San Francisco Attorney Magazine

Winter 2022

How to Become a Superior Court Judge

KGWoods headshot 2021_pp

Kathleen Guthrie Woods
Woods is a long-time contributor to San Francisco Attorney magazine. Previous articles include “In It to Win It” celebrating the Women’s Impact Network (Spring 2019) and “Let’s Lose the Booze” (Summer 2018).

Most judges, when asked why they sought a place on the judicial bench, will open by telling you they felt a calling. To serve. To represent. To be part of the movement toward positive change in our judicial system. They carry the title “Your Honor” with pride and humility, a seeming contradiction that makes sense when you understand what it takes to become a judge and the realities of the job.

Perhaps this is your ultimate personal and professional goal.

To be eligible to become a superior court judge in California, you must have been a member, in good standing, of the State Bar for at least 10 years immediately preceding selection. [Cal. Const., Art. VI, section 15 (2007).]* Next, you must decide if you’re going to apply to the governor’s office to be appointed or if you will run in a general election. Both pathways are labor-intensive and complex, so what can you do to be successful in your quest and be successful when you take your seat on the bench?

Tackling the Judicial Appointment Application

Completing the application is a time-consuming project, one that involves writing multiple essays on why you want to be a judge and providing details on your entire professional history. (Get information and instructions for completing a Judicial Appointment Application here.) “It’s not something you can do over a weekend,” says Judge Teresa Caffese, who was appointed in 2017.

In regards to personal background, you’ll be asked to share what in your life has led to where you are and why you are interested in a judicial appointment. It’s not a test; there are no right or wrong answers. “We look for broad life experiences: humility, empathy, and the ability to relate to others from all backgrounds,” says Luis Céspedes and Debbie Cun, Office of Governor Gavin Newsom’s Judicial Appointments Secretary and Deputy. The information you provide will help the governor (or voters) determine if you’ll be a good fit for the community you’re going to serve.

The governor’s office receives 300 to 500 judicial applications every year, and 91 judges were appointed in 2021. Candidates who stand out demonstrate they have the experience and qualities the governor is seeking. “The governor wants a diverse bench—color, different genders, sexual orientations—people who have lived their lives, whatever that experience may be,” says Betsy Wolkin, an attorney and BASF’s administrator for the Criminal Conflicts Panel who sits on the Judicial Selection Advisory Committee (JSAC, pronounced “J-sack”). “We want someone with a lot of integrity, who plays well with others,” she says. They must be humble, which seems contradictory for such a lofty role. “One person said ‘the bench would be better if I’m on it,’” says Judge Eric Fleming, who also serves on JSAC. While it might be true that you’ve worked hard and achieved success, “you haven’t gotten here on your own,” he says. “Instead, you might say ‘If I’m lucky to get on the bench, here’s what I can provide.’ What needs to come across is you will have good demeanor on the bench.”

These qualities can be communicated by your references, so choose wisely. “Make sure they are people who really know you—professionally and personally—who know your demeanor as a lawyer and as a person,” says Judge Christopher Hite. Vetters will also consider what your adversaries say about you. “Are you professional? Do you get along with others? It goes to temperament,” he says. “Be really honest and don’t try to whitewash something,” says Wolkin. For example, if there have been complaints about you to the State Bar and the issues were resolved, don’t leave it out. “Air it,” she says. “Integrity is a critical component of the selection process.”

While you’re lining up those references, make sure you also confirm current contact information for them. This is an avoidable mistake applicants frequently make. Not answering the “call of the question” is another common mistake Céspedes and Cun see regularly. “We encourage candidates to read the questions carefully, think about why [these specific questions] are asked, and then provide an appropriate and succinct response.”

Ask a couple of trusted advisers, perhaps a judge you respect, to review your application to make sure you’ve fully represented your professional experience, your personal attributes, as well as your community service. Finally, “proofread, proofread, then proofread again,” says Judge Fleming. “You’re going to get a typo.” (He found one on his.)

If You Decide to Run for Election

Before you think you can dodge that massive effort of completing an application by running for an open seat, keep in mind it also serves as a tool to help you to articulate your answers when you’re being vetted by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation of the State Bar of California (JNE, pronounced “jenny”), JSAC, or any group from which you’re seeking an endorsement. (Meanwhile, contact the San Francisco Department of Elections for information on upcoming elections, and check out their “Candidates Guide for Superior Court Judge” to get a sense of what you’ll need to prepare for a campaign.)

Getting endorsements from local political organizations is a major part of running, and this brings up unique challenges for candidates for judges. “It is uncomfortable,” says Judge Carolyn Gold, who was elected in 2020. “It’s a political process, but you can’t state your opinions.” The Canons of the Code of Judicial Ethics that apply to judges apply immediately to candidates. “You’re likely to have opinions on the death penalty, rent control, but you need to be impartial as a judge,” says Judge Daniel Flores, who was elected in 2014. “All you can say is ‘I’m a fair person, I have good judgement,’” says Judge Gold, who focused on her work with clients who were homeless or had mental health issues, demonstrating she could bring a new perspective and compassion to the bench.

