Hon. Victor Rodriguez – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:05
Hello and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I’m a lawyer. Nobody’s perfect!
Victor A. Rodriguez sits as an Associate Justice on the First District Court of Appeal. Before that he sat as a Superior Court Judge in Alameda County. He has extensive experience as a staff attorney for Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Carol A. Corrigan, Goodwin H. Liu and Carlos R. Moreno. Justice Rodriguez has a background of teaching law, speaking publicly on legal matters and publishing scholarly works. Raised in Livermore, he has deep ties to Alameda County. Justice Victor Rodriguez, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 01:17
Thank you, Louis. Thank you for having me. I have to say I’ve become a fan of your podcast and I’m very excited to join the ranks of the other people you’ve interviewed.
Louis Goodman 01:26
It is indeed an honor and a privilege to have you on and I appreciate your being on the podcast. Justice Rodriguez, where are you sitting right now in terms of your work and where do you meet with the court?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 01:44
So the First District Court of Appeal is based in San Francisco, right by the civic center in the same building that houses the California Supreme Court. As you can imagine, during the pandemic, that’s kind of royaled people’s plans, so I think I have colleagues who are coming in once a week. I have colleagues who are coming in every day. I have colleagues who are coming in less frequently than that. But generally speaking, I’m going into my chambers about twice a week and also for oral argument, which in my division, we have twice a month.
Louis Goodman 02:15
And is the oral argument heard in person?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 02:18
No, it’s via BlueJeans. And it’s been in BlueJeans since pretty much the very beginning of the pandemic.
Louis Goodman 02:24
Are you able to do much of your work from home?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 02:27
The joy of appellate work, much of what we are doing is researching and writing. I meet with my colleagues sometimes on Microsoft Teams or we’ll get on the phone. I certainly will see them on the days when I’ll go in. I certainly will talk with my staff over the phone. I think a little bit of it is lost. It can be a somewhat isolating job under normal circumstances and so during this pandemic, when we’re working from home more frequently, I think can exacerbate that. But generally speaking, in terms of their productivity and quality of the work, I think we continue unabated even in this current situation.
Louis Goodman 03:00
Where are you from originally?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 03:02
Grew up in Livermore. As you indicated, I was born in Walnut Creek and I lived in Livermore until I was about 11 or 12. And then we all moved to Northern San Diego County to Oceanside to be closer to my maternal grandparents who had moved from Livermore to Oceanside. And then I went to high school in the San Diego area.
Louis Goodman 03:21
You have what is in my view, a really fascinating backstory. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your parents’ experience and your growing up.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 03:32
So, you know, I’ll start with the context of Livermore. Livermore is a fascinating place to be. It is a place of cowboys and vineyards and wineries. It’s a place of a nuclear national lab. So I had across the street from where I lived as a child, a nuclear physicist. And my dad worked his entire life as a school custodian and my extended family worked as agricultural workers in the vineyards. Both my mom and my dad are the eldest of seven children and they emigrated to the United States when they themselves were children. My mom came when she was in first grade, my dad, when he was 16 first picking strawberries in San Diego area and ultimately ending up in Livermore. And then when I was a child, they took a second job cleaning what was then the Livermore Municipal Court. And so when I was really young, they would just bring me and bring me swaddled in a blanket and I would kind of sleep on the bench in the early mornings or late nights as they were working, and as I grew up a little bit older, 5, 6, 7, I would be right alongside them, emptying wastebaskets and sweeping and mopping. And as a child, it’s very hard to explain what a courtroom is. You have these big august rooms with very high benches and you see judicial robes hanging in the closet, you see a holding cell in the middle of the Municipal Court. And you wonder why is there a cell that has obviously a very sturdy door with a toilet right in the middle of it. And I think that that instilled certainly not an idea of ever going to law school and definitely not ever being a judge, but it did instill the reverence that my parents had for public service and what the people in that building did in terms of helping to resolve problems, helping to protect the community. And so I think the public service imprint was something that began very early.
