Hon. Michelle Tong / Louis Goodman – Transcript

Hon. Michelle Tong / Louis Goodman – Transcript

Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to practicing attorneys and the occasional judge about their lives and careers. I’m Louis Goodman. Today it’s my privilege to welcome the honorable Michelle Tong to the podcast. Judge Tong serves on the San Francisco Superior Court. Before her election to the bench, Judge Tong worked as a trial attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. There she tried more than 50 cases to jury verdict and handled hundreds of litigated preliminary hearings and motions. Judge Michelle Tong, welcome, your Honor, to Love Thy Lawyer.

Hon. Michelle Tong 00:45
Thank you, Louis, for having me on your podcast.

Louis Goodman 00:49
Well, thank you for being here. Where are you talking to us from right now?

Hon. Michelle Tong 00:53
I am in my home in San Francisco and one of my favorite art pieces is in the background.

Louis Goodman 00:59
Well, unfortunately for the podcast, we are not gonna be able to see your favorite art piece, but I can see it in looking at the screen. Tell us what sort of department you’re handling right now.

Hon. Michelle Tong 01:13
So I’ve been on the bench now for, it’ll be two years this coming January, 2023. So, I have been assigned to the small claims division in San Francisco. I have had two stints in filling in with the civil harassment calendar/default judgment calendar for a few weeks over the past summer and actually right this week, I am also had a day full of civil harassment restraining order requests today.

Louis Goodman 01:42
Well, it sounds like it must keep you busy and rather occupied.

Hon. Michelle Tong 01:47
It’s very busy. Both calendars are rather busy. Yes. Dealing with a lot of self-represented litigants.

Louis Goodman 01:53
Where are you from originally?

Hon. Michelle Tong 01:54
I was born in Toronto, well actually small town outside of Toronto, Canada. I learned it was about five or eight hours outside of Toronto, Canada. And then we ended up moving to Toronto until I was around eight, and then I moved to Sacramento, California with my folks and that’s where I was raised. My parents are still there. Ethnically, I’m Chinese American or Chinese Canadian and my parents are both immigrant Chinese from mainland China, but they also were pretty much raised in Hong Kong. I think they also consider themselves HKers, is what I call ’em, Hong Kong.

Louis Goodman 02:31
So you went to high school in Sacramento?

Hon. Michelle Tong 02:34
I did.

Louis Goodman 02:35
What high school did you go to?

Hon. Michelle Tong 02:37
I went to two high schools. For the first two years I went to C.K. McClatchy High School, and then I ended up graduating from John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, South Sac.

Louis Goodman 02:48
And when you graduated from high school, where’d you go to college?

Hon. Michelle Tong 02:53
I went to UC Santa Cruz. I’m an Alumni slug.

Hon. Michelle Tong / Louis Goodman – Transcript

Louis Goodman 02:59
So how was your experience in Santa Cruz? What did you do there?

Hon. Michelle Tong 03:02
It was great. I loved it in a sense where, you know, really it was an environment that sort of fostered that age to learn and figure out who you are, at least in terms of leaving the house and just being open to progressive politics and liberal ideas, et cetera, that might be very different than how I was raised or how other kids raised. It’s a beautiful campus and I, you know, kind of had a little experience of everything throughout the years. I lived in the dorms, on campus apartments, lived off campus. I studied abroad in China for six months.

Louis Goodman 03:43
Let’s talk about that a little bit. Studying abroad in China, I mean, what was that like, going to China to study, being ethnic Chinese, but being clearly a very North American kid?

Hon. Michelle Tong 03:56
Oh yes. That was a definite culture, when we say culture shock, it’s beyond culture shock, right? It’s like I had always grown up being Chinese and yet they, mainland Chinese, because I studied in mainland China. They didn’t see me as Chinese, and this identity struggle was understanding what being Chinese means. And obviously as a young person, you don’t have the maturity and the exposure and the experience to sort of grapple with that. And it can be emotionally hard for someone to always be tested and challenged as to whether you really are Chinese. And I know I’m not the only ethnic group that goes through that, but that was something that I did experience.

Louis Goodman 04:45
Do you speak any Mandarin or Cantonese?

