San Luis Obispo’s Superior Court may soon have a former defense attorney on the bench for the first time since the 1990s — in a courthouse where all current judges are either former civil attorneys or prosecutors.
And not just any defense attorney.
Ilan Funke-Bilu, who over nearly 40 years established himself as perhaps the most prolific criminal defense trial attorney in the county, announced Friday that he is seeking to run for the bench being vacated by retiring Judge Barry LaBarbera.
“I see this as a new challenge in life, fighting for justice,” Funke-Bilu said Friday. “It will allow me to pursue my passion of law and the Constitution on a higher level.”
It will allow me to pursue my passion of law and the Constitution on a higher level.
San Luis Obispo attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu
The makeup of San Luis Obispo Superior Court has been in flux over the past two years with several longtime judges retiring and the Governor’s Office appointing their replacements.
Since again taking office in 2010, Gov. Jerry Brown has not given the job to someone from the local defense community. But LaBarbera’s upcoming retirement — which court administration confirmed Friday — means his bench will be up for grabs in the November 2018 General Election (five other judges are also up for re-election).
To qualify for a judgeship, candidates must have served as a member of the State Bar or served in a previous California judgeship for at least 10 years and must not have been convicted of certain felonies involving misuse of public money.
San Luis Obispo County judges typically run unopposed every six years, and most are initially appointed to the bench. The last time a judge was elected to the bench in San Luis Obispo County was when former Deputy District Attorney John Trice won a judgeship in 2002, according to court staff.
On Thursday, Funke-Bilu pulled a petition in-lieu form, in which he will gather signatures in lieu of paying filing fees. He began gathering signatures Thursday and has until Feb. 7 to file the form with the San Luis Obispo County Clerk’s Office.
‘Works like a freight train engine’
Funke-Bilu was born in Israel and moved to Queens, New York, at the age of 8, gaining his citizenship at age 15. He earned his law degree from the Western State University College of Law in Orange County, and moved to San Luis Obispo in 1977, working initially as a car salesman while preparing to pass the bar.
He began his legal career representing defendants in criminal cases in which the Public Defenders’ Office had declared conflicts. Since then, he has logged more criminal trial time than any other San Luis Obispo County lawyer, according to several local attorneys.
In addition to law, he served for eight years on the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors. He lives in Atascadero with his wife Kelly.
Locally, he has a reputation for being an aggressive counselor who, for example, represents a defendant facing a misdemeanor electioneering charge with the same rigor as he would a murder defendant, of which he has had several.
In 1986, he won an acquittal in the murder case of Tony Phillips, who fired a shot from a sawed-off shotgun that struck Fred Niedringhaus in the stomach. Phillips said Niedringhaus punched him, and then the gun went off.
In 2016, another of his clients, Travis Woolf, a former Salinas Valley State Prison guard, was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of a popular vineyard manager after a fight outside a San Miguel bar.
“Ilan Funke-Bilu is one of the most experienced criminal trial lawyers in our county, and very few lawyers are more comfortable in the courtroom than Ilan,” District Attorney Dan Dow said Friday. “He works incredibly hard for his clients’ best interest.”
Matthew Guerrero, a longtime San Luis Obispo defense attorney with the Public Defender’s Office, said Funke-Bilu will be an asset to the local court.
“Ilan is almost without peer when it comes to his experience, and he works like a freight train engine,” Guerrero said.
A new bench
On Friday, Funke-Bilu, 67, said he’s looking to bring some diversity to the courthouse.
“Everyone on the local bench is extremely qualified, of course, but I noticed over the last several years with all the new appointments that we’re just not getting the kind of diversity I think would make the bench even better,” he said.
Specifically, he said that no local judge has as much trial experience. In June, Superior Court Judge John Trice retired after 14 years on the bench, where he had presided over more criminal trials than any San Luis Obispo judge in recent memory.
“I think when (Trice) left, the bench took a hit. If you ask any person who’s knowledgeable, it’s hard to replace that experience,” Funke-Bilu said. “If I get elected, I think I can match his experience and fill that void.”
Known for his commanding presence and zealous defense of his clients, Funke-Bilu has had countless disagreements with prosecutors beyond what’s par for the course. Asked how he’ll ensure fairness with the District Attorney’s Office and Dow, he said the two have a very good working relationship built on respect.
“Judge Trice had a saying: ‘We’ll agree to disagree.’ And that’s my relationship with Dan,” Funke-Bilu said. “We respect each other even when we disagree. Too bad we don’t have more of that on the national level. We still have it in San Luis Obispo.”
Defense lawyers provide a critically important role in our criminal justice system — they often make very good and sensible judges.
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow
If elected, Funke-Bilu would also have an opportunity to be presiding judge, an administrative position that rotates every two years, which can set local courthouse policy. He said he would like to see security protocol at the courthouse reviewed and possibly loosened, and for a better system of coordination between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges so that court proceedings carry on more efficiently.
“There’s a lot of dead time in the courthouse,” he said. “That happens on a daily basis, and it’s a real problem.”
‘An honorable profession’
San Luis Obispo Superior Court’s last judge whose previous long-term career was as a defense attorney was Harry Woolpert, who retired in 1996, according to Tribune archives.
“It’s not unusual,” Funke-Bilu said, naming off Woolpert and judges in Santa Barbara County. “I think any good lawyer can make a good judge, be it a prosecutor or a defense attorney.”
“Defense lawyers provide a critically important role in our criminal justice system — they often make very good and sensible judges,” Dow said. “It is an honorable profession that sometimes gets an unfair bad rap.”
Funke-Bilu said that while he’s “defense-oriented” now, he wouldn’t be a defense-oriented judge.
“That would mean I wouldn’t be doing my job,” he said.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the length of terms for Superior Court judges.