On October 14, 2022, President Joe Biden nominated Marian Gaston to serve as a United States District Judge for the Southern District of California to the seat vacated by Judge William Hayes who took senior status on August 1, 2021. She currently serves as a San Diego County Superior Court judge. If confirmed, Judge Gaston would bring 20 years of experience as a public defender to the federal bench.
Judge Marion Gaston was born in 1971 in Mobile, Alabama. She earned her B.A. from Emory University in 1993, where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In 1996, she graduated from the University of California, Berkley, School of Law.
After law school, Judge Gaston joined the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office where she remained for nearly twenty years. She began her career in 1996, as a deputy public defender representing indigent criminal defendants throughout their cases. During this time, most of her clients were charged with misdemeanor offenses, such as petty theft, driving under the influence, and drug charges. In 1999, she began to represent individuals charged with felonies, including murder, as well as adults facing civil commitment, a process that can result in the involuntary placement of an individual in a mental health facility. Judge Gaston was assigned to the Juvenile Division in 2011, where she represented minors accused of criminal offenses. She was also named Assistant Supervisor of the Juvenile Division, which expanded her duties to include developing office policy. From 2014 to 2015, she worked to implement changes to the law in accordance with a proposition that reduced felony drug offenses to misdemeanor offenses.
As a career public defender, Judge Gaston has extensive trial experience on a wide range of criminal and juvenile law matters. In one case, she represented a ten-year-old defendant accused of stabbing his friend to death. She successfully demonstrated that her client suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and brain damage, leading to her clients’ transportation to a residential treatment facility rather than standing trial. In another case, she represented a woman who was arrested for transporting cocaine through the San Diego International Airport. Judge Gaston admitted evidence showing that her client’s incarcerated son’s life was threatened by a fellow inmate and that her client was told to smuggle the drugs in order to protect her son from harm. This allowed her client to argue the defense of necessity, which the defendant did before pleading guilty. She was placed on probation instead of receiving jailtime as a result. In a very high-profile case, Judge Gaston represented a defendant charged with murdering and sexually assaulting a 23-year-old victim. Her client was accused of targeting multiple men to drug and sexually assault and during trial several young men offered evidence of their experiences with the defendant. The defendant was found guilty and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In 2015, Judge Gaston was appointed to the San Diego Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown, where she still serves today. She has presided over more than 500 trials, the overwhelming majority of which were bench trials. As a superior court judge, her decisions are issued orally and recorded by clerks, so she does not have any written opinions. From 2015 to 2017, she presided over the misdemeanor department and experienced a high-volume caseload. As a judge in that department, Judge Gaston arraigned defendants, presided over settlement negotiations, and issued sentences for misdemeanors, among other tasks. In 2017, Judge Gaston began serving in the juvenile court and, in 2020, she became the Assistant Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Division. In juvenile court, she presided over cases involving child abuse and neglect, reunification of parents with children, and other cases involving the placement of children in adoption, guardianship, and foster care. She also presided over San Diego’s special RISE (Resilience Is Strength and Empowerment) Court dedicated to young people on probation who had survived sex trafficking. Beginning in 2022, Judge Gaston now presides over adult criminal cases and mental health cases, including conservatorships.
The following cases are representative of Judge Gaston’s judicial experience:
In People v. Juanillo, Olea, and Torres (SCD291560), three defendants were charged with first degree murder after allegedly killing a 64-year-old man in an act of gang related violence. Judge Gaston presided over the preliminary hearing, ruling on the admissibility of over 100 exhibits. She found that the prosecution established probable cause for murder charges. The case is now pending trial.
The defendant in People v. Castillo (SCD294774) was accused of making criminal threats against his mother and violating a protective order. After a three-day jury trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of both crimes. Due to the defendant’s mental illness and after consulting with the victim, Judge Gaston chose to sentence the defendant to participate in an intensive mental health program that included GPS monitoring, medication management, housing, drug testing, and counseling services.
In People v. Markley (SCD209934), the defendant was accused of persistently stalking an acquaintance in violation of several protective orders, but she was found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, leading to her committal to a state hospital. 13 years after her initial sentence, Judge Gaston presides over a three-day bench trial to determine whether the defendant needed to continue to be confirmed in a state hospital due to her mental illness. She determined that the prosecution succeeded in proving that the defendant suffered from a mental disorder and as a result, she posed a substantial danger to others. Judge Gaston ordered that the defendant continue to be committed to the state hospital.
In In re D.G., I.G., and K.G. (NJ15641), after a child died while in his mother’s custody, California’s Health and Human Services Agency sought to give the court custody of the deceased child’s siblings. The government asserted that the mother’s neglect caused the child’s death. After testimony from experts and hearing additional evidence, the court found that the government failed to prove that the mother had caused the child’s death. As a result, the older siblings were allowed to stay in their parents’ custody, but the youngest child was placed in childcare until after the parents completed counseling and parenting classes.
The Health and Human Agency filed a petition asking the court to take jurisdiction of a minor because he was at a high risk of suffering serious harm and emotional damage in the case of In re I.J, (050083). This case arose after the child’s adoptive mother attempted to convince him that he was mentally ill and developmentally delayed, making her eligible for payments for his care. He was not developmentally delayed or mentally ill, but his adoptive mother’s verbal abuse made him anxious and distressed. The court ruled that the child should be placed outside the home and given counseling. Judge Gaston’s decisions were affirmed upon appeal.
In In re J.C., B.B., and K.C. (0518671), the Health and Human Services Agency asked the court to take jurisdiction over three children due to their mother’s drug use and urged the court not to provide an opportunity for reunification because of prior child welfare services cases. At trial, the children’s father demonstrated that he had completed a drug treatment program, that he regularly participated in a Twelve Step program, that he had a supportive sponsor, and that his current partner was drug-free. Judge Gaston ordered reunification services for the father, giving him the opportunity to take custody of his children in the future.
Professional Activities and Accolades
Judge Gaston is an active member of her local judicial community. She is a member of the California Judges Association and has served on the organization’s Ethics Committee, Collaborative Courts Committee, and Juvenile Law Curriculum Committee. She also serves as Annual Conference International Committee Co-Chair of the National Association of Women Judges. Judge Gaston is a member of the San Diego Superior Court where she serves as Co-Chair of the Court Clergy Organizing Committee. Since 2019, Judge Gaston has been a regular lecturer for the Judicial Council of California’s Center for Judicial Education and Research, an organization that trains California judges. She has also taught at University of California San Diego, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, and California Western School of Law. Judge Gaston is a member of the San Diego County Child Welfare Services Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Workgroup and Lawyers Without Borders.