Hon. Michelle Tong 04:48
I speak, so my family speaks Cantonese. So that’s what I was raised being familiar with. That is my familiar second language, is Cantonese, but I did learn Mandarin from my studies abroad. I generally say I speak both poorly, but I can, you know, I definitely have an accent, you know, so people, depending on who the listener is, they either appreciate my efforts or maybe it’s too hard for them to hear it. I think by and large, most native language, native Cantonese or Mandarin speakers, I think they appreciate the effort.

Louis Goodman 05:26
Where did you live in, in China when you were there, and how long were you there?

Hon. Michelle Tong 05:31
So I was there for six months and I studied in a city called Tianjin, which is two hours away from Beijing, which is in a northern like central, Northern, considered central, northern, northern China.

Louis Goodman 05:45
And that’s a Mandarin-speaking area, is that correct?

Hon. Michelle Tong 05:47
It is a Mandarin-speaking city. And I mean, that’s what I was going there is just to learn Mandarin.

Louis Goodman 05:52
How did you feel when you got back?

Hon. Michelle Tong 05:54
I will never forget this. The first movie I saw, and part of the six months I did spend, like during the summer in the winter session I went to Hong Kong, and which was another shock going from China to a very developed Asian country or society. But when I came back, the first movie I saw, I’ll never forget, was Pulp Fiction. And I was, to this day, I will never forget I was horrified. I was horrified at the cinematography and the violence, and everyone was, you know, I’d been out at least some time prior to my watching it and everyone was seeing how great it was and it was receiving all these positive awards and reviews and I was like, what is going on in America?

So, you know, I didn’t have to reacclimate to, again, the culture and what makes America for good or for bad, great. Just the immersion and the coalescing of so many different kinds of people that live in this one place together and how different people navigate those issues.

Louis Goodman 07:05
Yeah, and I think that when you come from a fairly conservative society where you were living for six months in China and then all of a sudden you get reintroduced to America and all of its Americanness, it’s a bit of a shock. It’s a bit of a culture shock.

Hon. Michelle Tong 07:25
Right. And it also, and it also shifted, it was pivotal in the sense where it shifted, it completely changed the trajectory of what kind of work I wanted to, because prior, when I went to China, one of the things at the time, foreign investments was, and it’s always been an issue, not an issue, but it’s also, it’s always been a part of our economic, you know, global society. But at the time, investing in China was really starting to come to head with, you know, Motorola was going there and things like that. And I thought that I could use my bicultural life and and help companies, for example, in Asia or China, and I realized when I came, I said, you know what, I’m an American, or you know, I’m here. And I felt, if anything, I wanna use my bicultural life and help people here in the States rather than foreign companies in China make more money, per se. So it really shifted what I wanted to do with my life, basically.

Louis Goodman 08:35
Is that when you started thinking about becoming a lawyer and going to law school?

Hon. Michelle Tong 08:40
Not, no. What I did though is I started working with immigrant populations in, you know, in Sacramento, or not Sacramento, but in college. It’s where I started to look for those communities. But it wasn’t until at one of the places, Asian Law Alliance, which I did an externship in San Jose when I was in Santa Cruz, and I saw, and I thought I would just do nonprofit work and be a poor public servant.

And I saw lawyers, I just didn’t even know really what lawyers were. And I saw these people that were lawyers doing community work and I thought, well, this is cool. It’s kind of like marrying some sort of profession with helping the community. And that’s when I started thinking about law school.

Louis Goodman 09:30
So it was that experience of working with those community groups and meeting some lawyers who are actually practicing that got you thinking about, Hey, I could do that. I’d like to be a lawyer. I think I could have an effect, a more positive effect as an attorney than just as a, you know, social worker, community organizer, helper?

Hon. Michelle Tong 09:53

Louis Goodman 09:54
Yeah. Yeah. And so how far along were you in your education at that point?

Hon. Michelle Tong 10:01
It was probably towards the end, like my last semester, last quarter that I did this externship at the Asian Law Alliance, my senior year in college.

Louis Goodman 10:12
And then when you graduated from Santa Cruz, you ultimately went to law school. Did you take any time off between graduating from Santa Cruz and going to law school or did you just go straight through?

