It was three years late, but San Bernardino family law commissioner Deborah Daniel finally received her retirement party Nov. 30.
Daniel, a 21-year commissioner who shot skeet, sky-dived and traveled internationally in her off-time, retired in March 2020. A retirement party planned for her was canceled due to COVID-19 precautions, , and the annual dinner during which she would have been honored with the prestigious Kaufman-Campbell Award was held in 2021, over Zoom.
“She got screwed,” said master of ceremonies and organizer Joyce Holcomb—a phrase Daniel agreed with, and was the name of the program. Holcomb billed the party at the Redlands Country Club as a roast: “Debbie Got Screwed: The Roasting of Deborah Ann Daniel.”
Throughout the program, speakers ended up roasting themselves more than Daniel.
“Every attorney is allowed at least one stupid argument. You are abusing your privilege” attorney David Heisler remembered Daniel telling him.
“I have never seen a trial brief put together with the right information—and yours is included in that,” attorney Angelique Bonanno remembered Daniel saying.
San Bernardino Superior Judge Aruna Rodrigo—who took over from Daniel’s department after her retirement—remembered one of his first appearances in her courtroom as an attorney. He tried to make an argument that adoption support money should be included in a father’s recorded income for the purposes of determining child support. Daniel told him exactly what section of California Code to turn to to determine that the money was statutorily excluded from calculating child support.
Attorney Toby Bowler set up a series of jokes from a fabricated judicial assessment:
“Work ethic: outstanding. This talent can’t come naturally.”
“Bias: No one was spared.”
“Aphorisms: It’s all about balance. You start talking, I stop listening.”
Attorney Richard Bramowitz came up to the lectern with a wheeled briefcase and pulled out three binders of a detailed brief of a family’s furnishings he said Daniel wrote when she was an attorney.
Holcomb said that she always thought firm direction was an expression of love, and therefore that Daniel really loved her. This notion was dispelled when she found out Daniel treated everyone as firm and as ruthless as she treated her, she joked.
It says something of Daniel that everyone who tried to roast her ended up roasting themselves—usually with her own quips. Beyond the jokes, speakers paid respect to her mentorship and command of the law.
“I always agreed with her—not always in the moment. Her rulings were right on. She had no favorites—especially not me,” Heisler said.
“The bottom line is, in March of 2020 we lost a fabulous court commissioner,” Bowler said.
“I wanted to be a bench officer because of Commissioner Daniel,” Aruno said.
“She was on time. She was prepared. She always kept you on your toes. She knew your case better than you knew your case,” Bonanno said.
“I’ve been in family law a long time. Any time I had a question, I went to Deby,” said Judge Mike Gassner.
Daniel started by thanking her family and friends for being present.
Daniel’s last case was an adoption case, a type of case she was very happy to end her career on, she said.
“I came out (of the courtroom) crying. For 21 years I presided over the end of families. To leave bringing a family together is the best I could have had,” Daniel said.
“I love being retired,” she later said, adding that she’s since taken up archery.
She ended by saying that she thought the roast was wonderful, and that she had no issue with any of the roasters.
Between each speaker, Holcomb held trivia contests regarding Daniel:
Q: How many skydives has Daniel done?
Q: How many continents has Daniel visited?
A: All seven continents
Q: How many states have Daniel visited since her retirement?
Those that won were treated to prizes such as Dallas Cowboys-themed Crown Royal and a marshmallow roasting kit.
Daniel was the sixth child of two Marines—a position she joked encouraged her not to have children of her own. Her family settled in Redlands in 1969. She studied biology at California State University, San Bernardino, before becoming interested in the college’s criminal justice degree. She graduated in criminal justice in 1976. Daniel was invited to attend Harvard Law School and turned them down for University of Southern California, Gassner said.
She joined the bar in 1976, and joined the law firm Hardy & Daniel in 1979 before opening her own practice in 1991. She was appointed a superior court commissioner in 1999. Commissioners are appointed by judges, and handle similar tasks to judges, although they can only preside over trials at the consent of both parties. She presided in traffic court, dependency court, felony arraignments, small claims and other courts, but focused on family law.
Daniel served as president of the California Young Lawyers Association in 1990, secretary/treasurer for the State Bar of California’s Family Law Section Executive Committee in 1994, president of the San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1991, president of the Inland Counties Women At Law in 1985 and as a representative board member for the Inland Counties Legal Services in 1985.
She has also joined the American Inns of Court, San Bernardino Chapter, California Women Lawyers, Criminal Courts Bar Association of San Bernardino County and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
She was an alternate athlete in the United States’ National Women’s Paraski Team in 1993, and was a judge at Australia’s World Skydiving Championships in 1999 and the International Olympic Committee’s World Games in Akita, Japan. She’s racked up 1,500 skydives, and is a member of women’s golf leagues. She shoots trap, skeet and sporting clays, and hunts birds and wild hogs. Once, she wrestled with an alligator; the photo of her doing so sat on her desk.
Daniel’s lifelong Redlands High School friend Mary Mooney thanked Daniel for always pushing her, then recited a poem she wrote for the occasion:
“There once was a girl who named Deby
Who spelled her name with a ‘y’
Ever since I met her in high school
She has always had stars in her eyes
From Cal State San Bernardino
to law school and USC
She passed the bar the first time
A lawyer she was meant to be
From her days in court with Sean Hardy
To a practice all of her own
She excelled at serving her clients
And her name became very well known
She decided to change her career path
And so onto the bench she went
As Commissioner Daniel we knew her
Until her time with the law was spent
Now we are here to honor and celebrate
Our colleague and friend
So here’s to you, Deby Daniel,
May your story with us never end.”