Rita Spillane '76

Recipient of the St. Thomas More Award

Rita SpillaneFrom her work as a community prosecutor for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office to her dedication to faith formation of lay leaders, Rita Spillane has shown integrity in the practice of law, leadership in the community and faithfulness to Gospel values in her personal and professional life. 

That’s why she was selected as the member of the legal profession to receive the St. Thomas More Award, which will be presented to her on Oct. 8 by Coadjutor Bishop Jaime Soto at a dinner following the Red Mass at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

“We found Rita’s contributions to her parish and to the poor in Sacramento to be remarkable,” said Tom Johnson, chair of the Red Mass committee for the Sacramento Diocese. “She combines the depth of parish work with a strong commitment to the Sacramento community through her work as a deputy district attorney, and we are so pleased to give her this award.”

As a deputy district attorney assigned to the downtown business district, Spillane works with community groups and the city of Sacramento to improve the quality of life in the city’s core. She has an office with the Sacramento Police Department and one with the district attorney, but she spends most of her time on the street, getting to know the people and the conditions of life downtown.

She walks through Sacramento’s K Street Mall every Friday, “rain or shine,” she said, looking for instances of non-compliance with health and safety ordinances, such as unlocked dumpsters, broken gates or panhandling drunks.

 Unlocked dumpsters seem like a minor problem, she said, but when people use them as shelters, doing drugs and living in the them, conditions downtown deteriorate. Intoxicated people panhandle, scaring away the people who come downtown for dinner or shopping, which drives away business, impoverishes the district and leads to more blight.

"What you see in Rita is steadfastness at doing good without doing harm, without putting people down."

— Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway

As the community prosecutor, Spillane looks for long-term strategies to get at the cause of chronic problems, she said. The short-term response to homeless drunks is to arrest them, but they come right back when they are released. Instead, Spillane gets them into a city and community-sponsored 90-day detox and rehabilitation program called SIP (Serial Inebriate Program).

Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway says that Spillane has “set the benchmark for any community prosecutor that comes after her.”

Merchants make the changes she wants them to make, he said, from locking dumpsters to installing gates to changing policies. Even intoxicated people respond to her. “She conveys the message that you do what is right,” he said. “She stands straight as an axel-rod, looks them straight in the eye, and they self-correct.

“What you see in Rita is steadfastness at doing good without doing harm, without putting people down,” he said.

Spillane’s supervisor, Deputy District Attorney Karen Maxwell, calls Spillane “a role model for integrity,” and notes that the intoxicated people Spillane puts in detox call her “my DA.”

“She has relationships with these people. They don’t want to let her down,” Maxwell said. Spillane visits people in detox, attends their “graduation” from the program, and presents them each with a new wallet when they graduate. Because people no longer have identification when they’ve been homeless, Maxwell said, Spillane and her paralegal help get them copies of birth certificates and new Social Security cards.

“If I could clone Rita, I would,” Maxwell said. “I need a hundred Ritas. She’s the person I go to for advice on a case.”

Deputy District Attorney Rita Spillane and George Koufasimis, a downtown Sacramento property owner, discuss preventing people from using the fire escape on Koufasimis’ building to illegally enter the adjacent single occupancy room hotel. Cathy Joyce/Herald photo

Spillane received her legal degree from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. She graduated from St. Mary’s College in Moraga with a bachelor’s degree in classics, after attending 12 years of Catholic elementary and high school in San Francisco. 

Currently pursuing a master’s degree in theology at the University of Notre Dame during the summers, Spillane attributes her dedication to justice and social responsibilty to her Catholic upbringing.

In an interview at Cesar Chavez Park in downtown Sacramento, Spillane explained that she grew up with the sense that “you make the world a better place.”

“I was in the eighth grade in 1968 in a Catholic school in San Francisco,” she said. “We had ‘sweep-ins,’ where we literally swept the streets. We had class discussions over the war in Vietnam, with the class divided into ‘hawks’ and ‘doves.’ We were taught to ‘be relevant.’

“Church was such a big part of our lives,” she added. “We talked about what it meant to be a parishioner. It meant that you give back, that you help others.”

Spillane recalled attending daily Mass every morning at 6:30 a.m. with her father during her high school years at the convent near her school. It’s a practice she continued in college, attending noon Mass in the chapel with the Christian Brothers at St. Mary’s. Now a member of Sacred Heart Parish in east Sacramento, she’s a daily communicant, noted her pastor, Msgr. Robert Walton.

She is a faith formation leader in her parish, and looks forward to devoting more time to that work when she retires from the district attorney’s office. There are a lot of people ready to be deputy district attorneys, she said, but fewer who want to do faith formation.

“Everything in the church is a web of relationships,” she said. “I grew up understanding that we — the people, not the church hierarchy — are the people of God. We’re not in the bleachers, watching the people of God. We’re it. We’re on the team. So it’s up to us to do the work.”