Hon. Michelle Tong 10:24
I did. I took two years off and in the two years I actually continued to work doing public interest work at kind of like this sister related nonprofit. It’s the oldest Asian public interest agency. It’s called the Asian Law Caucus there in San Francisco. And I actually segued nicely into doing an internship with the Caucus. So I ended up being like a community advocate paralegal for two years. I did immigration work, employment, labor work. And then I applied for law school to law school. I got in the first year, after the first year, and I decided to defer another year and ended up taking two off.

Louis Goodman 11:05
Where did you go to law school?

Hon. Michelle Tong 11:06
I went to UOP McGeorge.

Louis Goodman 11:09
Oh, McDuck.

Hon. Michelle Tong 11:10
Yes. In Sacramento, yes. I moved home.

Louis Goodman 11:15
Yeah. Kind of return back to Sacramento.

Hon. Michelle Tong 11:17
It was, it was.

Louis Goodman 11:19
And how was your experience in law school?

Hon. Michelle Tong 11:22
Pretty unpleasant. I’d say, I felt like I wasn’t kind of informed or told as to the actual day-to-day, like what law school is about. I knew I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a lot of lawyers because I worked with lawyers for two years and you know, the classic lawyer just bemoans law school and hates it and it just was a hard struggle for me. I didn’t have cable when I was living on my own and my parents had cable and I’m a big baseball fan and they had all these baseball games and I just didn’t understand like, what’s the homework for law school?

So it was just, it was hard. And I would say maybe by the third year when I finally kind of, it took me a little while, but, and I finally started to get it and, and was able to take classes that were more of an interest to me. And I really enjoyed my criminal law, criminal procedure classes, that, and evidence. I really liked those classes. Then, you know, it became better.

Louis Goodman 12:31
Okay. So you graduated from McGeorge, and you ultimately went to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. What was the path from McGeorge to San Francisco Public Defender?

Hon. Michelle Tong 12:46
I returned to the Bay Area. I worked at the Caucus, and I also interned at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. And let me say this, I did meet, I ultimately ended up going to law school because I wanted to be a Public Defender. I had experience with immigration law at the time. There were huge changes with immigration law where people, immigrants who had been previously convicted of a crime but we’re not citizens were getting deported and placed in immigration detention. And that was during 1996. So these two worlds were just colliding. And back then we didn’t have the word, now it’s called crimmigration. And so, I had the immigration knowledge. I had visioned going to law school to be a Public Defender, and then I would come out and do crimmigration.

So, I was at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office and, you know, with that goal, I was interning at a Public Defender’s Office, the federal Public Defender in Sacramento, Eastern District. And then I graduated and what ended up happening is I came back to the Bay Area, and I did eviction defense work. I was helping pro se line, pro se tenants that were being faced with evictions. And then I ended up going to the Public Defender’s Office in San Francisco as a paralegal again for a few years, and then I started practicing and I had been a lawyer there for about 15 years before I ran for Judge.

Louis Goodman 14:25
And in those 15 years, you tried a lot of cases, you represented a lot of individuals charged with very serious crimes. What did you think about practicing law?

Hon. Michelle Tong 14:36
Oh, I loved it. I mean, I felt, I would tell people all the time that, you know, you hear athletes and other people that really love their job saying that they can’t believe they’re getting paid to do the work that they do. And I just, that’s how I felt as a Public Defender.
I get paid relatively well in a sense where I can support myself to do work that I believe in and that I love, so I loved it.

Louis Goodman 15:05
If a young person was considering a career, would you recommend the law?

Hon. Michelle Tong 15:10
Yes, depending on what they like to do. I have young people that either have an interest to talk and will talk to me, and there’s young people that I meet that, you know, there’s something in them that you think are good qualities and traits to being a lawyer. And I’ll raise that with them. I actually tried to convince, still trying to convince one of my nephew’s really good friends that he should be a lawyer. I could just see it in him. He’s not motivated at the time right now, but…

Louis Goodman 15:42
What sort of traits do you look for?

Hon. Michelle Tong 15:43
Observing, quick, but you could tell they’re also processing and they’re thinking, and they’re observing. Articulate. They don’t talk like they have marbles in their mouth. They’ll share things and observations and perspectives that seem to have some depth and seem to be able to contextualize the things that they’re experiencing and what they observe. I like those kinds of traits, and I’m not saying that those are good qualities for, I don’t know, a librarian, a doctor, whatever the case may be, but when I, those are the traits that I see in good lawyering and, and a good trial attorney.

