Lawrence Ornell, a veteran Sonoma County Superior Court commissioner, has been appointed a judge of the court by Gov. Jerry Brown, filling a seat on the bench that has been empty for more than a year.
Ornell, 52, of Graton, has a long history in the justice system. In Sonoma County, he has been a sheriff's deputy, a probation officer and a prosecutor.
"I'm looking forward to having a leadership role and also as a judge I can have more of a role in the court's community outreach," said Ornell, who teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College and Empire College School of Law. He earned his law degree from Empire College in 1992.
Court commissioners handle misdemeanor crimes, infractions, traffic cases, child support issues and child dependency cases. They also take on temporary assignments as judges in other criminal and civil matters.
Ornell, a registered Democrat, takes the place of Mark Tansil, who retired in late 2012. Since then, the court has relied on a series of visiting judges to handle its workload.
"This will bring continuity to the bench, having a judicial officer there on a regular basis," said Ken Gnoss, who takes over as presiding judge Jan. 1.
"Also with Larry's varied experience, he can step right in and take on a calender," Gnoss said.
A New Hampshire native, Ornell became an animal control officer out of the Marines, then a police officer. He eventually moved west, where he received his degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State University.
He was a prosecutor with the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office for 11 years before his 2004 appointment to the bench and served as president of the Sonoma County Prosecutors Association. He also had a private civil practice from 1991 to 1993.
In one of his more controversial cases as a prosecutor, Ornell agreed to a 1999 plea deal dismissing attempted murder and assault charges against a man accused of firing a shotgun at a deputy sheriff. An outcry led then-District Attorney Mike Mullins to apologize to Sheriff's Department officials.
Ornell also worked in delinquency cases and said on Friday that he looks forward to returning to that field of law as a judge at some point.
"You focus on the children and you see the progress that they make," he said.
The Sonoma County court has a bench of 20 judges and three commissioners. Its workload has grown over the years. In 1999-2000, it handled 99,593 cases. In 2010-11, the most recent year for which figures were available on Friday, the court system processed 117,872 cases.
Ornell will be paid $181,292.
Two others had contended for the most recent judgeship: Santa Rosa assistant city attorney Rob Jackson and Barbara Phelan, a staff attorney for the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Ornell's wife, Tina Ornell, is a county probation officer. The couple has four children.