Louis Goodman / Hon. Ruben Sundeen – Transcript

Louis Goodman / Hon. Ruben Sundeen – Transcript

Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. I’m Louis Goodman. Today, we welcome the Honorable Ruben Sundeen to the program. Judge Sundeen has served on the Alameda County bench as both a Commissioner and now as a Superior Court Judge. Before taking the bench, he was a managing partner in a general civil litigation practice here in Oakland, California.

His practice included trust and estates, commercial transactions, fair employment and housing and litigation under both state and federal law. He also has a substantial background in community service through Rotary International, La Raza, and of course, the Alameda County Bar Association. And Judge Sundeen tells me that at one time, he was quite the hockey player. And if he wasn’t a judge, he might be a professional hockey player. Judge Ruben Sundeen, welcome to the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 01:09
Thank you, Mr. Goodman. And one caveat, though, while I dreamt about being a professional hockey player, I don’t have the unnatural pain tolerance that they all possess.
There’s a big caveat in that.

Louis Goodman 01:20
Well, it seems to me that it takes a certain amount of pain tolerance to be a misdemeanor arraignment judge. Which brings up the question of where exactly are you sitting these days and what sort of work are you doing for the Alameda County Superior Court?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 01:36
Right now I’m in Department 712, which is Misdemeanor Arraignment Calendar, so basically just doing the ritual, I like to call it, presenting charges to individuals, taking pleas, changes of pleas, setting up bail, assessing, if you will, community risk tolerance in that regard. But that’s my current assignment, 712. I understand I’ll be here through the rest of 2023 and thereafter probably do more trial work.

Louis Goodman 02:01
How long have you been on the bench now?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 02:02
I started as a commissioner in January, I think January 20th, 2018. So I was about a year into it before the pandemic happened.

Louis Goodman 02:11
What sort of assignments have you had?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 02:14
Just the two. I was on probate assignment up until May of this year. So from January, 2018 through May of 2023, I was in a probate assignment, which had a general calendar, if you’re a procedural part, and then we also did our short and long cost trials in that department and now I’m here in criminal.

Louis Goodman 02:34
That court all takes place in Berkeley, is that correct?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 02:37
Correct, yeah. Everything under the probate code is handled in the Berkeley courthouse, the two departments there. And although we now have a third department our trust department is handled by a supervising judge being In Rene C. Davidson, Department 1B.

Louis Goodman 02:52
What’s your take on just sort of the different feeling that one has as a judge handling probate matters in Berkeley versus handling misdemeanor arraignments in Dublin?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 03:04
A couple of things. One good thing about both of those cases is for the most part, they involve lawyers. Obviously because of the District Attorney and the Public Defender. almost everybody’s represented in the criminal world. For the most part, people are represented in the probate universe. And that’s helpful for a judicial officer to keep things focused. We all come into an adverse environment with a motion and a good lawyer can help hear that, sideline it in a respectful way and then stay focused on the issues. And so I haven’t been into family where there’s lots of emotions and less lawyers. So I’ve been fortunate in having good counsel. That’s just the court in both assignments that I’ve had.

Louis Goodman 03:50
Well, when you go into family law, that hockey experience will really come in handy.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 03:55
That’s right. I’ll drop the gloves and see what happens.

Louis Goodman 03:58
Where are you from originally?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 04:01
Born in Long Beach, spent the first nine years in Long Beach and Torrance. Then my family moved up to Eureka, California. So those were my formative years as growing up in the backwoods of California. As soon as high school was over, I left forthwith to go to a big city.

Louis Goodman 04:23
Where did you go to high school, in Eureka or in Long Beach?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 04:26
Eureka, Eureka Senior High School. And my high school mascot was the loggers and Humboldt State up there, their mascot is the lumberjacks. So you know what people did up there besides lacking imagination in their mascots.

Louis Goodman 04:40
So where did you go to college once you graduated from high school?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 04:43
I went to Sonoma State my first year to play soccer and was on the intercollegiate team playing soccer there. But frankly, my high school was more academically challenging than that. So I transferred to Berkeley the next year. and graduated from Cal.