Louis Goodman 16:25
What prompted you to start thinking about a judicial career?

Hon. Michelle Tong 16:28
It’s interesting. I don’t know if there is any one particular thing and I’ll say that it’s not something I ever envisioned and that’s something that wasn’t, that I didn’t think could be a place for me, being that I went to law school to be a Public Defender and be an advocate and do social justice work. But a variety of things happened such as, you know, over the years you see appointments, you see people that are running or become judges and again, you’re in your office and you’re just bemoaning this person and this new judge, and this new judge, and are they a good judge or a bad judge? And they’re constantly disappointing. And there’s an opportunity that arose in which there was an open seat and that’s also at the time there’s a lot of changes going on at the Public Defender’s Office. You know, our fearless leader had suddenly passed away, Jeff Adachi. And there’s opportunity that came up with an open seat and the thought that instead of looking and again envisioning, oh my gosh, here’s another new judge, or there’s another new judge, and we’ll come back to the office and we’re just complaining, It’s like, you know what, why keep looking around to see what someone else is going to do about it and why don’t you do something about it, Michelle?

It’s like the shift of Jeff leaving, who always believed in people getting involved in the political process and putting their hat in the ring and, you know, it’s just the same adage of people complaining about politics and not getting involved or whatever the process is, right? Get involved, and that’s what I decided to do.

Louis Goodman 18:11
What did you think about running for judge? I ran for Judge, by the way, so I know something about it. So I’m, you know, I’m super curious about what you thought of the process of running for judge.

Hon. Michelle Tong 18:23
Well, you know, the process to run for Judge, which I’m sure you know, requires a complete evaluation of how the whole campaign period will look like and unfold, and can you see it from beginning to end? Just like a trial, right? Just like any commitment you make. I had spent over 20 years in my community. I had relationships with people even though we weren’t in touch, I knew that I could reach out to them and say, look, I’m running for Judge. I need your support. No problem.

Louis Goodman 18:53
What did you think about raising money?

Hon. Michelle Tong 18:55
That was very difficult. I was very bad at it. I was very bad at it, and yet I managed, I’m not saying I didn’t have to use, you know, my own resources as well as my, I had family that helped me out, but I was able to raise a substantial amount.

Louis Goodman 19:14
Yeah, because it takes a lot of money to run for any office.

Hon. Michelle Tong 19:16
And I didn’t do call time very well. I had generous supporters. And for that I’ll always be thankful.

Louis Goodman 19:24
Yeah. How does being a judge either meet or differ from your expectations about it?

Hon. Michelle Tong 19:31
So, that’s funny. You know, when I started becoming a judge, and I still have these thoughts now, I felt the same way that I felt when I was telling you about law school. It’s like, you know a lot of judges, you know, and you see judges all the time, but it’s like they don’t tell you these certain things and maybe it’s because they’re not thinking about it. So if I were to tell someone that wants to be a judge, I would explain these things.

Call me naive, but the amount of mediating and problem solving, I just completely underestimated. You’re like the legal therapist. I’ve told that too to some of my litigants. You know, one side is coming to you for a problem, the other one comes to you about a problem. They have a different interpretation of the problem, right? Emotionally, legally, intellectually. And you’re there to fair it out to both people’s unhappiness and solve it. And I just completely underestimated that.

Louis Goodman 20:37
I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast. Which is that I haven’t had the kind of judicial experience that you have, but I’ve sat pro tem a fair amount, mainly in traffic courts, and as much as I’ve been in court, and I’ve been in court every professional day of my life, when you walk out on that bench and you look at the courtroom from that perspective,
it is a different and scary viewpoint, I think, and I’m wondering what you think.

Hon. Michelle Tong 21:11
It is a different viewpoint in the sense where, and this was another thing that I had to sort of come to terms with, or another reality check, so to speak. You know, I had spent so much of my career working hard to build a professional reputation amongst the judges that I appeared in front of, my clients, colleagues, the opposing counsel, not necessarily for them, but you know, to be the best Public Defender that I could be every day, all day. Obviously, there’s time when you get a little, you know, relaxed, but you know, generally. And I felt like I had gotten to sort of that point where it’s not really questioned, regardless of how I look, my stature, my race, what have you, and it’s sort of had to start all over again in some way, not just with my colleagues being, I’m the new one, I’m the green one on the bench, but I’m going to court and I’m seeing people in the gallery that are not what I’m used to seeing. Yeah, it is. It’s all those things. It’s all those things.