Louis Goodman 05:14
So in a sense, you’ve been working in the courts your whole life.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 05:17
In a sense. And indeed, you know, one of the stories that I like to tell is that on my very first day taking the bench in the family law department at Hayward, I was very nervous. I wasn’t sure that the governor had made the right choice in appointing me to the bench. I got to the Hayward Hall of Justice at about 5:30 in the morning. It was dark outside. I sat in what was then my darkened courtroom and I was delighted that the first person I saw was a woman named Aurora who cleaned the local county courthouse in Hayward. And we just spoke in Spanish, and it was just spoken Spanish about our families and what I was doing there and explaining that I was a judge and there was a sense of coming full circle of being a kid, five, helping to clean the courthouse and now some years later being a judge and still being very connected to that root and to where I came from.
Louis Goodman 06:07
Now, you said you went to high school in San Diego. What sort of things did you do in high school? What interested you at that time in your life?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 06:16
Yeah. So I think that the main thrust of what I was interested in high school and continued to college was a speech and debate. And very specifically what we would call team debate or policy debate. I think that the idea of very similar to what I’m doing now, getting very deep into a topic, researching, figuring out how to persuade and how to counter other people’s arguments was something that I was fascinated by, was really intrigued by this notions of public policy and how to unravel and persuade other people. Here are the problems, here’s how I’m laying them out and framing them, here’s my solution. And so that was the main thing that I did. I started high school, my freshman and sophomore year in Oceanside and then when they cut their team debate program, I transferred high schools to Vista high school, which was just an adjoining community because they had to gotten a team debate program. And so it was important enough to me as an activity that I literally changed high school so I could continue to engage in that activity.
Louis Goodman 07:16
After you graduated from high school, where did you go to college?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 07:19
I went to USC. I considered some other schools, but there are a couple of reasons to go to USC. First of all, I was very close to my parents and the idea of being too far away was a little bit anxiety-producing, but also USC had offered me the possibility of coming a year early and finishing my senior year of high school along with my freshman year of college. And although I didn’t take them up on that opportunity, USC had kind of implanted itself in my mind as a place that was a really great mix of lots of things going on and very cosmopolitan and lots of activities.
Louis Goodman 07:53
At USC, did you continue your debate or did you get involved in anything else?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 08:00
No, pretty much debate was the main thing. I debated for four years on the trojan debate squad. And, you know, I think debate, looking back really changed the course of my life because it was something, like I said, that not only caused me to switch high schools, it was something I was involved in in all four years at USC. And certainly as I started to think about what was next, whether it was public service and the frame of government work or law school or something else. The idea of debating and thinking and persuading and dealing with public policy issues, that continued to be woven in.
Louis Goodman 08:36
After you graduated from USC, you went to law school. Did you take some time off or did you go directly to law school?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 08:43
I took some time off. That hadn’t been the plan. And indeed, I think that’s also another kind of thread through a lot of… The story that I’ll tell is that sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump, that I was just in the right place at the right time. I’d applied to law school, my going into my senior year and I’ve been accepted to some law schools, but a debate coach asked me to consider putting it off because he was opening up a nonprofit debate league for inner city schools in Orange County and he asked that I come and join him in running that program. And he suggested that I apply to and enroll in Cal State University Long Beach to get my masters as a way of kind of filling that interim. So that I wasn’t just working, there’s a way of kind of getting some financing. That’s ultimately, that’s what I did. I applied to get my master’s in communication with an emphasis in rhetoric and I worked at this nonprofit inner league, or inner city debate league, and then became a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach in the speech and communication studies department. And then I also got involved with their speech and debate program. So ultimately I rose to the level of the assistant director of forensics, so the assistant director of the program. So that continued to be a hallmark of the direction that I was going in.
