teach Environmental and Water Rights Law at SJCL.

He also mediates complex water and resources disputes as a principle for AG Baggett and PJ Weber, Inc. In his spare time, he’s a musician in his son’s bluegrass and country bands.

SJCL has over 1,400 grads, but only two dozen grace the Hall of Fame. Welcome to two new ones, from two different worlds.

Missy McKai Cartier is the public information officer for San Joaquin College of Law. Connect with her at mcartier@sjcl.edu.

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