Former ASI President Serves Justice Atop Local Attorney General’s Office
By Brian Hiro
There was a time when Charles Ragland seemed destined to pursue a career in politics, and his tenure as student body president at Cal State San Marcos in the mid-1990s was just the tip of the iceberg.
Ragland served as class president at El Camino High in Oceanside as a senior and a junior, and he also was selected by his history teacher to attend an American government seminar in Washington, D.C. At CSUSM, not only did he major in political science, but one of the ways he connected with the administration was through chats about politics with Bill Stacy, the university’s first president.
And when Ragland chose to attend the University of Texas School of Law, it was with political – not legal – aspirations in mind. Austin, after all, is the home of the presidential library and museum of Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ragland had devoured multiple biographies of LBJ as a student.
Two developments changed his life course, and are the reason why today Ragland is one of the foremost attorneys in San Diego – as well as one of CSUSM’s most decorated alumni. The first was the Monica Lewinsky scandal that roiled the nation in the late ’90s and caused Ragland to grow disillusioned about politics as a noble calling.
“It all just seemed really dumb, to be quite honest,” he said.
The second was his introduction to moot court, a law school staple that simulates the experience of arguing a case at the appellate, rather than trial, level. During his second year, as a visiting student at the University of San Diego’s law school, he won first place in a big moot court competition and was named best oralist to boot.
Ragland had caught the bug. Goodbye, politics. Hello, law.
About 25 years later, he’s in a position to combine the skills he first honed in moot court with the leadership he would have employed as a politician, and that he displayed as president of Associated Students, Inc., during the 1995-96 school year. Ragland last year was appointed senior assistant attorney general, overseeing the Appeals, Writs and Trials section of the Criminal Law Division of the California Attorney General’s Office in San Diego. The office covers six counties in Southern California, and he supervises about 70 lawyers who essentially act as prosecutors for the state.
“There’s a leadership component that is a much bigger part of the job because I’m leading the entire section in San Diego rather than one team,” said Ragland, who was a supervising deputy attorney general for nine years before his promotion in February 2022. “That’s something that I've enjoyed a lot. It harkens back to my days as ASI president at Cal State San Marcos. A lot of those skills you just carry with you. The big part is having good relationships with people and making sure each person in the office feels valued, appreciated, respected and supported.”
One of Ragland’s longtime colleagues describes a “subtle but profound cultural shift” that has occurred in the 20 months since he rose to his new post.
“He has energized and motivated the attorneys and created an environment where everyone can thrive,” said Melissa Mandel, one of the 10 supervising deputy attorney generals under Ragland’s direction. “I would describe his style as holistic, inclusive and integrated. … Charles is a great leader, and I am proud and honored to work for him.”
Ragland acknowledges that leadership is something that always has come naturally to him. Born on Camp Pendleton as the son of a Marine, he grew up in Oceanside and became the first person in his family to attend college.
He started at CSUSM in the fall of 1994 when the university still only accepted transfer students (he came over from MiraCosta College). Like most classmates of the era, he assumed that his experience would be a two-year sprint to graduation with little in the way of campus activity. But he discovered fraternity life during his first year, and that proved to be a smooth segue into student government.
Through multiple social circles – rival fraternities, political science classes and ASI – Ragland became friends with George Marquez, who also went on to become a lawyer and is now the district attorney for Imperial County.
“Charles was someone who was very focused and had tremendous talent,” Marquez said. “I knew he was going to be successful back then because I observed him become a successful leader as the president of ASI. He was naturally intelligent and hard-working. I am not at all surprised by his success, and I expect more.”
As the head of the student body during a formative year for the still-young university, Ragland was at the forefront of some foundational accomplishments. Seeking to improve student life at what was widely regarded as a commuter school, he and his fellow leaders introduced intramural sports. They also brought back the student newspaper (which had folded before he became president) and initiated the funding that precipitated the building of the Center for Children and Families years later.
“We were doing really big things to establish the university because it was so new,” Ragland said. “It was all exciting and important stuff.”
After graduating from CSUSM, Ragland moved on to law school in Austin, where he excelled. He returned to San Diego, passed the bar exam and set about achieving his goal of working in the attorney general’s office, where he had served as a law clerk the previous summer. A hiring freeze delayed his ambition before he was hired in March 2001. He has never left.
On his way to becoming a supervisor, Ragland mostly did trial and appellate work for the state, and a highlight from that era was his lead prosecution in Operation Gangland, a gang case that involved an investigation with multiple federal and state agencies and ultimately netted the convictions of 31 members of a gang conspiracy. For his work on that case, which took three years, he received an award as the state’s top prosecutor for 2008 from then-Attorney General (and twice former California governor) Jerry Brown. (That same year, Ragland married his wife, Christy; the couple has four adult children and lives in San Diego.)
As his career has progressed, Ragland has shifted to overseeing cases – making sure his attorneys have the support they need – rather than handling them directly. The appeal of his profession, however, remains the same.
“The thing I like the most about the work I do, and it’s been this way since I started back in 2001, is that the mission in our office is to see that justice is done in a case,” he said. “Waking up where your job is in the Department of Justice, it’s a rewarding feeling. You know that you’re doing something good.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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