Louis Goodman 04:58
You ultimately went to law school. Did you take some time off between graduating from college and going to law school or did you go straight through?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 05:05
I ended up being a philosophy major and I loved it. I still read philosophy. And I was thinking about going to a Ph. D. program because I really liked the material. It’s still in my head. And was kind of heading that way. And then some friends of mine from high school, who I used to play music with, invited me to play music. Hey, we got a band. Come join us. So I did that for like five years after undergrad. And the band broke up and I said, what am I going to do? And philosophy, I know words, laws is words, therefore that was my skillset. So I went to law school. That was it. It’s my life story right there.

Louis Goodman 05:38
How much time went by between the time you graduated from college and the time you started law school?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 05:45
About five years. Played music for like four of those years. And then the band broke up and reassess.

Louis Goodman 05:52
What instrument did you play?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 05:54
I like to say I can play about anything. Bach said playing music’s easy. You just gotta play the right note at the right time. So I think I have musical judgment more than hitting a thousand notes within a second. My primary instrument is guitar. I’ve been our lead singer slash screamer. But I can play drums, I can play bass. Keyboard’s probably my worst instrument.

Louis Goodman 06:14
When I graduated from college, I worked as a road manager for a band between college and law school. So maybe I could get you and Judge Stuart Hing and I’m gonna keep asking around for musical ability and maybe I can put together a all-judicial band in Alameda County.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 06:35
Oh, I’ve thought about it. I thought about the names. You could call them Black Robes, Contraband, Outlaw. I’ve thought about it anyway.

Louis Goodman 06:43
What was it that made you start thinking about being a lawyer? When did you first start thinking about being a lawyer? And when did you decide, you know, I’m really gonna apply to law school?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 06:57
Oh, it was the band breaking up. I had no thought about being a lawyer. I never watched lawyer TV shows. So my bio dad died when I was like 10 months old. So Sundeen is actually my stepfather’s name and he was a doctor. And as you know, doctors and lawyers are kind of like oil and water. In fact, when he was informed, when I said, I’m going to go to law school, he goes, just don’t do doctors. I said, okay, whatever. So it wasn’t until the band broke up. And I said, what am I gonna do? I’ve got no skills. I only know is words and law is words. And words are my skill set. So when the band broke up, I said, what am I going to do? It was just a total practical decision. And in fact, I thought law school was kind of narrowing as opposed to undergrad, which was expansive. And I said, even after law school, I said, I’ll give it two years and then probably do something else. But I realized I’m actually pretty good at it and worst ways to make a buck. You’re still learning. And so I’ve learned to love the law. It came slowly, came slowly.

Louis Goodman 07:52
And you chose to go back to Berkeley to go to law school.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 07:56
Yeah. Yeah. And that’s actually was an important move in so far as I went back to my alma mater and I had a greater appreciation for the academic community. And that’s where my community service instinct came in is before I was just like doing my own thing and go to school, play music, whatever else, just all about me. And it was then that I said, you know what? I care about the school. I care about this environment and I wanted to give back. And so going, if I think if I went to a different law school, I maybe, wouldn’t have had that same experience, but going back to my alma mater for undergrad, I think kicked in the fact that, you know what, if you care about something, you put some time and effort into it.

Louis Goodman 08:43
A Superior Court Judge now, when you got out of law school, you started working as a lawyer and ultimately you had a very successful civil practice here in Alameda County. I’m wondering if you could just kind of walk us through that process of graduating from law school and what you did in your career before taking the bench.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 09:08
My first real job was working at the 7 Eleven on Telegraph and near campus wearing polyester and my parents were freaked out thinking I was going to get robbed at gunpoint. So that was my first job. Then I worked at a rental center right after college because I wanted time to mental space to play music. I wasn’t sure I wanted to practice law, but it’s kind of narrowing. People were telling me, I work 70 hours a week. And I said, you know what? All I got is in this life is time. You know, I don’t care about money. Money comes and goes. And I wasn’t going to work 70 hours a week for anybody, but that’s kind of the self-employment part of it is I could control my own schedule to a certain degree, as you know, Mr. Goodman, you’re not totally in control self-employed. I was able to craft a practice that comported with me and my values. And so I was always hesitant about working for anybody else. It wasn’t part of my DNA in general.