Louis Goodman 09:53
When did you first start thinking, you know, I know how to debate, I enjoy debate, but I really want to make this a career as an attorney? When did you start really thinking about applying to law school and being a lawyer?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 10:07
So it wasn’t until the second half of my time at USC. My undergraduate major was in international relations. And so I was certainly interested in public service, I was interested in public policy. I thought early on that that might be more on the academic side or government service side, particularly I was interested with the issue of refugee and immigration. And as I delved into that from a debate perspective, in terms of looking at the impact of the judicial system, in framing the debate and framing the solutions to some of those issues, it became a little bit more clear to me that law school was a great way to go about that. It didn’t necessarily mean that I would become a litigator or a lawyer in the traditional sense of what we mean by that. But I very much understood what the power of a law degree could have in terms of trying to solve these public problems.
Louis Goodman 10:59
Yeah. That’s something that people I talk to on this podcast say all the time, that a law degree and the kinds of things that you learn in law school in terms of the way you think about argument, the way you think about the world can be a very helpful set of tools in many endeavors in life.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 11:21
Yeah. And I think looking back at the students with whom I went to my first year of law school, a number of them ended up not being lawyers.
Louis Goodman 11:29
So where did you go to law school?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 11:31
So I went to UC Berkeley. I’ve loved my time in law school. I thought it was a great community to be part of, not just the law school community, but it’s a relatively unique law school in the midst of the whole UC Berkeley campus and in the city of Berkeley at large. And it was a fantastic place to go, as you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life.
Louis Goodman 11:52
Yeah. I went to Hastings and, you know, I mean, I would sort of say the same thing except, you know, plopped down the law school in the middle of San Francisco, as opposed to Berkeley. But I really had a great experience in law school. Really, really enjoyed it, even though it was sometimes crazy and I’m sure as you well know, an awful lot of hard work. But the law school experience, I think for the right person is a great time in life.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 12:17
Yes. And I think in many ways it’s a choose your own adventure. I think there are students with whom I went to law school who felt very strongly about, ‘I’m going to take all the courses that I need to be taking, particularly those that are going to show up on the bar exam. I’m going to attend every single class. I want to get these grades. And here’s my trajectory in terms of where I want to end up.’ My course was a little bit different in that in some ways I kind of came out of my own shadow at law school. I would describe myself as relatively shy and introverted, somebody who generally kind of goes along. And I think law school is the first time I remember feeling like there are lots of issues out here that need to be addressed and no one is addressing all of them or at least not people around me and maybe I need to be part of that solution. And so I’m going to take the reins and try to identify things that could be made better. And I don’t really remember that necessarily being something as how I would describe myself in high school or as an undergrad. So, I don’t know that I was the person that went to all of my classes every single time. Sometimes there were times I went to the library and found books that were fascinating to me about issues and brought them with me to my torts class and read them in my torts class, because it was just a fascinating place to be with fascinating people around me.
Louis Goodman 13:35
That last comment shocks me. I mean, in just sort of looking at your career trajectory, it just strikes me that you’re one of the most focused people that I’ve read about. Now, maybe that isn’t completely accurate. My question is, so you graduate from law school and then you start working for the appellate courts fairly early on, and I’m wondering what that path was from the end of law school into the world of appellate law? Because that’s not a very traditional approach for most people coming out of law school.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 14:20
Yeah. So I think that ties together, your initial surprise about my answer and about my earlier comment about Forrest Gump, which is to say, when I was in 1L in law school, at the invitation of one of my professors, I went to a conference in San Francisco called Just the Beginning Foundation Conference, which was to celebrate African-American article three judges, so, federal judges. And federal judges came from all across the country and they came and they celebrated, and there were panels that they learned from, and it was amazing. And when I got back to law school, I wondered if there was an analog for Latino and Latina state and federal judges. And I realized that there wasn’t any, or at least not one that I could find. And so in as a 1L, in my second semester, I realized why don’t we have one? And not only that, but that 2001 was going to be the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy appointing the first Latino to the federal bench. So I thought, well, let’s put together a symposium at Berkeley. And so to get to your question about focus, I became very focused, but what I was focused about wasn’t torts and crimlaw, it was about how can I make this best symposium to answer this question? And so in the fall of 2001, about a month after the 9/11 attacks, we hosted a symposium at Berkeley law. Then judge Sonia Sotomayor came and gave the keynote address, where she gave her famous “Wise Latina” speech that she later had to answer for before the Senate judiciary committee. And it just so happened that we coincided with Carlos Moreno being confirmed to the California Supreme court and Cruz Reynoso came and we celebrated him. And we celebrated judge Frances Muñoz who came back, who was the first Latina ever appointed to any trial court in the country.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 16:07
