This article is reprinted with permission from The Recorder. Original Article
Risë Jones Pichon, a 30-year veteran of the Santa Clara bench, became presiding judge at the beginning of this year. Pichon has been a superior court judge since 1998 and previously served on the municipal court. Over email, she discussed adjusting to her new administrative role, breaking barriers as a minority woman, and responding to the fiscal challenges facing California courts.
What is the biggest challenge you've faced in your new role over the past six months? Time. There is not enough of it, and it seems to be flying by. The position of presiding judge requires attendance at many meetings, some of which are scheduled for the same time period.
There are also general administrative duties which include resolving personnel issues, budget crises, responding to emergency calls from reporters, and then there are always the unexpected events (which turn out to be the norm). I find satisfaction in the challenge of getting the most done within the confines of a day.
So far what has been your biggest accomplishment? With our budget shortfall of $8 million at the beginning of this fiscal year, our judicial officers have been called upon to make some very difficult decisions regarding ways to close the budget gap. I am very proud of how we have come together as a court and are working collaboratively to address these incredible challenges. I take pride in my role leading this wonderful bench and its court as we navigate these unfortunate circumstances.
As you know, some of the decisions involved the closure of some courtrooms and consolidation of calendars. The steps we take must be done carefully and thoughtfully because access to justice is our primary concern. To this end, the Calendar Committee, consisting of judicial officers and staff, has been created to ensure that the changes we make are consistent with our responsibility to the public and are done in an orderly fashion. The charge of this committee also includes an analysis of our workload, to search for efficiencies in the way we do our work, and to examine the division of labor to ensure an equitable distribution of cases.
Although credit goes to the hard work of my colleagues, our court has successfully implemented a process to comply with the mandates of Proposition 47, and we have established a new mental health calendar to address the unique issues facing our community in this area.
What do you hope to change or improve while you are presiding judge? Studies show that our case filings are down in most, but not all divisions of our court. However, the size and number of calendars do not necessarily reflect the reduction in filings.
Different divisions of our court have become disproportionately impacted by these changes, and a more equitable distribution of work is called for. This is one of my goals; not only the equitable distribution of the work, but also to address output and the most efficient way to process our cases which in some cases means doing work differently.
The changes include streamlining the processing of cases, finding ways to equitably distribute the work and reduce inventory. I am working toward achieving this goal.
What does it mean to you to be Santa Clara County's first minority presiding judge? I received a great deal of encouragement from my colleagues to submit my name for consideration as presiding judge. Even though this is a position I really wanted, I would not have expressed interest without this support. I am truly honored to serve as presiding judge of one of the most respected trial courts in the state.
However, being a first comes with a unique set of responsibilities. These include an obligation to make the path a little easier for the next person to follow, and the recognition that others may be judged based on my performance. I hope that I can be an inspiration to others to follow their dreams and to have the courage to set goals and take the risks necessary to achieve them, even though the future is not guaranteed.
There has to be a first in order for there to be a second and so on until we reach that point when it is not surprising or unusual for people outside of the court to see me or any other person of color in this position. I am proud to be a source of encouragement and support for minorities and anyone else who might benefit from what I can offer. To that end, I do enthusiastically respond to requests to meet and speak to students of all ages and at all levels as well as young attorneys. I received tremendous support to get here, and I am committed to doing the same for others.
How are the California courts different now than when you joined the bench 30 years ago? There has been a noticeable shift in the way judicial officers view their roles. They see themselves in the traditional sense as guardians of justice and fairness. Over the years, judicial officers have expanded their roles to include treatment of the individual and to the extent possible, providing litigants with the tools to successfully reintegrate into society. Collaborative courts are pretty much the norm now. This was not so 30 years ago. Judicial officers see themselves as public servants charged with the responsibility of making our community safer. In the past, this was achieved primarily by the removal of individuals from society if circumstances called for it. That responsibility has expanded to include consideration of the needs of the individual for rehabilitation and future productivity in addition to what is beneficial for the community.
Have lawyers' litigation styles evolved? I have noticed less of concern regarding the record being created during trial. Unnecessary remarks, tangential arguments, thinking out loud, and responding to the objections of the other, all set the stage for unanticipated issues for a successful appeal.
What was the most challenging case you've had to preside over? I cannot present the specifics of the case, but it involves a trial where the facts did not develop as intended. The client recognized this and begged the attorney to settle. The attorney not only refused to even consider the wishes of the client, but also failed to consider the downward spiral of the state of the evidence even after the court weighed in, suggesting that a discussion with opposing counsel might be fruitful. In the end, I took a deep breath and allowed the attorney to present his case the way he felt best. I performed my duties, applying the law to the facts; neither of these supported the theories of the case. It was an unnecessary and unfortunate loss for the client.
What is the biggest problem facing the California court system? Finances. The Judicial Council developed a plan at the urging of the governor to equitably distribute funding to the courts throughout the state. With adequate funding, the plan, referred to as the Workload-based Allocation and Funding Methodology, could have worked for all. Instead it has caused some courts to lose funding, placing them in the position of instituting severe cost-saving measures. Without the necessary funds, courts such as ours will be forced continue to institute drastic measures to make ends meet, which unfortunately, will negatively impact the court's overarching goal of access to justice.
What are your thoughts on e-filing? Santa Clara's complex litigation dockets are now available online, but the general filings are not. Do you have any plans to make everything available online? Our court is in the process of acquiring a new case management system which will enable us to expand the use of e-filing. For noncriminal cases, the new system, called Odyssey, should become operational sometime in December of this year. This is the target date. This new system will allow us to implement e-filing which is our plan.