Louis Goodman 10:07
So this was a general civil litigation practice. Is that correct?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 10:13
Yeah. Yeah. I was probably the most general, my law partners, they were plaintiff’s lawyers, and they were doing in the employment universe and fair housing. Salinas, God love him, he’s there to right the wrongs of society. And we need lawyers like that. You know, our law school didn’t value that. They just wanted to get people clerking for the Supreme Court or working at a big firm so they can write a big check back. But there’s so much legal need out there that, you know, one of them is a vindicator. So Salinas was the vindicator. Pyle likes to do big impact cases. I was actually like in helping people. In fact, that was our, that was and still in Salinas house our slogan, is we practice law to help people. And he credits me with that slogan, but I credit all of us for that slogan because that’s what we were doing. We were practicing law to help people as opposed to corporations, for example.

Louis Goodman 11:06
Now you’ve been practicing law, either as an attorney or a judge for quite some time.
What is it that you like about the law that keeps you there?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 11:17
I think there’s two things, well, three things. One is on an intellectual level that you’re learning every day about something. That rolls into the two things. One is you’re learning legally something new legally. Definitely the civil world’s more complex, but I’m appreciating the nuance of the criminal law and I’m learning about that and then also people. Not only dealing with people, but learning about people and the human condition and trying to understand that.
I like to say that, you know, in Star Trek, they say space is the final frontier. It ain’t. Dude, we’re figuring out like the mysteries of the universe as we speak. The human brain, that’s the final frontier. And I think we get that in the law.

Louis Goodman 11:59
What was it that prompted you to start thinking about a judicial career?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 12:04
It’s interesting. I think everybody thinks about it in law school, because you’re reading these cases, these decisions, and some are super eloquent in their opinions slash decisions. And so I think everybody in law school, you’re reading about, God, I’d like to be able to write like that and think like that, and then you practice and you realize, well, you know, whatever, just trying to, you know, do the right thing, do the best job you can for all these cases, and it probably was a couple people who were whispering in my ear, if not shouting in my ear, two people, one Frank Roche, who’s a judge, even before he became a judge, he was one of my speed dial people. If I called and asked a question or had a question about the law, I would call Frank or excuse me, Judge Roche now, and then Marshall Whitley, he had a probate assignment. He saw me on a daily, regular basis, if not daily, and then he said, you know, you should do it. And he actually, it was Marshall who started pointing me as gardening ad litem for incompetent individuals either too old or too young in in the litigation setting, a disputed setting.

The ability to approach a case as a neutral really worked for me. I can be a advocate. I am a pretty good advocate, but I think that was my sweet spot. You’re just synthesizing all these different things and trying to find the right answer. And instinctively that’s where I think I am and best.

Louis Goodman 13:33
What can lawyers do to be better prepared to go in front of courts in general, but in front of your court in particular?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 13:44
So two things. One, you said general, me in particular, as far as general, I think the most important thing a lawyer can do is listen. In fact, let me just say this in general as a mild critique in our society. We don’t value listening. The kid who sits in the front of the class and raises his hand, he gets the A and we need to value listening. In fact, later in my career, I stopped preparing for cases. And let me be clear, I prepared way before. You prep early, you don’t prep before the hearing, you prep way before and I would go into the hearing, like looking at the scores of ballgames or something like that, just to wipe my brain clean so I could hear what the judge said. So if I can respond to that, as opposed to saying what I wanted to say. And I think actually that made me a better advocate as being a better listener, wiping the slate clean, trusting that the homework that I did early on in the case will come forward. And it usually did.
Of course, you know, you always miss things here and there. There’s like the speech you gave, the speech you intended to give and the speech you wanted to make or whatever. But I think listening in general, most lawyers don’t do a great job of listening and responding to the input that they’re receiving during the hearing.

As far as me in general, I think it depends upon the assignment. I think in the probate assignment, it’s going to be a different relevance, if you will. In the current assignment, the criminal one, I think just focusing in on the uniqueness of that defendant and situation. As you know, Mr. Goodman, especially in the misdemeanor assignment, there’s a tend to cookie cutter a lot of things. I don’t think that makes for good decision-making. I don’t think that is respectful for the party. And I think that respect is something you give, you don’t get unless you give it. And so I think if we respect the individual by giving them as much individualized attention, then I think I’ll make a better decision. They’ll be respected. I’ll be respected. It’s just, that’s the most important thing.