And so there was this thing that I thought, “Here’s this unmet need.” and as a 1L and then 2L, we can meet me and my fellow students, because it was put on by the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, and the La Raza Lawsuits Association, we can meet this need. And so I was very focused, it just wasn’t about school. And that ties with your second question, because when I first got out of law school, I started with a Skadden fellowship at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. And then I had a one-year clerkship. And when I had about three months left on that federal clerkship, I thought I would end up ultimately at MALDEF doing litigation, but I wasn’t quite ready to go back. And so I contacted Justice Moreno, who I had met at the symposium that we had put on in 2001. And he said, “Victor, it just so happens that I am looking for a two year law clerk. Would you be interested in coming to San Francisco and working for me?” And he’s definitely remembered me from the symposium and indeed at the symposium, he gave me his card and said, if you’re ever looking for a clerkship or something else, reach out and contact me.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 17:11
And so it was this very wonderful coincidence of these things coming back together. And so I came to San Francisco to work at the California Supreme Court and it was amazing. And I would tell externs who would come and interview to work in the chambers, that if I were designing a job, that that was the job that I would design from the bottom up. It was the ability to deal with issues of first impression that had statewide and often national importance to have brilliant other attorneys and everyone else. It just so happened that it was an amazing job. And about a year in, I talked with justice Moreno and both of us felt like this is going amazing. Like I love working for you. And I love working for the court and he was very happy with how I was working. And so he asked me if I would be interested in staying permanently. So what was to be a two year clerkship at the California Supreme Court ended up me staying there until his eventual retirement, and then working for a series of other justices.
Louis Goodman 18:13
If a young person were just coming out of college and thinking about a career, would you recommend law to that individual?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 18:21
So I love the way you asked that question. Cause it’s not quite the way you ask the question in other interviews you’ve asked, which is I absolutely would recommend law as a career. I think law as a career is something where you’re trained how to think and how to solve problems and whether those are the problems of two individuals or two corporations or broader questions about the environment and public policy. And even if, as we discussed before, being in a courtroom is not something you’re interested in that way of how to think and how to analyze is eminently valuable. The second part of the question was which wasn’t asked today, which is what I recommend law school, which is a slightly separate, it’s a related, but a separate question, because then we get into the economics that as you have recognized in previous interviews. And I certainly recognize even just looking at the cost of tuition when I went to law school in 2000, to the cost of tuition now. It is a significant expense. And what it means is particularly for students whose background is not one of familial wealth, it locks you into a particular career path because that is the only career path where you’re going to have enough financial decision, enough financial resources to pay off these very massive loans.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 19:42
And that’s a difficult question. It’s a difficult question to say, “Do you want to go to law school, knowing that you might want to work at an organization like MALDEF, but knowing that your law school debt is going to be so crushing, that you may have to work at a civil litigation law firm purely for the salary, even if that’s not where your heart is at?”
Louis Goodman 20:01
Yeah. I think that’s a huge societal problem that has enormous implications. When I went to Hastings, I mean, you know, financially it really wasn’t much of an issue for any of us because it was a very much a state supported school. You know, there seemed to be a societal interest in having attorneys come out and be able to practice in a, you know, in a social services field or in a nonprofit, you know, I mean, certainly there were plenty of lawyers that went to big firms and were interested in really making money but it wasn’t critical. I mean, I went to the District Attorney’s Office and I got paid, but I mean, it wasn’t a lot of money and, you know, I couldn’t have done that if I’d come out of law school, you know, $350,000 in debt. So yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s something that we really have to think about as a society where we’re going with some of these educational expenditures, not just law and medicine, anything, you know?
