Q: You are one of the masterminds behind the very first Middle School Education Court in the country. What was your motivation for launching this court?
A: The motivation stemmed from seeing so many children that, especially in middle school, … [at] crossroads where they will either go on and succeed in high school or drop out. And the statistics I saw at that time were terrible. We had less than 50 percent of [foster] children graduate from high school. Right around 2 percent of them went on to college even though there was federal funding for them to go to college.
I could see in their grades, because initially, when I started doing dependency cases, when I looked at the reports there was very little information on how the children were doing in school. Maybe I would get a paragraph, at the most, as to whether they were going to school or were not. And I wanted to change that because I felt that my job was [to] stand in the shoes of the parents. I needed to know more about how they were doing in school. Were they absent? Where they late? How were they doing with their homework? Was anybody supervising when they were in school or were they in any after-school programs? None of that information, hardly ever, made it into the reports. And very few of the children who were dependents of the court came to court. I saw a real need to learn more about how children were doing in their education because I know, for me, that was a life-changing experience.
I was a high school dropout, and I know but for going back to school, getting my high school diploma, and going on to college, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am right now. So it was a real inspiration for me to see the need and then work with a team of partners all toward the same goal. It was a labor of love because it took some time and some convincing to get people to get on board, but I had a lot of help, a lot of dedication from other agencies.
Q: Can you talk a bit about this collaborative process? What agencies are involved and what kind of services do they give to the children?
A: I would say initially, the primary organization that I know many times lifted me when I was feeling down — thinking the education court would never get off the ground — was the Children’s Fund. And the Children’s Fund also provided us with money that [enabled] us to do some of the things for which we had no funding. I was basically looking to implement in the schools where no funds were provided. Well, the Children’s Fund was able, for example, to pay for the assessors that were gathering all the information — all the school records, interviews with the teachers — giving me an assessment “this is where this child is and this is where they need to be before they enter high school in order to succeed.” Those assessments were done by specialists, so we needed funding to pay for them. The Children’s Fund was very instrumental in guiding us through that and providing funding. They deserve a lot of credit.
Q: What do you like best about being a judge?
A: That the profession is always challenging. You don’t get bored. There’s so much opportunity for a variety of assignments. I started with misdemeanor criminal cases. Then I did drug court. I did domestic violence. I did civil, limited jurisdiction. I did the landlord/tenant, all having to do with evictions. Then I did dependency with abused and neglected children. Now I’m doing felony trials.
I love this assignment. This is the assignment I was waiting for. I really enjoy interacting with the public and this gives me the opportunity to interact with the public. The courtroom drama, I think it’s really exciting. Plus, the attorneys at this level are very experienced, very skilled, just a real pleasure to work with.
Q: You must have some good tips for voir dire, would you share them?
A: What I do is, I collect questions by categories. So that if it’s a sexual assault case, I have a list. Whether it be a robbery [or] a burglary, I just keep adding to that list. But I always invite attorneys to provide their own questions. They send them to me. I look them over, check for duplicates, and then come up with a list. But I am very inclusive of what the attorneys would like to see asked.
If I’m inclusive, it cuts down some time — even though I think that’s the number one complaint of jurors, that it takes a long time to select a jury — but it’s very important for both the people and the defendant, that there was this vetting of the jurors. And so, by being inclusive, it’s a win-win in that I get to cover their questions, and when it’s their time to voir dire the jury, they don’t spend much time going over questions I already asked.
Q: Do you have any standing orders for attorneys?
A: I tell them that the one rule that I have is, don’t get personal with each other. We are going to see this case through. All I ask is that you not direct any harsh, comments, words [toward each other]. I tell them, “Hey, throw hard punches, just not foul ones.” And I understand. Everyone is invested in their trial and I remember as a lawyer, I was passionate about the cases I tried. That’s just the way I am.
Sometimes I would admire people who were so cool, calm and collected. That was not me. So, I’m not going to not allow them to try their case. All I ask is don’t get personal. If you don’t get personal, we are going to do well. We are going to get through this trial.
Q: What happens if an attorney crosses that line?
A: What I have found is that — because it happened to me the first couple of times — if I spend time up front it lessens. In the year and a half I’ve been here, I’ve seen 16, 17 trials and other than the first couple of trials, it hasn’t happened. So it has really paid off. I bring them back here into chambers, we go over a lot of the legal stuff, but then I tell them, “This is the only rule I have, you are not to get personal.”
Other than that, I’m vigilant. I’m watching them. Watching their body language. Their interactions. [For] times when you feel you might get to that point, I try not to have set times to take breaks. It’s whenever the moment arises. That’s how I [work] with the jurors [too]. I say, “Look, just because I told you we are going to take a 15 minute break at 10:30 or 10 o’clock, if you need to use the restroom I don’t want you sitting there and counting; we are going to take a break whenever we need.” By being flexible, it’s comfortable for everybody. And they are here to do a very serious job.
Q: Do you impose time limits on arguments?
A: I usually ask them. And I find that when you empower people to make their own decisions, it’s so much easier than when you tell them, “Okay, you’ve got 30 or 45 minutes.” I ask them and they say, “Judge, maybe I need 40 minutes or maybe I need an hour.” I say, “Okay, why don’t you shoot for 45 minutes. See how we do after that.” But like I said, these are experienced attorneys. They know if they go an hour or more, they’re going to get [sleeping jurors]. Because that’s my challenge when I’m reading the instructions.