I think a lot of times people, well, let me say this too, if you really listen, both on news or whatever, people speak in conclusions all the time, they speak in characterizations and that’s not helpful. Like, Oh, he went to a lot of things. Well, a lot is a characterization. Tell me how many, like be specific or, you know, he’s trained really hard. Well, that’s a characterization. Tell me how he’s trained. So avoid characterizations. I’m really sensitive to that. So as far as me avoid characterizations, so long-winded way, I finally got there. That’s probably the best thing to do with me.

Louis Goodman 16:22
I want to shift gears here a little bit. How has practicing law and being on the bench fit in with your family life? And how has your family life fit into your career?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 16:32
Good question. There are a lot of different ways to practice law. Let me go back to a question that people used to ask me all the time when I was in practice, are you working a lot? And I realized that I was working the same amount when I had 10 clients is when I had 60 clients and it’s your work ethic. It’s not how many clients you have. Those clients who I had 10 cases for, they got actually great service, even though I was a young lawyer, I was working hard. And so in some ways, it doesn’t matter what my job is. I’ve got a certain work ethic and I’m going to spend as much time as I reasonably can doing my work.
It’s probably even more so now because if I make a mistake, everybody sees. The lawyers see. The whole audience sees that I didn’t read this as thoroughly as I should have or whatever. And so, to answer your question, I think you just make it all work. You juggle as best you can. Your professional responsibilities with your familial priorities and values.
And you try to do the best job you can.

I always think of it this way. If there was someone operating on my brain, I wouldn’t want them distracted or thinking about something else. And while we’re not opening up someone’s brain, this is just as important for someone’s life. And so we should take it seriously. We want someone to take it seriously. And that’s the tension of being a professional, is your deal with something serious, something significant, something that demands a lot of your attention, and then you have to balance that with the fact that the only way you can be good at that is by having a solid familial support behind you and so you just balance it as best you can.

But yeah, it’s a juggling act. It was a juggling act when I was in practice. It’s a juggling act. Now I work every night. I work at least, at least till probably 11 o’clock every night, and then I’ll just review my cases. To make sure I’m prepared.

Louis Goodman 18:36
Let’s say you came into some real money, 3 or 4 billion dollars. What if anything, would you do differently in your life?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 18:44
Right now, my two cars collectively are worth about 3,000 dollars. I’d probably buy a new car.

Louis Goodman 18:51
What would you get?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 18:53
Probably an electric car. We, my wife, I drive crappy cars. My wife has a model three cheap Tesla, but I’d get some other electric car, but I don’t think much would change. I’ve actually thought about that. I would still go to work. Absolutely. And until such time as I couldn’t do it anymore, I didn’t think I was doing a good job or whatever, or my body gave out, whatever it is, but I don’t think I would change that much in my life if I had a few billion. I’d set up a foundation. I’d give some of it back. I might even set up a firm for, there’s a donut hole of people who qualify for the Public Defender and people who can afford legal services. And maybe some sort of like thing where there’s a sliding scale for people to pay for legal services. That’s probably the biggest gap we have in our legal system is those people in that donut hole who don’t qualify for free legal services, but also really can’t afford competent professional services, maybe set up a foundation to do that. I dreamt about that before. I don’t know how it would work. But if I had a few billion dollars, I could take a slice off and pay some consultant to figure it out for me.

Louis Goodman 20:01
Judge, I’m going to come back at the end with a couple of brief questions. But we have a lot of people on the call today who I’m sure have an interest in speaking with you. So I want to make sure that they all get an opportunity or as many of them as we can. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to call on people and when I call on you, just unmute and ask your question or make your comment for Judge Sundeen. Let’s start with Taylor Moudy.

