April Van Dyke, attorney and candidate for Humboldt County Superior Court Judge. | Image via campaign website.


Two weeks ago, when the California Commission on Judicial Performance announced that it has begun a formal investigation into 19 allegations of misconduct concerning incumbent Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Gregory Kreis, it upended our local judicial primary election, almost instantly transforming Stockton transplant April Van Dyke from a long-shot challenger into a genuine contender, if not the frontrunner.

When Deputy District Attorney Jessica Watson launched a late write-in campaign a week later, it added yet another twist to what has quickly become the most dramatic local race of the season.

While Van Dyke and other local candidates have been answering reader questions over on our LoCO Elections page, we wanted to have a conversation to learn more about her background, her motivations and her campaign for the judicial bench.

In a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon, Van Dyke said she grew up in Napa, living much of her youth in a trailer with her mom (a schoolteacher), stepdad (a mechanic) and older sister. 

Asked what motivated her to pursue law, she recounted a question she posed to her stepfather when she was about 10 years old. 

“I said, ‘Hey, what kind of job could I do where I argue for a living?’” she said.

But there was a deeper impulse, too. 

“I have always felt a great sense of wanting to help people and make the world a better place, and if I have the ability to use my skills to help people, then I’m going to do it,” Van Dyke said. “And so I went to law school with that in mind, and I have represented people who couldn’t afford attorneys my entire career.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from the U.C. Berkeley and her law degree from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Van Dyke opened her own law office in Stockton and began working as a contract attorney for the County of San Joaquin, representing indigent clients for the Public Defender’s Office.

“I was able to build my practice on those contracts,” she said.

Eventually, the San Joaquin County Public Defender’s Office recruited Van Dyke as an employee, and she worked as a deputy public defender from March of 2015 to April of 2019.

Unfortunately, her tenure in that position was marred by a campaign of harassment from her coworkers over her sexual orientation, according to a 2019 lawsuit she filed against the San Joaquin Public Defender’s Office. The complaint, which was last amended in 2021, says a clique of colleagues repeatedly referred to Van Dyke’s sex life in vulgar and homophobic terms, and management failed to adequately address her complaints.

The suit also alleges that some of these same abusive coworkers belittled a transgendered client in Van Dyke’s presence, which added to her growing fear and anxiety. She started suffering “severe emotional distress” and panic attacks. In 2018, Van Dyke was diagnosed with a work-related stress and panic disorder.

According to the complaint, she experienced weight loss, nausea, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, headaches, neck aches, fatigue, dizziness and nervousness, yet she was still “able to perform the essential functions of her position with reasonable accommodation.”

The San Joaquin Public Defender’s Office filed several demurrer motions, hoping to get the suit dismissed, but those motions were denied. The case is now at the settlement stage, and Van Dyke said she’s looking forward to putting it behind her.

Asked if she still suffers from anxiety, Van Dyke said, “I think that anyone who’s experienced sexual harassment knows it takes a while to heal from that.” She said she’s on her own “journey of healing” but is doing “really well.”

After leaving the San Joaquin Public Defender’s Office, Van Dyke got a job with the Humboldt County Office of Conflict Counsel and moved with her three kids to this region she calls “super-Northern California.”

“I love it here, with the rivers and the redwoods and the rain – I really do enjoy the rain,” she said. “It was just such a pleasure to come and work for [Supervising Attorney] Meagan [O’Connell]. … It’s just home here now. My kids love their school. They have so much support from their teachers and it’s just it’s just a wonderful, magical place here.”

During Van Dyke’s campaign kickoff speech she repeatedly employed the phrase, “I am not an insider.” Asked why that’s an asset for an attorney and potential judge she replied, “I think it’s important to be a person who can empathize with other people and their everyday experiences.”

She also said she would bring common sense and humility to the bench. 

Her campaign speeches and website also emphasize the importance of working toward equal justice under the law within a system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color

“Ever since I was young I had a strong sense of empathy and a strong sense of justice and wanting everyone to be treated equally no matter their station in life,” she said. When she began practicing law, she was shocked by the racial disparity among people who are charged with and convicted of crimes.

She’s seen that disparity locally, too. Black people in Humboldt County are charged at three times the rate of white people while the local Native population is four times more likely to receive a life sentence, she said.

She recounted one case wherein her client, who was Native and Black, was offered a life sentence in a plea deal while his two co-defendants – both white – were offered determinant, or fixed-term, sentences.

“I was the first attorney [in Humboldt County] to run a motion under the Racial Justice Act,” Van Dyke said. That motion eventually allowed her to collect data from California prisons, including what deals defendants from Humboldt County were offered, what sentences they ultimately received and their racial makeup, which is how she learned about the disparities here.

“I don’t think that it can be ignored, and it needs to be addressed and spoken about,” she said.

In a lengthy reply to a reader question about ensuring impartiality and integrity in the local judicial system, Van Dyke addressed this imbalance and called out Kreis, noting that the Court of Appeals recently reversed one of his decisions over his failure to address potential discrimination in the jury selection process.

She has also responded to concerns about her “newcomer” residency status and the lawsuit against her former employer. On Tuesday she published a video to her Instagram page addressing some mean-spirited speculation about the partial facial paralysis she has had since childhood.

Asked how she feels about Watson’s write-in campaign, Van Dyke said she finds it “kind of interesting” considering that she’s mentioned in the Commission on Judicial Performance’s Notice of Formal Proceedings against Kreis. (The document says Watson raised conflict-of-interest concerns in a restraining order case in which Kreis allegedly failed to disclose his friendship or social relationship with attorneys involved. “You [Kreis] did not recuse yourself until DDA Watson said that her office was not comfortable with you handling the case,” the notice says.)

“But this is the democratic process and everyone can run if they like,” Van Dyke added in reference to Watson’s candidacy. “I don’t always agree with her but, you know, she has the right to run in this, what’s turned out to be a very interesting election.”

Asked if she had anything else she wants voters to know at this stage of the campaign, Van Dyke said, “I just really want to be able to make a positive impact on Humboldt County. I want there to be a dedicated mental health court here. I want to create a courtroom as an environment that’s welcoming to everyone. And I just have a dedication to the law and justice.”