When Bakersfield attorney Marcos Camacho passed the state bar exam in 1986, he was elated at having achieved a longtime personal goal.
"I really wanted to be a lawyer," said Camacho, who handles criminal, family, immigration law, and wage and hour cases.
Fast forward to Dec. 24, 2014. Getting quite the Christmas gift from Gov. Jerry Brown, Camacho and another attorney, David Zulfa, were named to judgeships in the Kern County Superior Court. Both men are from the Central Valley and dedicated to their jobs. But the route taken by each man to becoming an attorney was achieved quite differently.
According to his bio, 47-year-old Zulfa, of Bakersfield, has served as a deputy district attorney at the Kern County District Attorney's Office since 2002. He was an associate at Clifford and Brown from 2000 to 2002 and earned a law degree from the California Pacific School of Law and a bachelor's degree from Cal State Bakersfield. He is a polished and meticulous prosecutor.
On the other hand, 55-year-old Camacho never set foot in law school. He earned his law degree by taking advantage of an obscure four-year state program that allows people to become lawyers pretty much the same way Abraham Lincoln did it. Under the Law Office Study Program run by the State Bar of California, it allows students to "read law" under the apprenticeship of a practicing attorney.
California is among only a few states in the nation with such a program. Those who prefer to go this route are pretty much on their own.
"If you're a person who likes 'hands on' type of work, then I think this is something that you can do," said Camacho.
But it's not an easy path. Camacho failed his first-year test called the baby-bar exam, a state requirement. But he doggedly pursued his ambition and passed the bar exam three years later -- on his first try.
And among the guests at his celebration party was a figure Camacho greatly admired and respected: the late Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union.
Camacho later became general counsel for the UFW, a post he held for 20 years. It appeared to be a natural fit for the farm worker advocate from Dinuba in neighboring Tulare County.
Coming from a farm worker family, Camacho is the oldest of four children and joined his parents working in the fields during the summer at age 8, and continued doing so throughout high school.
But his parents, Rodrigo Camacho and Eusabia Lopez, were sticklers about education. It was not uncommon for farm worker kids to start classes late after the new school year began. Camacho's parents would have none of that.
"For the first month there would be no farm worker kids in class because everybody would still be working," said Camacho. "My brother and I would be the only ones in class because my father was adamant that we be in school."
Working in the fields played a key role in shaping his view of fighting for the underdog. He admits that was a key reason in spurring him to study the law and use it as a tool for social change.
Camacho originally wanted to submit his application for a judgeship in 2011, but suffered a deep personal loss. His wife of 20 years, Eva Camacho, was diagnosed with cancer. Eva died less than one year later, leaving her husband a widower with the couple's three daughters.
Eva was her husband's biggest supporter in applying for a judgeship.
"She was excited about it. She was like, 'Yes, you can do it,'" recalled Camacho, whose tone becomes more animated and eyes light up when he mentions his late wife.
His early days of studying law were done under Ellen Eggers, who was an attorney for the UFW. Years ago, Chavez had the concept of the UFW starting an apprenticeship program to train its own lawyers under LOSP. Many of those trained are children of farm workers.
Camacho is the fifth person to earn a law degree through the UFW apprenticeship program and the first to be appointed to a judgeship. It's not known if any other LOSP graduates have gone on to be named to a judgeship; LOSP does not track its graduates this way.
Besides Honest Abe, others who learned the law by reading it include John Marshall, former chief justice of the United States, and Daniel Webster, former U.S. Secretary of State.
Camacho appears to be in some top-notch company. He is expected to be sworn in in April.
Not bad for a kid from Dinuba.