Taylor Moudy 20:30
Thank you. That was, that was really good. That was very illuminating. I appreciate the tips on what do I do next when I’m before you in arraignment court. What to avoid. I’m guilty of those characterizations myself, and I can do a little more preparation, maybe not till 11 p. m., but,

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 20:48
Let me follow up on that, Mr. Moudy, is that I find smart people don’t like to be told how to think. So let me come to that conclusion myself. So if you give me all the facts and then maybe say, and look, because he did X, Y and Z. He is why then I go, yeah, then I agree. But if you tell me why, then I go, well, you know, anyway…

Taylor Moudy 21:12
Yeah. Yeah. And then work backwards from that at best. But okay. I, you know, I’m sad to hear that the, the hockey world is missing a potential star player, but I’m curious, are you not long for the criminal bench or is it just right to the end of the year and then you’re off back to the civil world or?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 21:30
No, I’m going to be here for I hope at least a few years, that’s my goal. So there’s two reasons why I wanted to go here is one is. I want to try something new, try my hand at something new, one. Two is I, and the reason why I want to try something new is not just out of boredom. It’s that I’ve seen some judges who are really good judges. And I think you become a better judge if you are outside of your comfort zone and you, then you refine your ability to identify what’s important quickly. Before I would, I knew the case so well, or the area so well, i. e. things under the probate code, that I could just kind of rely upon that. And so this is me stretching my judicial legs, if you will.

But my goal is, and I also want to do some jury trial experience, so that’s why I’m coming over here. But I’m hoping at least a couple years, five years, see what happens. I mean, I like it a lot, so maybe I’ll stay longer even, I don’t know. It’s up to the PJ. That’s the way it works. Every year, the PJ says, you go here, you go here, you go here. And then people go wherever the PJ says. Ultimately, it’s their call.

Louis Goodman 22:37
Susan Lee.

Susan Lee 22:38
Good afternoon. Hi, Judge Sundeen.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 22:41
Hello, Susan Lee.

Susan Lee 22:41
How are you?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 22:43
I’m good.

Susan Lee 22:44
I’m enjoying this talk very much. So, first of all, I think you’re just so eloquent and so respectful, you know, just to call Mr. Goodman, Mr. Goodman instead of Louis, and I think it’s just wonderful to hear. And Louis, I love your podcast, by the way, your voice is just perfect for, you know, that these interviews.

Louis Goodman 23:01
Oh, thank you.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 23:03
I’m jealous about the resonance of his voice. I wish my voice was that resonant also I’ll say that.

Susan Lee 23:08
it’s so rich. So Judge Sundeen, first of all, I want to thank you. If you recall, I came into your courtroom a couple of months ago and you were just so kind and let me sit in and listen in. My question is, what has been the biggest challenge for you switching from the commissioner position to the judge’s position?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 23:28
Well, from the commissioner to judge or the subject matter. Sorry, I missed that.

Susan Lee 23:33

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 23:34
Okay. There wasn’t that much of a difference as far as from commissioner to judge insofar as I was doing the assignment already. You know, there is a little bit of cachet related to the title judge as opposed to commissioner, but you know, that’s up to third parties to appreciate that or not. I didn’t think there was that much of a difference. Hopefully my work spoke for itself as opposed to the title. I’ll just say that, and as far as the subject matter goes, I’m just learning new areas as quickly as possible.

As you know, Mr. Goodman, they speak in a lot of numbers and acronyms around here. And I’m actually trying to avoid that practice for purposes of everybody in the audience. And I think it’s potentially exclusionary and elitist, even if you will, to do that. And so I’m trying to like spell it out what it is. And I appreciate that it’s shorthand. We’re trying to get through a lot of cases quickly, but I think that’s the art of judging in general, is processing cases as efficiently as possible with also being as full and robust as possible.

And so that’s a challenge, no matter what your title is, whether you’re commissioner or judge or magistrate or referee. And I think those are all in effect, judicial or quasi judicial positions that face the same challenges of processing the large caseload while appreciating the uniqueness and giving people the individualized attention they demand and deserve.

Louis Goodman 25:06
Rachel Shigekane, do you have a question or a comment for Judge Sundeen?