Louis Goodman 21:02
Well, let me ask you this. How does practicing law or being a judge or for that matter a justice on an appellate court, how has that met or differed from your expectations?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 21:15
So it’s exceeded my expectations wildly. And I’ll describe, you know, since 2006, my entire career has been in the service of being a neutral, meaning I either worked for justice and not deciding and having my fingers on who’s going to win. I wasn’t an advocate of saying this is the position or that’s the position. And then I was appointed to the Superior Court bench. In terms of that transition, I had some trepidation about being a Superior Court judge. I didn’t know if I wanted to leave the Supreme Court. Indeed it was Justice Corrigan who really was a strong proponent, really encouraged me, even when I initially told her this was not the path for me. She did not relent and came back to me and said, “Victor, you have to go. Just go, just go watch hearings in Alameda County.” And so I did, I went and watched juvenile hearings and misdemeanor hearings and criminal matters and traffic matters and family law matters.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 22:12
I still had some anxiety about it, but I spent my entire career in the Superior Court in the family law department or their general family law department, or ultimately helped to open our first dedicated civil domestic violence department. And I loved it. If this court of appeal thing had not happened, I truly would have happily spent my entire career in family law or the domestic violence department. It was amazing. And the things that I thought I didn’t like, like, I didn’t think I would like sitting on the bench and being the focus of everyone’s attention, particularly in something so fraught, like family law. But I found that it was just a matter of perspective that if you could think about people coming to you at quite possibly the worst time in their lives, because they were here about a child custody dispute or support, domestic violence, and to think about yourself as a small part of a solution, a small part of helping these people to turn the page, I found that that was very validating and I literally light’s going to work every day. And I think the same is true even more so about my court of appeal appointment, it brings me back to something I love very much, which is this work of appellate law.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 23:20
I find that it’s probably a better fit for my personality than sitting on a bench and having hearings in terms of just being able to sit and reflect at times, and to speak with some colleagues and to really wrestle with these important issues of statewide importance. But I love it. I am absolutely thrilled to be doing what I’m doing, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.
Louis Goodman 23:41
Well, if there’s anybody who I’ve ever met, who seems to me to have been just sort of cut out to be an appellate justice, it’s you! You know, I mean, you know, I know lots of judges, I certainly know Carol Corrigan very well. I know Marty Jenkins very well, and you know, they basically came up through doing trial work and then doing trial court judging. And you know, now they’re on appellate benches. But you, it seems to me, when I look at your resume, I go, “This is a guy who kind of knew or should have known that he was going to be an appellate court judge from very, very early on.”
Justice Victor Rodriguez 24:22
Well, I will say I was the last person in the room to know. I certainly did not have a grand plan. I didn’t make choices in my life thinking, “Okay. I have a five-year plan that I’m going to end up on the First District Court of Appeal.” That, that wasn’t part of it. I’m nearly as surprised to be where I’m at that, that I think other people, but I love it. And I do think that in retrospect, particularly given my experience of the California Supreme Court and how much I truly enjoyed being around such smart, dedicated public servants. It probably is not, or at least shouldn’t have been a surprise that I’m loving what I’m doing now as much as I.
Louis Goodman 24:59
So, how did you get to the appellate court?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 25:01
A mixture of mentors and champions. I mean, I think that one could look at my resume and think, “Man, this guy could not keep a job. He worked for different Supreme Court Justices!” But the benefit of that, of working for people at once as different and as similar as Carol Corrigan, and Goodwin Liu, and Carlos Moreno, and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, and certainly the mentors I had for MALDEF and Judge Consuelo Marshall. I learned a lot about being a judge. I’ve learned a lot about mentors and people telling me about what they learned and what lessons they wanted to impart. But also they were champions, they were people who felt like I would make a great judge on the Superior Court and that I might make a great justice and who were willing to write letters and pick up the phones. And so I am eternally grateful to all of them. And if you took a look at my CJA hearing, then you saw Justice Cuéllar and Judge Nixon and Justice Corrigan. And I continue to be grateful for what I feel like is their friendship, but also just their support. And so I don’t think I could have gotten nearly close to where I am now without their support and championing me.
