By John Grennan
Justice runs through Collegiate Seminar, beginning in ancient Athens, where Socrates poses the idea in Plato’s Republic that justice could be more than “might makes right.” More than two millennia later, Martin Luther King Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” warns “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
For hundreds of Saint Mary’s alumni, an abiding interest with this theme of justice has led to a career in law and, for some, positions as judges. Members of this professional circle who recently reflected on their time at the College say their undergraduate experiences helped lay the groundwork for lives on the bench.
“I have nothing but respect for the education that was provided for me at Saint Mary’s,” says William Gallagher ’43, a municipal and Superior Court judge in Sacramento County from 1964 to 1981. “It prepared me well.”
It’s a preparation that consisted of close reading of texts, attention to the structure of arguments, familiarization with Western legal philosophers and the cultivation of respect for others.
In the Beginning was the Word
At their best, judges are paragons of virtue — steeped in knowledge and dedicated to the law.
This devotion begins with close attention to the language of a motion or statute. Intense scrutiny of the text is something every Saint Mary’s Seminar student will recognize.
“In Dr. Norm Springer’s class, we spent a whole semester on ‘The Hound of Heaven,’” recalls Philip Moscone ’65, a recently retired San Francisco Superior Court judge. “I didn’t think you could talk that much about one poem.”
Most alumni judges majored in humanities disciplines, but science majors who became judges also benefited from the liberal arts mission of the College. Retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Hyde ’64, a biochemistry major who almost went to dental school before opting for law, says he particularly enjoyed literature courses.
“I came from a family with few books, so it was incredibly stimulating,” he says.
Honing textual analysis skills in class, sometimes bringing Thucydides’ grand narrative of the Peloponnesian War to a halt to engage in line-by-line analysis, was a prelude to the jurists’ professional lives.
“Close reading requires respect for the work. The work itself is independent of the author,” says Alameda County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Appel ’64, one of four Appel brothers who graduated from the College and pursued legal careers. “You’re not thinking what race or what gender the author is. You’re considering what’s on the page.”
The judges grew to appreciate the written word through solitary hours of reading, but also learned that knowledge is social, that ideas are not generated in a vacuum but through discussion with others who have read the same words and arrived at different conclusions.
“What I liked about the overall learning environment was the kinship I had with my classmates,” remembers Glenn County Superior Court Judge Donald Byrd ’71. “I’m still friends with some of the same people from Saint Mary’s. We’ve been in each other’s weddings and still get together.”
The dialectical argument structure that Socrates used to question his interlocutors remains the foundation of legal training.
“Having a grounding in the Socratic Method has definitely helped in terms of following the thread of arguments and being able to synthesize information and deliberate on it,” says Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Troy Nunley ’86, who learned from Christian Brothers at both Saint Mary’s and San Francisco’s Sacred Heart High.
According to retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Paul Alvarado ’61, jurists use the Socratic Method to evaluate the potential impact of various decisions, particularly in cases without an immediately relevant precedent.
“You take your facts and say, ‘If this is the answer, it means the following and that’s not a good result,’” he explains. “You keep going like that until it leads to a result that is good and acceptable for society. That’s something we learned to do at Saint Mary’s.”
Along with generations of their College peers, alumni judges first encountered the Socratic Method through long-tenured professors, including Brother Sixtus Robert Smith, Brother DeSales Perez and James Hagerty. Small classes allowed professors to challenge students to take responsibility for their own intellectual development.
“Seminar worked because you didn’t have someone telling you things. It was more of an exploration,” Moscone says. “It wasn’t something you just parroted back to the professor. It’s a very dynamic method of learning.”
Jaime Roman ’73, a Superior Court judge in Sacramento County since 2007, says this student-driven style of education drew him and his peers out of conventional thinking patterns.
“We were encouraged to ask big questions, to think in terms of the bigger picture and not see what’s just in front of you.”
Part of that bigger picture comes from an awareness of intellectual predecessors with millennia of collective wisdom about the human experience. Several alumni jurists say the College’s emphasis on Greek and Roman thinkers sparked a lifelong interest in the past that began with forays into the Persian War with Herodotus, the father of history.
“I still go back to the world classics,” says Appel, whose well-thumbed editions of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plutarch’s Lives grace the bookshelves of his Oakland courtroom chambers. His copy of Aquinas still bears his “De La Salle Hall #320” room number on the inside cover.
“Part of what you get from the classics is continuity of thought,” he says. “Judges, and hopefully people in general, should be mindful that we have these concepts of equity and justice that have been in place for well over 2,000 years.”
San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Clark Sueyres ’67 agrees.
“I’ve always been curious about the way history plays out, how it changes, how it stays the same,” he says. “I like looking at what motivated people, why they behaved as they did in another time with different values.”
During their careers, alumni judges have heard cases on an array of topics that would be completely alien to the ancients, from crimes committed by methamphetamine-addicted teenagers to class-action suits against software producers. Yet Roman, who reviews Folsom Prison inmates’ appeals via a two-way video link in the Sacramento County Superior Court building, says litigants in his virtual courtroom exhibit the same range of emotions that motivated Achilles or Antigone.
“Notwithstanding new technologies and advances, at core we’re still humans,” he says. “We continue to make the same mistakes over time.”
Respect for All Persons
Appreciation for continuity within human nature draws on another core principle of the judges’ shared Christian Brothers educations: respect for all persons. They keep this ideal in mind even while presiding over cases in which defendants are accused of heinous crimes.
“You have to talk to defendants as people rather than as someone who committed a burglary or killed someone,” Moscone notes. “If you take the attitude that someone is less than human, it’s not helping them, you or society.”
Sueyres says that treating individuals with dignity also tends to generate respect among litigants for a verdict, even when it’s not the one a plaintiff or defendant wanted.
“You not only want to be fair, but you want the litigants to perceive that you’ve been fair and allowed them to feel they’ve been heard,” he says.
That is true even when sentencing a criminal to jail or prison. Nunley says it is rarely an easy decision to sentence a person to jail, and many people ask him how he does it.
“What you generally tell them is that you send people to prison based on their conduct, not whether you like them or not,” he explains. “You can’t get in the habit of making personal decisions or you become somewhat arbitrary.”
“You can’t let your sympathy or feeling control your ruling; that’s a big part of the job,” adds Alvarado. “You may feel for a certain party in the case, but you have to keep that out of the ruling.”
A Notion of Service
Alumni on the bench describe the experience as a privilege and view it as a form of community service.
“The notion of service is definitely a reason judges accept their appointments or run for their office,” says Nunley, who regularly speaks to school groups. “Win, lose or draw, you are giving back.”
Roman has given back by serving as a judge advocate general representing the U.S. Army during tours in Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and Paraguay. His last assignment was as the Army’s emergency-preparedness liaison for Northern California.
Hyde, who retired in 2003, says he always looked for ways his position could help him educate people. His program, “Kids in Court,” brought schoolchildren and their teachers into his courtroom and the adjacent prison for an up-close look into the consequences of committing a crime.
“I had more than 30,000 kids in my classroom,” he recalls. “I still have kids come up to me and say, ‘You were my judge.’ That was my legacy and greatest pride and joy.”