Rachel Shigekane 25:11
Thank you, Judge Sundeen, for being a part of the series. It was really great to hear from you. I just want to say I head up the lawyer referral service here at the ACBA, and I’m really glad that you mentioned the challenge of the donut hole, you know, trying to serve folks who don’t qualify for legal aid, they make a little money, but they clearly can’t pay for kind of the going. market hourly rate. So I just want to say that we do have a modest means panel, you know, attorneys who are willing to reduce their hourly rates for people who make a certain amount of money. And I do, I didn’t realize you changed, switched over to the criminal court. So we do have some attorneys, some criminal defense attorneys who do that. So you can always refer them over to us. And then we also have the Bay Area Legal Incubator, which their whole goal is like a collective of attorneys who are trying to create sustainable legal practice, you know, serving modest means. So I just wanna say a shout out to you. Thanks for mentioning that.

Louis Goodman 26:
Thank you, Miss Lee. Erica Bertorello.

Erica Bertorello 26:21
I actually was not aware that Judge Sundeen had passed on over to the criminal side or at the bench, and I was listening and thinking I would hear more about the probate side, but I do find the conversation fascinating and I have always had a huge amount of respect for him when he did on the bench probate court. That’s all I wanted to say.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 26:44
And I can’t answer probate questions. I’m not too far divorced from that assignment.

Louis Goodman 26:48
Thomas Butzbach.

Thomas Butzbach 26:49
Good afternoon, Judge. From a judge’s perspective, what do you like and what don’t you like about BlueJeans appearances?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 26:58
Good question. In my current assignment, what I don’t like is when the parties are in court and the lawyer isn’t. I think, and that’s not me per se, I think it’s just you’re taking the easy route and your client isn’t. You know, let me say this in general about BlueJeans in general, or Zoom, whatever platform one is using, as we all know, so much business happened in the hallway outside of the courtroom, and that’s lost with BlueJeans and remote appearances, and I think I appreciate that if it’s a simple, hey, I just need a continuance kind of thing, but we’re missing that, and I think that that’s one thing that I think our practitioners need to understand that even though there is a cost to showing up in court, So much happened in that face to face communication with your client, and more importantly, with the opposing party, be it the District Attorney, and I know the District Attorney is kind of like swamped and they’re usually don’t, not in a position to negotiate per se, that face to face, that establishing that rapport of trust, to be able to have a quick dialogue, look them in the eyes, assess their sincerity, I think you’re missing that, and so I appreciate the convenience, I respect the fact that we’re all juggling, you know, like I said, professional, personal priorities, and this is a tool that makes everyone more efficient. We should embrace it, and we have, but just keep in mind the value of in person communication. I’m not sure people say what nonverbal communication is a big part. Who knows what that means or how much you can quantify that into being, but don’t forget the importance of appearing in person for the benefit of your client to be able to communicate with opposing party. And I think that’s the thing that we need to remember and keep at the forefront because that’s what’s most important. I think, especially if you’ve got a client, you know, that’s what they’re looking for is that you take it as seriously as they do. So if I have a pet peeve, that’s my mild pet peeve is sometimes people take the easy way out a little too much with the BlueJeans or Zoom appearances.

But it’s, it’s the right tool in so many situations too. So I’m not going to make a blanket judgment other than I trust people will consider all the different virtues and costs of remote appearances and making a determination to appear remotely or not.

Thomas Butzbach 29:27
Thank you, judge.

Louis Goodman 29:29
Carrie Skolnick.

Carrie Skolnick 29:31
Hi, your honor. Nice to meet you. I have not had that opportunity previously. I also wasn’t aware that you were in criminal, but I’m a DA at RCD. And so, you know, ECHOJ is like another world. But I’m at the sexual assault team at RCD, but I just wanted to get to know another judge in the county. And I really appreciate you taking the time. I think just learning about you and the advice that you have given for people appearing in court has been fabulous and I would recommend if you get the billion dollars, the Ford Mach E is a great car. But because your advice has been so great, I guess my question for you would be, if you have any advice or were given, was given any advice that you thought was really helpful to you in going through the process of the judicial appointment, if you have any recommendations for things that were helpful to you?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 30:27
Sure. Let me speak to that in general. The one thing that I do know is that everyone’s path is a little different. And so I hate to make any blanket statements as to how that occurs. Obviously there’s two principal highways. There’s the election highway and the appointment highway. I was talking to a judge who was recently elected in an uncontested election. Lucky them. And then they said that the current expectation is to spend almost 200,000 dollars to be elected, which is insane. I mean, that’s a year’s salary for a judge and that’s pre tax of your salary, of course, you can get a lot of that donated, et cetera. But there needs to be something done about that. I think that’s limiting people’s options.