“People will want to know why they should trust you to serve, specifically in San Francisco,” says Judge Flores. “Your connections to San Francisco—and what you have done for your community—are critical.” They want to know, “Do you walk the talk?”

Set Yourself Apart with a Demonstrated Commitment to Public Service

“The governor’s office does not want to see your public service commitment begin the moment you hit the ‘submit’ button,” says Judge Russ Roeca, who served as BASF’s president before he was appointed to the bench in 2020. Vetters, endorsers, and voters will also see through insincere efforts, so seek opportunities to get active now. Your résumé might include government service at the local, state, or federal level. You might serve on a board or committee at a bar association or professional organization. You might give your time and talents to community projects. “The latter should not simply be a list of organizations of which you are a passive member, but reflect active engagement and even leadership positions,” says Céspedes and Cun. “Ties to the community are important,” says Wolkin, “because you’ll be serving the community.”

Life balance is also important. “We understand that some candidates have less bar or community activity due to childcare or family care responsibilities,” says Céspedes and Cun, “and we take that into account.”  

Develop Your Professional Skills and Experience

 “You want to have a diverse résumé [with both civil and criminal litigation experience, for example], but if you don’t, it won’t kill you,” says Judge Hite. If you have primarily transactional law experience, you might gain experience by serving as a pro tem in Traffic Court, volunteering for the bar association’s free clinics, seeking opportunities to arbitrate, or listening to cases in Community Justice Court.

Or simply go to court and observe judges in action. Pay attention to the process, the judge’s role, and how judges manage their courtrooms, the proceedings, and the strong personalities who appear before them. Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos encourages future judges to develop and foster emotional intelligence. “You need to learn to really listen, to negotiate and explain,” she says.

You’ll see that leadership and management—of people and time—are two of the most critical skills judges need to have honed prior to running a courtroom. “You have attorneys, their clients, and court staff,” says Judge Anne-Christine Massullo, who takes on the additional responsibilities of presiding judge in January 2023. “You must be able to multitask as well as understand your role as a judge.”

If your job doesn’t provide you with opportunities to lead and manage groups, seek opportunities in organizations like BASF. “You can gain natural leadership through experience through participation on boards,” says Yolanda Jackson, Executive Director of BASF and JDC. BASF’s Litigation Section, for example, has 500 members and a large executive committee, and many sections have boards with 25 or more members. Working with them to plan events, you’ll have opportunities for relationship management and getting people on the same page regarding priorities. “You have to make tough decisions on a board, what’s going to get funded, what’s not going to get funded,” says Judge Roeca. “We’re rich with places where people can donate time and energy and gain experience,” he adds, including groups closer to home, such as the PTA and church boards.

Utilize Networking for Mentors and References

Another bonus of being active in an organization is the opportunity for networking. “Our sections put on events, and judges come to these events,” says Jackson. “We bring experts to share their experience,” says Raquel Cabading, BASF’s Director of Continuing Legal Education Department, pointing to the many benefits that come through CLEs and programming. At roundtable discussions with 20 to 30 attendees, “there’s a wealth of information as judges share the positive and pain points in their courtrooms,” Cabading says. “So many people are willing to share their stories, and they want people to succeed.”

Judge Bolanos encourages young lawyers to join a couple of bar associations and “don’t just attend the annual dinner.” She’s found the large events can be intimidating and favors smaller events, often held around a conference table. “There’s limited attendance, panels are more relaxed,” she says. “I felt [attendees] shared more, and this gave me an opportunity to talk with them.”

When meeting a judge, take the initiative, she says. “Ask a softball question, something easy for a judge to answer. Come up with a good opening line so the judge is able to respond without having to think about it; this opens up a conversation.” You might ask for advice, something like, “I’m scheduled for trial—what do you think is the most important thing for me to prepare?”

Then follow up. “If you hear ‘stay in touch,’’” Judge Bolanos says, “do it; very few do.” You might send an email with an update on your career or invite them for coffee. “This prompts continued interaction, and prompts the person to reciprocate,” she says.

Over time, and with the right nurturing, those connections can develop into mentors, references, and/or endorsements.

The Bench is Calling

Our governor is committed to appointing judges who meet his values, to ensure California’s judiciary reflects the people it serves. “These are important courts, we are doing important work,” says Julie Traun, BASF’s Director of Court Programs. “Judge Donna Hitchens said to me many years ago,” she says, “(we need) someone who is going to work hard and contribute, who cares about our court and the future of our court.” Wolkin adds, “We really need brave, honest, thoughtful judges right now.”

Maybe today is the day you answer the call.


*See “Judicial Selection: How California Chooses Its Judges and Justices,” from the Judicial Council of California, for more details, including information on the selection process for State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Justices.

 Learn more about the process for becoming a judge by watching “Bay Area Regional Justice Mentor Program: Demystifying the Judicial Appointments Process.” Featuring Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Judicial Appointments Secretary Luis Céspedes, Judge Andrew Steckler, Judge Nahal Iravain-Sani, Judge Russ Roeca, and Former BASF President Marvin Anderson, this recording of a webinar (1:09 runtime) covers some of the qualifications and qualities the governor seeks in applicants, tips on how to best present yourself, as well and information about a local mentoring program. It’s available for free on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcr5TVWe8O0.

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