In the stereotypical imagining of the high-court judge, the honorable gavel holder sits menacing and omnipotent, reveling in each and every opportunity to pound the stand and seal an unfortunate fate.
This depiction is of course absurd, but the sentiment stems from a deeper truth: judges hold tremendous power. It is a position of incredible gravity, as a judge is responsible for ensuring social justice as well as public safety.
Yet true to the great responsibility of judges like Lisa Rodriguez, Warren ’91, often those presiding are not so much serving to punish, but upholding a duty to help the very individuals who find their way into their courtroom.
After 17 years working as a deputy in the district attorney’s office, Rodriguez was recently appointed to the San Diego County Superior Court in March 2015. While the new position is a fitting indication of Rodriguez’s admirable career, she never believed she would find herself working anywhere near a court of law when she first came to UC San Diego in 1986. “I came in there—believe it or not—initially intending to go into biomedical engineering. By the end of my first quarter I was pretty convinced that would not be the case,” Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez refocused her ambitions toward public policy, working toward a degree in communications and participating in campus-wide student council. After graduation, Rodriguez took a year to help with key political campaigns while she determined her exact career path. It was advice from a friend’s father that led her to law school and, ultimately, the discovery of purpose.
After an internship in the San Diego public defender’s office, Rodriguez then served as a deputy with the City Attorney, and likewise in the District Attorney’s Office. Upon the announcement of Rodriguez’s appointment as judge, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis remarked, “DDA Rodriguez has gone above and beyond, distinguishing herself as a well-respected leader in our office. […] Our loss is absolutely the bench’s gain.”
Rodriguez calls those initial years the most formative in her career, allowing for hands-on experience with individuals who deeply affected her perspective. In the public defender’s office, she saw how people found themselves on the other side of the law simply because they lacked the tools or support to properly deal with the tough hand they had been dealt. And under Dumanis, she learned to practice a deeper balance between upholding the law and lending a hand to those who crossed it.
“[Dumanis] very much believes in holding people accountable, but also helping people to help themselves,” Rodriguez says. “Nobody would ever say she’s soft on crime; she just recognized that sometimes there are things that we can do to intervene and it’s not just all about punishment. Certainly there are people who are dangerous, and punishment is the only course of action, but there’s this whole host of people who make a lot of mistakes. And if the court can get involved and try to help them figure out what they need to do so that they’re less likely to make those mistakes in the future, that’s good for public safety.”
With the District Attorney’s Office, Rodriguez worked on projects such as SB618, a law passed in 2006 that enabled three counties to start a comprehensive, voluntary program intended to guide offenders toward proper reentry to society after their release. She recalls a visit to San Diego’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility during the early stages of the program that had a profound impact on her sense of justice.
“One young man raised his hand and said, ‘What do I need to do so that I don’t have to come back here? Because I don’t know what to do,’” Rodriguez recalls. “I genuinely understood that the bulk of people were like this kid, who just honestly didn’t know a better way of doing things.” Rodriguez says such lessons and experiences have guided her throughout her career—from implementing the laws that reduce penalties for non-violent crimes to working on eradicating California’s revolving-door prison system—and will continue to guide her as she transitions into her new role on the Superior Court.
With more than two decades of experience working in criminal law, Rodriguez believes in the positive impact judicial involvement can have in reducing recidivism. She believes in looking at offenders as individuals, while maintaining a proper understanding of their constitutional rights, their charges, and the sentences that should be imposed. Having worked on policy and large-scale programs for many years, Rodriguez now looks forward to making change on a more individual level.
“I really think it’s so integral to reducing recidivism to have that judicial involvement and to acknowledge when somebody is doing well … as well as addressing when there are some issues,” Rodriguez says. “I really think that can make an impact.”
Currently, Rodriguez’s position has her assigned to San Diego Superior Court’s Department Nine, which she describes as a “full service courtroom” for the city’s domestic violence cases. This is exactly where she feels privileged to be: in a position to make a difference, for public safety, for victims and for those who find themselves in court. And after all that she has observed, Rodriguez can see with optimism the larger picture shifting, a picture that she had a hand in changing.
“We understand so much more about addiction, about cognitive behavioral therapy,” Rodriguez says. “I think you can see that the culture is recognizing these things as well, that just ‘lock them up’ isn’t working, and maybe there are other things that we need, as opposed to just putting people in jail.”
Tritons Fill the Bench
Gov. Jerry Brown has also recently appointed James Mangione, Warren ’77, to a judgeship in the San Diego Superior Court. Mangione was formerly a partner at Wingert, Grebing and Juskie LLP, a private practitioner, and an in-house counsel at Luna, Brownwood and Rice.