I went the appointment process because I would be divorced. If I tried to one, spend that much money and two, waste that much time seeking votes. I think there’s two things to think about in the appointments process is one is, if you’ve got some political juice or connection, because ultimately it’s an appointment by the governor, he’s a political actor.

There’s two things that he thinks about: money and votes. So, and people didn’t know him. And so I didn’t have any of those three things, money, votes or people who know him. And so I got in some ways, lucky. It’s a bizarre process. It’s a Byzantine process. I think there’s a lot of opportunities or situations where your application could fail or succeed based upon how things play out.

You know, I think JNE is just looking for negatives. And maybe that’s the right way to go. Maybe it’s not. I’m not convinced. Everybody who’s a lawyer is going to piss someone off at some point, period, and they don’t evaluate whether that source of being pissed off is reasonable or not. You know, they’re just saying, oh, they said, two people said you were a jerk, therefore, are you a jerk, you know, and, you know, you’re supposed to take it all seriously. Like, oh, yeah, well, maybe I am a jerk, you know, and, you know, I trust most people can like look in the mirror and or hopefully, you know, self reflect enough to know your weaknesses and strengths. And I think that’s probably the most important thing I’d say in general is know yourself as much as possible and I would say, let me say this, I still have PTSD from doing that application, but be very circumspect in the cases that you reference and the people you reference, you know, even if it’s a great case, if lawyer and I’ve had cases where the lawyer was a compulsive liar, well, then don’t put him on because he’ll say, anything, you know, like, so just be circumspect in your application because the opposing parties in that application are going to be called upon by the JNE commissioners.

Louis Goodman 33:32
Thanks, Carrie. Cynthia Hernandez.

Cynthia Hernandez 33:35
Yes. So I have a question for you, judge. What I really want to know from you and your experiences, I want you to think back if you can, and to try to remember what it was like when you first started your practice with those cool guys that you were talking about. That you got together with, like, how did you meet with them? What did you talk about? How did you conceptualize getting your office together and where to put it?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 34:03
Yeah. So all of the people that I was partners with, I knew from law school. So that’s the no brainer. It started with me and Salinas. He was working at the eviction defense center again, representing the underprivileged, and he was ready to go out on his own. He had his own cases. My old boss actually had died. And so I was thinking, do I just get a job? I’d still had student loans, but I didn’t want to work for someone else. And so I just threw out my shingle and went for it. We brought our, I’m going to date myself, our HP 4L printers that we had at home, we brought in our home computers. We got some used office furniture. We rented some space in what was then the 1330 Broadway building. I think they may have renumbered it and rented two office spaces with a small reception area. I think it was like 700 square feet. And just went for it.

We could have worked from home and I think it’s more viable nowadays, especially with remote hearings and stuff. And those virtual offices, that’s probably something I would consider if I had to redo it all over again, but you just go for it. And in fact, I was debating what to do, whether to get a job or go out on my own. And as my now deceased accountant, who was a mentor of mine, Ralph Grant, and he said, You know, Ruben, you do good law, the money will come. Kind of like Dizzy Gillespie, you do good jazz, the rest takes care of itself. So you just kind of have faith and that if I work hard, I’m a good, straight shooting lawyer and I try my best, it’s going to work out. And it takes a while to like reorient yourself. As you know, Mr. Goodman, you only can see three months ahead income, that’s it. And that four months you can’t see it and you just have to trust that that continues and that’s just the way it is. And it’s a whole mind switch.
My wife was an employee for a lot of years, like 30 years and then became a self employed therapist and it took her probably 2 to 3 years before she flipped. And could accept the fact that you had a three month income window and nothing beyond that, but you just accept that and you just keep plugging away and you have successes and you have failures and it all works out in the wash.