Louis Goodman 26:13
Is there something that you know now that you wish you had known before you became a lawyer, a judge or a justice?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 26:22
Yeah. I mean, I think speaking in the context of someone who is Latino, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, whose father dropped out of school in fourth grade to get a job to support his six brothers and sisters. and at a time where you didn’t necessarily see very many Latinos as lawyers, certainly none of my family or anyone I knew with growing up or Latinos on the bench. And so I think that lack of a critical mass makes you feel as a high school student, as a college student, as a law student. Where’s my place in all this? Where’s my place in the legal field? Who is my mentor, who is the model that I’m going to follow? And for some of us, not for all of us, there’s a bit of an imposter syndrome. I remember the first day of law school, a feeling like, “Look at all of these brilliant people to my left and to ride, right. People who went to Haiti during their summers and started a dental clinic and people who are ballet dancers and people who went to all these great places. I think they got the wrong Victor Rodriguez.” And indeed back when we had a No Fly List, I know that that’s possible because for a while, I was on the No Fly List because there are so many Victor Rodriguezes, and I could tell them, “You’ve got the wrong one!” So even when I got the call from the appointment secretary for my current appointment, you know, in all candor, in those weeks, leading up to my CJA hearing, there was at least a small part of me that would have a passing feeling that any day now I’m going to get a call from the secretary saying, “So Victor, we actually made a mistake. We did not intend to appoint you.”
Louis Goodman 27:54
What suggestions do you have for attorneys who appear in front of you or have appeared in either the trial or the appellate court level? What should attorneys know about how they’re perceived by judicial tribunal?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 28:09
So I would say to be thoughtful about the number of arguments that you’re putting on. That this notion of quantity over quality is something that particularly newer attorneys still need to be thoughtful about. That just because you could argue the fourth and fifth argument, strategically may not be as beneficial to your client is deciding I’m going to focus all of my arguments on the best two or three arguments. I think that’s a big one. And then the other one is I think just the value of it is very hard to be over-prepared in terms of knowing particularly the facts of your case and the law, the relevant law in your case. And so in the family law department, it was very important to me for litigants that they feel like I mastered the facts of their case. And so I would review everything three, four times before the actual hearing. So it was not unusual at the actual hearing for me to be able to say, oh yeah, without looking at notes, in February 19th, 2019, this happened. And then you’re saying three weeks later that happened. And sometimes the attorney or the litigant would say something and I would correct them and say, That if I recall, that’s not what you setting your papers and often I was the correct one. I think for an attorney, this notion of “be very prepared” so that whenever, so that the judge can rely on your arguments about the record and your arguments about the case law, because the moment that doubt starts to creep in that that attorney really knows what the record says and really know what the case is. I think that’s a moment of peril for that attorney and their client.
Louis Goodman 29:47
Do you think the legal system is fair?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 29:49
I think it strives for fairness, it’s a system built by humans, run by humans. I think that there are certainly aspects about it that we all recognize could be better. And I think we’re constantly striving for it to be better. But I think the system is very good about being self-aware and really working hard, wherever it can and as quickly as it can to address a lot of those issues.
Louis Goodman 30:14
I’m gonna shift gears here a little bit, your honor. What is your family life like and how has being involved in the legal system, being a judge, being a justice, how has that, how have those things affected each other?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 30:29
So I am married to someone that I met my 1L year of law school and she’s an attorney. And so we have been together now for over 20 years and we have two children, a soon to be 12 year old and a 9 year old. I think there are lots of really great things about being a judge in terms of being a parent and being a spouse and that particularly for an appellate justice there’s flexibility that perhaps if I were at a civil law firm, or a DA or public defender I wouldn’t have, and so we try to leverage that as much as possible. I think we also are very mindful that particularly our children are deeply fortunate and so we try to keep things as normal for them as possible. But it also means that family conversations, even with our 9 year old and 11 year old can be rigorous. And so I will have a moment of pride when my 9 year old is trying to persuade me that I’m wrong. And she’ll say, okay, so I have three arguments. My first argument is this, my second argument is this. You know, that drives my wife crazy and early on when we were dating, she said, okay, I know you’re a policy debater, but if you keep numbering my arguments, when we’re having, you know, a dispute, this relationship is not gonna last very long. But for my children, I like that. I like that notion of the realization of public service and the responsibility and debt we owe the community and to help make it better and ways that we can do that.