Like this trial that just finished this week. I had a lot of instructions, so sometimes I say, “Let’s get up and do a stretch.” I tell them, “Look, if I see your eyes closing I’m telling you right now, don’t feel offended, I’m going to call on you. Because I don’t know if you are thinking really hard with your eyes closed or if you’re sleeping and I can’t have you sleeping through the instructions.” I try to walk them through the process so they know what’s going to happen. I’ll say, “Now I’m going to read you the instructions that define the crime so here it is.”
I do a survey after, not about the trial itself, but about the experience. What did they think about the facilities, the staff, the judge. Some very good comments. Being the police auditor, I was always gathering data, so it’s almost habit, and I find that data gathered from the jurors very useful. Sometimes it’s something so basic, like, “Judge, the clock in the jury room doesn’t work.” I wouldn’t have known because I don’t spend time in the jury room. Some basic things, but it also tells me, well perhaps we need to start at this time, when the lines are down; maybe not shoot for 9:00, maybe go for 9:15, maybe by then it won’t be as hard for people to get here on time. So I’m always feeling the temperature of what was their experience. Hopefully it will be a positive. Hopefully they will walk away with a better opinion of our judicial system. But unless I ask, I won’t know.
Q: Knowing how impacted your schedule is, how do you find the extra time to make sure the court is still working?
A: Thank you for asking because hopefully, it’s not the opinion people have that we get off at 2:00, because the reality is, that’s not the case. We spend a lot of time doing research. Yes, we have a few research attorneys, but this is not like the appellate courts or the supreme courts. Some times I will confer [with a research attorney] or ask, “Hey do you have anything written up on this area that will cite other cases?”
I do felony trials, which take the bulk of the day, but then I also have … you see those files behind you? Those are the resentencing [cases]. Those are the three-strikers that are petitioning to be resentenced under the new proposition 36. Those are the humongous files we have to go through and there are motions coming in. On Monday afternoons, I do the restitution calendar, which is basically setting restitution for the victims of crime.
And because we are all elected officials, we elect among ourselves who is going to be the presiding judge, but it’s a rotation. We are doing committees. I’m on four or five committees for the court. Besides doing our duties as judges, there is also that administrative part that we’ve got to handle: personnel issues; handling the hiring. There’s a lot more than what people think of a judge working from the bench.
But I’ve got to tell you that all the judges I know, they feel as I do that it is a real privilege and an honor because, I would say the vast majority of people still respect the position. So it is a tremendous responsibility for us to make sure the system is working in a way that people don’t lose confidence in our courts and the work that we do. I know we depend on citizens willing to come in and … we are asking them, “Put your life on hold to sit on this jury.”
Q: For experienced attorneys, are you seeing any common mistakes?
A: For some of the issues that come up, I’m thinking, what stalls the process? I think discovery still presents a frequent problem in that even though both sides know they should be exchanging evidence for discovery, inevitably there is a piece of evidence that hasn’t been exchanged. Or it’s not because they were hiding the ball, but they need better anticipation of what may come and then working toward what they need.
The other is, and I know it’s harder to control because their case load is incredible too, but sometimes, just getting the witnesses, because it’s rare that a case is presented in a chronological order. If I’m a juror, that’s how I would like to hear it. I don’t know what they can do to improve that because [witness availability] is a challenge, but I’m really stretching it here because of the 16 or 17 trials [I've had], it really has been an honor to work with them. I see them as hardworking, prepared.
Q: How about tips for new lawyers?
A: Not to lose your objectivity. You have to be invested in a case, but don’t cross the line to where your bias is apparent. One of the challenges of being a good trial attorney is credibility with the jury. I’ve seen some very sensitive cases. For example, I had a case where a nine-year-old girl was sexually molested. I remember the attorney for the defendant, who was doing the cross-examination. He sat behind counsel table and started talking to her. [He] wasn’t standing up, wasn’t behind the podium — I don’t let them get too close to the witnesses anyway — but he was very relaxed when he asked his questions. To me, that was refreshing because he was totally non-threatening. And the jury was watching.
So, it’s doing those kinds of things. Always being sensitive to the fact that they can be the best attorneys that they can possibly be, without doing what you see on TV, like pounding the witness — not like I’m going to let them — but it’s better when they don’t have the judge telling them, “Hey, back off.” They need to always keep in their mind that they’re on stage. Just like an actor would never drop their lines, drop their demeanor, how they come across, they have to remember that they are being watched by 15 people — normally the 12 jurors and three alternates — so how they present the facts, oftentimes it’s in the presentation. And again, it’s credibility, credibility, credibility.
Q: How did you learn to be a good public speaker?
A: I took a lot of courses because I was terrified to speak in public. Because I grew up speaking Spanish, I always felt uncomfortable that I would invert my adjectives and my nouns because in Spanish it’s the reverse. And so I took different courses and then, I remember one of my mentors — when I was a young lawyer after I had watched a lawyer who was so composed, I had really enjoyed his closing; he never got rattled and was how I aspired to be — he told me, “Teresa, you are never going to be that person because that’s not you. You need to develop you. Don’t try and be like someone else.”
Q: Are you involved in any community activities?
A: I am on the board of directors for Lincoln Law School. I’m also involved in the Citizens Police Academy in Morgan Hill. One of my passions is the arts, so I’ve been very involved with different arts groups. I was president of the Arts Council. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, but I just find that artists are such kind people that I like being around them. I can’t remember ever getting a case where one artist killed another — and I’m not including actors or singers. But I was on the board also of the YWCA here, and obviously, legal organizations. But I think that when I retire I would probably want to be more involved with the non-profit world. It’s fascinating and very gratifying.