So work ethic, try hard, be good and trust in your skills and ability. And also one thing, we used to like make it a plan at least early on to go out and like handshake and network at least once a week, if not more. And so if it’s going out to lunch with a friend, going to some event, whatever, just to get your name out there, that’s part of it. And the good thing when you’re self employed, you can write that off, right? Meals and entertainment, networking. I can’t do that anymore because my life is now the court and I get work no matter what I do. So, I miss that part of it.

Louis Goodman 36:54
Richard Flanders, do you have a comment or a question for Judge Sundeen?

Richard Flanders 36:59
Yes, thank you, Mr. Goodman. I have two questions for Judge Sundeen. One is, what is the best part of being a judge? And what is the most challenging part of being a judge?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 37:10
The best part is… Is being able to use the gravitas of the position to hopefully affect someone’s life in a positive way, there’s so much authority that that robe connotes that if you can, especially in the criminal universe, reorient someone in a positive way, like in, for example, in my current misdemeanor assignment, I believe this is the truth is we all make mistakes. The only difference between smart people and dumb people is the smart people learn from their mistakes and the dumb people don’t.

And so if I can get people to like learn from their mistakes and you can’t do it all the time, you have to be judicious. And when you say that, but if you can focus people on something positive then I think that’s the most satisfying part.

For example, I had one recently where a guy had like two prior DUIs, was there for another one and got another DUI in the interim. And I just told him, you know, look, everyone in this courtroom has had to give up something in their life. It’s an unfortunate reality of getting older and alcohol may be something you have to give up. I’m not telling him to give it up, but I’m just asking him to reflect that maybe this is something he needs to walk away from. And maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but that’s probably the most satisfying part of being a judge is hopefully at the right opportunity, helping people learn from whatever situation they’re in. Even in the probate world, I try to do that to learn from that situation.

The worst part about it is, is that I’ve never felt so much like an assembly line worker than I have now. It’s just next one up, next one, next one up. I really do believe that justice does not happen in the courtroom. It happens in the lawyer’s office because justice is not the outcome, it’s putting this situation in the context of your larger life. Only doing that with a lawyer who can help you, you know, juggle all the different important things of your life. Can you properly put this situation in its appropriate context and move forward. And that’s justice. I just give them a result. But I think that’s the one thing I miss is that, you know, face to face with clients and figuring out what this means in their life and helping them find a resolution and then learning from it and moving on.

So, and again, sometimes it is just next one up, next one up, next one up. It’s just an assembly line. And that’s probably the worst part, is I don’t get that kind of intimate contact with people to help them grow and learn.

Richard Flanders 39:54
Thank you, Judge.

Louis Goodman 39:55
We are almost out of time. So unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to get to the couple of other people who are on the call. I encourage you to always join us for these meetings. And if there is something that you really want to say, you know, go ahead, put it in the chat and I’ll definitely get to you in the chat. Judge Sundeen, I have one further question for you. Is there anything that we have not discussed that you would like to say or put out there?

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 40:25
Good question. Is there anything? Probably not. I would just say. In general, I’m more of a low profile individual. I, you know, I’m just trying to do the best job I can. I hope I get it right. I think it’s hubris to think that I get it right all the time. Just doing the best job I can. And I think as long as everyone does the best job they can, we’re gonna have as good a legal process as anyone can expect in this life. So, that’s, those are my final parting thoughts.

Louis Goodman 40:58
Judge Ruben Sundeen, thank you so much for joining us today at the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It really has been a pleasure to talk to you.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 41:08
Thank you, Mr. Goodman, and thank you everyone for showing up today.

Louis Goodman 41:11
That’s it for today’s edition of Love Thy Lawyer in collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association. Please visit the lovethylawyer.com website where you can find links to all of our episodes. Also, please visit the Alameda County Bar Association Website at ACBAnet.org, where you can find more information about our support of the legal profession, promoting excellence in the legal profession and facilitating equal access to justice.

Special thanks to ACBA president Pamela Ross and Criminal Justice Chair Annie Beles, staff members Cailin Dahlin, Sayeed Randall, Valerie Brown Lescroart and Hadassah Hayashi.

Thanks to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.

Hon. Ruben Sundeen 42:00
I stopped playing soccer because I was not Division I material, athletically.

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