Louis Goodman 31:49
How about recreational pursuits? Anything that you enjoy doing to kind of clear your head once you’re off the bench?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 31:56
Yeah. So particularly during the pandemic, I think taking long walks with our dog and being outdoors and playing soccer with my son. I think that one of the other things I really like doing that is more solitary but really helps me clear my mind is cooking. And I feel like the great thing about cooking is that if what you’re looking for is a more free-flowing artistic endeavor that just allows your mind to wander, then doing something where you’re just experimenting and you’re throwing in different flavors and seeing how they come together is really helpful. On the other hand, if you want something that really helps you focus, that really helps kind of remove all the clutter, which sometimes I do, baking is really helpful because it is very precise and mathematical and you need, you know, a teaspoon of this. And if you just kind of throw in a bunch of it, not measuring it, then you’re going to have an epic failure. So I think doing things like that and then travel. I mean, I think travel is one of the things more than anything else that we miss about the pandemic and it’s slowly starting to come back and obviously as for everyone, it’s kind of give and at to what we go, but we certainly traveled quite a bit before the pandemic came.
Louis Goodman 33:04
Where have you been that you really enjoyed?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 33:05
So my kids speak Spanish and they’ve been in a Spanish immersion school. So traveling particularly to countries that are Spanish-speaking is really important to us. So for a while, we were going for about two weeks every year and staying in Spain and we’d pick a particular city and we’d have our kids be in summer school at the city with activities so that he’d be with other kids from Spain, speaking Spanish. So San Sebastian was lovely in Barcelona and Madrid is amazing. Last year in that kind of bit between the respite of the late summer until the Delta variant came, we did a couple trips that had been delayed because of the pandemic. So we went to Alaska for 10 days in a very small group tour with our kids, which was amazing to see the glaciers and all the wildlife. We went to Hawaii. We love going to new Orleans. We’re about to go to New York, in a couple of days for a week because it’s our kids’ break. And so I think the ability to see things from a different perspective, particularly in other countries, to see that people live differently and the things that you take for granted in your own city or your own country, it’s not the way that things have to be. They’re very contingent on just the geography and the time in which you live. I think that that’s a very helpful reminder for us as individuals and certainly for children, to see that the things that you’re accustomed to here is not what people enjoy everywhere.
Louis Goodman 34:30
What keeps you up at night?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 34:31
So what keeps me up at night in my previous assignment at the family court and specifically running the domestic violence department during a time of pandemic was the court’s ability to deal with the very pressing needs of people during a time of pandemic. During a time when people’s jobs were at risk. When you know everyone in their mother sent me every article that would come out in the New York Times and Washington Post about domestic violence going through the roof. And I would simultaneously see the statistics about filings dropping precipitously in Alameda County. So just interim, just writ large, kind of the judicial branch’s ability to help people who really need it in this challenging time.
Louis Goodman 35:12
Let’s say you and your wife came into some real money, 3 or 4 billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 35:21
So I will answer that both from a personal and kind of non-personal perspective. From the personal perspective, I think little would change. I think we might travel more. I fully plan on working in my current job until I retire at the full age that I can retire because I honestly love this job and I would do it for free. In terms of the non-personal perspective I think I would like to set up a nonprofit and thinking about all of the various guests that you’ve had and all the things that they’ve suggested, there’s so many problems to attack. But I think the one that I would want to address is the issue of housing in California in particular, in the Bay Area. Because housing is just this de-stabilizing or the lack of housing, lack of affordable housing is this de-stabilizing force for all of our litigants in Alameda County. It forces our court clerks to live in Stockton and commute to Fremont. It means that in the context of custody and visitation, that people who are living in Brentwood are trying to commute to Hayward and they’re trying to figure out where is that going to happen. It means that we’re constantly having a population of unhoused who have jobs, but there’s just no affordable housing for them and what that means for children and everything else. And it just causes huge income disparities that I think is corrosive to kind of the public and the system writ large.
