Throughout this election season, The Recorder is giving judicial candidates in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties an opportunity to speak to our readers in their own voices.
Last week The Recorder sat down with each of the four candidates for Contra Costa County Superior Court: Malcolm Sher, Cheryl Mills, Joel Golub and Stacey Grassini. Today we present excerpts of the interview with Mills, of Walnut Creek’s Mills & Larson.
Recorder: Why should the voters choose you?
Mills: I decided to run in this race because I did think that I had the qualifications that the bench needs at this time.
The Contra Costa County bench is in a pretty exciting stage right now. The Judicial Council has really got down to business and figured out a three-year plan and a five-year plan. We have quite a few issues facing the court. We also have a court right now that we have lost seven of our judges over the last 10 years [to the court of appeal], which is sort of our core middle. So we have quite a few judges maybe heading toward the retirement end, and we have quite a few people on the bench that have very little experience. The core is gone.
So I see my candidacy as filling that slot. I’ve had 20 years of experience in civil practice. We need civil judges on the bench, I firmly believe that. And I can come in, hit the ground running on the caseload, but also hopefully give something to this bench on the business side. The courts these days in California, they are a business as much as being a judicial institution, and we’ve got some very serious issues.
We have a facilities issue, such as out in East County. Our facility in East County is a disgrace and it needs to be changed. We’ve got inmates sitting in buses out in the parking lot because there is no holding cell. When they’re called for their proceeding they parade on in. You can’t do that. There was a methadone clinic in the building, which has now been removed, which has made it a little bit safer, but it was extremely unsafe for quite a while.
We also have a growing county. We do need to decentralize and [improve] access to the courts. Not just Martinez — Martinez is almost impossible to get to on public transportation.
We also face a huge issue on just languages and access to the court. Within California on any given day there’s 100 different languages spoken in the courts. That’s a lot. We need to be able to meet that challenge. …
Recorder: Can you explain a little more about how your experience will help address those problems?
Mills: As far as on the business side, my practice right now is not only litigating cases, but I manage a lot. I manage about 26,000 cases across the country on behalf of one of my clients, which includes overseeing and managing lawyers in 23 states.
Recorder: Does that mean a class action?
Mills: It’s not a class action. It’s a mass tort action. And unfortunately one of my clients had the misfortune of having owned a company back in the ’60s and ’70s that made an asbestos-containing product. And as there are fewer and fewer defendants available, the smaller companies are being sued. …
And that’s pretty hands-on. When I say I manage it, I do. I’m on the phone at 6:30-7 in the morning in my office, talking with my East Coast people, and it progresses across the country. And I do authorize settlements, I authorize block deals, I authorize going to trial. We talk about what motions to be filed, where the discovery is, preparing witnesses, the whole gamut. And having done that now for several years, I think I’ve learned a lot about how to manage people and manage large numbers of cases, and how to effectively do it. And a lot of that learning obviously is making mistakes, but it works pretty well now.
The 20 years in civil practice … the part that other lawyers would understand the most that I feel I bring to the bench, is that if I have two experienced trial lawyers in front of me, and you’re trying to deal with a case to resolve it efficiently or narrow the issues, I would hope they would look at me and say, she’s been there, she’s done it, she’s one of our peers, and we’ll listen. …
Recorder: How would you handle areas that are less familiar to you? Say you were assigned to a criminal court. …
Mills: The criminal side, I actually have lived with a criminal law expert, my husband [Superior Court Judge Bruce Mills] and he’s been doing that since 1986. When you put two lawyers in a room, obviously a lot of our conversations have to do with criminal law. … When he was a district attorney, we used to talk a lot about the cases, how to do the strategy, what to do with them, and it’s interesting. To most people out there they’ll think, “Don’t you have better things to do than to sit and talk about law?” but we do talk about our cases. I do understand the criminal calendar, I do understand how it works.
I don’t know everything about it, obviously, which is why you go in and before you would ever take that assignment you’d have to sit down and go to task, and make sure you could get up to speed with the assignment. But that’s basically what I do with all my civil cases. I do Superfund litigation, which is environmental law, you have to learn that. All the medical matters I do — if I’m dealing, for example, with a case involving a neurosurgeon, I have to learn neurosurgery at the level the experts across the country know it. Otherwise, I can’t put up my expert and I can’t cross-examine their expert. …
Recorder: Is there a judge on the Contra Costa bench that you would emulate, past or present?
Mills: Justice Michael Phelan, who’s now retired, was always a gentleman, ran his courtroom well, and tried very, very hard to always be fair. I don’t think we can expect more out of our judges than competency and fairness. I think he exemplified that.