Louis Goodman 22:25
What about your relationship with your new judicial colleagues? I assume a large number of those people are people who you practiced in front of and who you knew from when you were a Public Defender. And I’m wondering how that relationship evolved or changed?

Hon. Michelle Tong 22:45
I mean, it’s been interesting. Yes, I’ve tried cases, trials in front of a good number of them. You know, like any workplace, I think that you make new relationships. There’s perceptions that you have of each other that are debunked for good and for bad, and there’s going to be people that you’re naturally, you’ll be able to become friends with, not necessarily socializing all the time, but you know, even people that maybe if there was a negative sort of impression of them and then actually, hey, they’re not so bad, or hopefully it’s vice versa as well. I think that’s happened.

Louis Goodman 23:24
What can lawyers do to be better prepared to appear in front of you as a judge?

Hon. Michelle Tong 23:33
What’s interesting when you say better prepared, how about just be prepared? I mean, and it could be that they feel prepared, but something as simple as knowing the timeline,
the sequence of events, it seems silly, but the facts of your case, and it’s not to say you didn’t know them at one point, but I would imagine everyone should prepare and look in the docket, in the file the night before and check in with, you know, their client, their witnesses, or whatever the case may be. I mean, that just makes a big difference not only to the legal system, but in front of their client. You know, it’s appalling to me to see lawyers sometimes present in the way they do when they have a client paid or unpaid, retained or not retained that are just not prepared and it’s just, it’s shocking to me.

Louis Goodman 24:25
Do you think the legal system is fair?

Hon. Michelle Tong 24:27
I’ve seen glimpses of fairness at times, but I think, you know, if it was fair, would we even have issues like this? Legal issues? I don’t know. I think that I’m always striving to do what I can to help it be more fair.

Louis Goodman 24:49
Let’s say you came into some real money, three or four billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?

Hon. Michelle Tong 24:59
I studied in advance for your questions because those are tricky! So, in my life, I mean, I do wanna get a condo in Hawaii. And so I probably would do that. I would spoil myself.

Louis Goodman 25:12
Which island?

Hon. Michelle Tong 25:12
Crazy. Oahu. I’m a city girl. I just like to go to the main place and I go to Hawaii twice a year. I actually just went a couple weeks ago and maybe get a place in San Francisco. I want there to be some sort of personal driving or shuttle service that brings kids that are from poorer neighborhoods that don’t have access to a better school system or elementary, or elementary, junior high and high school and take them to other parts of the city because a lot of poor parents, they cannot take their kids to school. And so I would like to be able to take kids from poor neighborhoods to have access to after school resources in other better schools.

Louis Goodman 25:55
Let’s say you had a magic wand. There was one thing in the world that you could change, the legal world or otherwise, what would that be?

Hon. Michelle Tong 26:02
Again, I thought about this one too. I would try to level out and equalize resources and poverty in the world, you know, not just globally, but even in our own country that it just wasn’t so stark.

Louis Goodman 26:16
What about if you had 60 seconds on the Super Bowl, really big audience could do whatever you wanted, say whatever you wanted. What message would you put out there to that enormous audience?

Hon. Michelle Tong 26:29
I like this philosophy to myself and also when I think of others, but simply just treat others how you want to be treated regardless of how they look, race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, just regardless of any of those things. Just treat others how you wanna be treated, and I just think that’s a simple way to understand and go about life.

Louis Goodman 26:57
Judge, is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we have not discussed?

Hon. Michelle Tong 27:02
Who’s gonna win the World Series. What’s wrong with the 49ers?

Louis Goodman 27:09
I don’t know if we have enough time for that.

Hon. Michelle Tong 27:10
No, I don’t think so. I really enjoyed talking with you.

Louis Goodman 27:14
Judge Michelle Tong, thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer Podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

Hon. Michelle Tong 27:23
Thank you so much for having me.

Louis Goodman 27:25
That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.
Thanks to my guests and to Joel Katz from music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.

Hon. Michelle Tong 28:05
I mean, at least that was my experience and they just complained about it, and I didn’t really understand what we’re doing.

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