Louis Goodman 36:39
Let’s say you had a really big microphone, 60 seconds on the Super Bowl. What message would you like to put out to the world?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 36:47
I think what I’d like to put out to the world is the importance of civics, civic education and the judicial branch. I think that for far too many people, it’s either a political football or it’s something that people don’t understand. And so I think that means that the branch as a whole often is underfunded. And I think it’s at a particularly difficult and challenging time for people because every year there’s a growing number of self-represented litigants in really, really, really critical areas. We can all agree that family law is a critical area. It determines who’s going to see the child, who’s going to parent the child, the amount of support, who keeps the property. All of these other things. And yet 70 to 80% of the litigants throughout the state are self-represented. And how the court deals with that? How do we deal with access to justice when a significant portion of that population doesn’t speak English or doesn’t speak English well? How does the law deal with it? I mean, we have so many cases that talk about, we’re going to treat self-represented litigants just the same as any other litigant as if you had an attorney. We’re not going to give you any leg up. And I understand that. But a lot of those cases came up in the context of criminal cases where somebody waived the criminal attorney that had been given to them. And we’re going to say, okay, if you’re going to do that, we’re going to treat you just as if you had an attorney, but now we’ve taken that precept and we’ve applied it to a whole host of areas where people are self-represented in the areas of probate and housing. So just the issue of civics and the importance of understanding the precepts of our American democracy and what is important for functioning democracy. One of the most foremost of those is a functioning judiciary.
Louis Goodman 38:27
Justice Rodriguez, is there anything that we haven’t discussed that you’d like to put out there?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 38:33
No, I was waiting for the magic wand question.
Louis Goodman 38:36
Oh, yeah! The magic wand! What if you had a magic wand and there was one thing you could change legal or otherwise? What would you do?
Justice Victor Rodriguez 38:43
I think it would be about going back to the self-represented litigants. I think, you know, to slightly amend an answer I gave before about what keeps me up at night. It’s courts dealing with this legal fiction of self-represented litigants being in the exact same place as people who have an attorney and whether it’s something like a civil right to an attorney or something else, or even if it’s just the notions of self-help centers or the notions, rethinking the notions of what it means to be a judge and understanding that yes, a judge is a neutral, but is that inconsistent with a judge understanding of the reality that you have a self-represented litigant in front of you, who obviously does not understand what’s going on in this particular area and how you balance this notion of “I’m not your attorney. I can’t give you legal advice from the bench, both because it’s not fair to the other litigant. And because it creates all these ethical problems”, but also how to cut that Gordian knot of you still have somebody here and potentially if justice might be done. How do you figure that out? I think that that’s a, a critical area for the court and the bar to wrestle with.
Louis Goodman 39:58
Justice Victor Rodriguez, thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It really has been a pleasure to talk to you.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 40:06
It has been very much my pleasure, Louis, and as you may know, 7 out of 10 new podcast attendees get there by referrals. And I have been telling all my friends about this podcast. One of my staff attorneys teaches a class at Hastings to young students and I’ve been telling her that this would be, particularly calling out some of these episodes, something for a law student to really be thoughtful about, because I think a lot of what your interviewees are saying are things that if I had been a law student listening to your podcast, there would have been really great nuggets that would have helped me.
Louis Goodman 40:41
That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and subscribe to the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. I promise I’ll respond. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.
Thanks as always to my guests who share their wisdom and Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Justice Victor Rodriguez 41:23
So I’m enjoying the work as it is, but I’ll be happy when we’ll go back to something resembling some sense of normalcy.