Some of the other judges, Judge Simons, Mark Simons, I have always admired. Mark as both an academic — I should say Justice Simons — and he knows how to let the lawyers get in there and try their case. What I admired most about Justice Simons was how hard he would work to make sure he reached a right decision. That often meant a lot of overtime.
There’s one judge on the bench right now who I never appear in front of, because she’s in juvenile, but that’s Judge Lois Haight. What I love about Judge Haight is just her enthusiasm for the law and her position, and I have never heard her complain about the work. It is always a challenge she wants to take on and do something good with that department, with everything she has.
Recorder: What about these judges assured you that they’d been fair, besides that they’re ruling in your favor?
Mills: Actually not sometimes in my favor. I should add Judge [Peter] Spinetta on there, because I remember one time we had a half-hour/45-minute argument in law and motion, which is a long time. Courtroom is filled with people waiting their turn. And he ruled against me. But you knew exactly why, and that’s what I think all of these judges bring to the bench. They’re prepared. They’ve read the briefs. They know the issues. They actually have worked to see what the law is instead of just relying on someone who put in papers that misquote the law. They actually know what it is. They will have a discussion with you about those issues, and give you an opportunity to fully argue your side, and they will let you know why you’re losing.
Or why you’re winning for that matter. It doesn’t do an attorney a lot of good to win on something that just sets up an appellate issue. If you have a huge case, you don’t want to win on something that you shouldn’t, because it could be reversible error later on.
Recorder: What would you say is the most important initiative that you’ve proposed for improving the court system?
Mills: The only thing that comes to mind, which will sound somewhat trite, but it was just recent so it’s fresh on my mind. I was over in Martinez and we have two courthouses. I actually went into one of the courthouses looking for I can’t remember what judge. But they’d changed his department. And so you go through all of the metal detectors, you go through everything, you get inside, you then find out that that judge is not in that courthouse. So you go back and you go through another set.
I think our courts are confusing, and I did talk with [Presiding] Judge [Garrett] Grant and told him, “Look, if an attorney, I’m having a hard time finding the right courtroom, finding where I’m supposed to be, think of the people who are coming over here who have no idea how the system works.” And maybe just some simple signage might work.
Recorder: What do you think of the process you’re going through right now? There are some in California who advocate going to an entirely appointed system. Do you think elections are the right way to go?
Mills: I frankly think that the process we have right now that’s a combination of appointment and election works pretty well.
There are benefits and downfalls to both. With the appointment process, obviously, it becomes extremely political oftentimes. So I don’t advocate let’s just go to appointments, and make it who you know, what you’ve contributed, those sorts of issues, which often get into the appointment process.
The election process, on the other hand, does give everyone a chance, as you’ve seen in this election, to go out there, run, try to get your message to the people. On the other hand, with the election process it gets very expensive. This is not an undertaking that you can go out and reach the 500,000 voters in this county without spending money. That puts a barrier up to a lot of people.
So I think the two processes complement each other, and the fact that every six years a judge has to run again and [possibly] be challenged, does put some checks and balances on who’s on the bench. …
Recorder: Of course, a lot of judges are leaving the bench voluntarily to do private dispute resolution. A judge from this bench is sort of one of the leaders of the movement.
Mills: Judge [Coleman] Fannin.
Recorder: Right. What are your feelings about that system and is there anything that can be done to try to discourage the brain drain that some people see?
Mills: Private dispute resolution has a good place in the whole scheme of civil litigation. It serves a good purpose. I’m glad it’s there. I use it often. …
If you have a civil case, especially one worth a lot of money, it’s one of the most efficient ways to go. And the reason it is is because it is difficult these days to find someone on the bench with civil experience that you can actually go to, do a lengthy mediation settlement process, and resolve it.
So what has been happening is some of our best civil judges have left to go ahead and have the freedom to be able to handle just complex cases. I do perceive at a level it is a brain drain, and that does concern me as a litigator, because we want to have our good judges on the bench. Hopefully that will start to change around some. …
Recorder: Any concern about fairness issues?
Mills: I haven’t had a lot of problems with fairness issues with ADR. …
Recorder: You mentioned your husband before. If someone who was voting in this race had concerns about spouses being on the superior court bench, what would you say to them to allay it?
Mills: First of all, if both of us were on the Contra Costa Superior Court bench, we don’t work together as you know. Every judge has their own courtroom and they run their own courtroom. And I think I would add, and I don’t mean to be flippant, what are the concerns? It would be difficult for me to imagine where a problem arises.
Recorder: Maybe in the context of internal court politics.
Mills: Oh, my goodness. I am such a non-political person. So, seriously, the court politics would be something I would not be involved in. My husband is definitely someone who is not involved in court politics. I don’t know how that would have an impact. …
I kind of turned that back [on you] because I was asked that by someone else once and I was just, like, what?