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Spotlight - Teri L. Jackson, San Francisco Superior Court Judge

Posted on Friday, January 20, 2012

Spotlight - Teri L. Jackson, San Francisco Superior Court Judge
Written by Heather T. Rankie; interview conducted by Heather T. Rankie and Qianwei Fu, Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP

While many lawyers credit To Kill a Mockingbird as seminal to their decision to pursue a legal career, few have as interesting a path to their initial exposure to the literary classic as Judge Teri Jackson. Similarly, her professional life also followed a varied path to her current role as the first African-American female judge on the San Francisco Superior Court bench and adjunct professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Judge Jackson was gracious enough to sit down with us to share her career path and we quickly discovered she was a warm storyteller and, not surprisingly, an exceptionally accomplished and insightful individual.

Judge Jackson's path to the bench

You could say Judge Jackson was destined to become a lawyer-albeit via a serendipitous path. Her parents-African Americans from Louisiana-grew up in the south during the midst of the Jim Crow laws. Her father went to Southern University in Louisiana in the late 1930s to pursue a geography education. As Judge Jackson explained: "He had a very strong distrust of anyone white because of the indignities of being an African American in the South. So, he was very hostile and he said he took a literature class and one of the first works he read of Shakespeare was The Merchant of Venice. And when he read The Merchant of Venice, and he realized Shakespeare was a white man, he realized that despite the indignities he was going through, white people could be fair and just." And more importantly, Judge Jackson explains, her father was compelled by the play's heroine, Portia, who played the role of lawyer. So compelled in fact, that her father resolved some day to have a daughter named Portia who would become a lawyer.

Many years later, after serving as a combat solider in North Africa during World War II, Judge Jackson's father indeed had a daughter named Portia, along with a second daughter, Teri. "My parents did everything possible to expose Portia to the law," Judge Jackson explains. When Judge Jackson was about five years old, To Kill a Mockingbird came out in the theatres and her parents wanted to take Portia. "They couldn't find a babysitter for me. I remember my parents saying: 'Don't worry, Teri will fall asleep; she won't be disruptive.'" But it was Portia who fell asleep and Teri watched the movie to the end. "I wanted to be Atticus Finch. I wanted to ensure that no one would be falsely accused and go to jail. And the rest was history. My parents realized 'Teri wants to be the lawyer, Portia doesn't.' So after that, any time my father heard of an African American lawyer or an interesting case, we would come to San Francisco and watch a trial."

Judge Jackson indeed became a lawyer, and a well-accomplished one at that. She got her legal education at Georgetown University and also attended Oxford University's Queen's College. She started her career in private practice, but soon transitioned to trying cases as an assistant District Attorney. In private practice, she rarely saw the courtroom and began to wonder: "Can I convince twelve people?" Soon a "marvelous opportunity" presented itself. Judge Jackson was interested in domestic violence - crime which at the time was in its infancy of prosecution and this coupled with her particular background helped her land the job. During her interview, she was told: "One thing the District Attorney's office needs is diversity. We need people who represent the community. So when people come into the courtroom, they see someone who looks like them." Judge Jackson welcomed the opportunity: "And I thought about it, and I said, why not? They need a perspective, of a woman of color, of a person who grew up in Daly City, in San Francisco, not privileged, but from a working-class family, and I think I have something to offer. So, that's how it started." During her tenure as a prosecutor, Teri helped shape the evidence code on admissibility of certain domestic violence related evidence.

As Judge Jackson remarks, her time at the District Attorney's office "was supposed to be a two-year career, and it was one case after another and I looked around and fourteen years had passed!" However, she never thought she was "a complete lawyer by being one-dimensional" and transitioned to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP where she was able to try different types of cases. She worked in a variety of areas - from intellectual property to employment to bankruptcy litigation-until she was asked to submit her name as a potential judge. She was thereafter appointed and worked at the Hall of Justice on gang and murder cases for approximately nine years until she was reassigned to an asbestos calendar in the civil division.

Her current work as a judge and the importance of work-life balance

When we asked about her typical day, Judge Jackson immediately answered "multi-tasking!" She is a self-described "Jack of All Trades" and even now, still "a geek when it comes to studying." In addition to a trial judge, she currently teaches evidence at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and trial advocacy at the University of San Francisco School of Law. She juggles communicating with her students, reading motions, and handling trial assignments, appellate work, judicial counsel responsibilities, and committee meetings. She explains, "I work through lunch probably too much. If I had any advice to tell anybody-you or my law clerks-learn to say no. That is something I don't know how to do. I just really am shocked that I'm here. I am very blessed, lucky, or whatever you call it. And I just feel like I need to give back because I feel very fortunate. But I have to stop and smell the roses. I still say up until two o'clock in the morning, but you don't have to. I want to be good. The parties are entitled to have someone who is well-prepared, who has read their briefs and understood them. So I work hard and hopefully it reflects on my work in the courtroom."

Outside of the courtroom, Judge Jackson is a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend, and she enjoys these relationships immensely. Time off from work - which she confesses she does not take enough - is necessary "because you get a better judge, a better colleague, a better friend, a better partner. You've got to take time off. That's a priority. We have to prove ourselves - especially as women-to show we're just as tough, but look and realize: if we've made it this far, we must be doing something right. So in order for you to continue with the struggle, you have got to stop and enjoy."

For Judge Jackson, taking a break is not just a matter of rest, but also of perspective. In a metaphor borrowed from Nelson Mandela, she explains the necessity of pausing during a difficult climb. "Many times I will lose my grip and slip back down. Many times I will be climbing and think: this time I can't make it because I'm alone and I feel like I'm fighting this battle by myself." But every now and again, the climber comes to a plateau. "That's where you rest. And you will see when you look down how far you have come. And when you look at the beauty of everything that's down below you and everything up around you. And we all need to do that - get on that plateau and take time to enjoy it. And then you rest and continue the climb further."

One particularly rich thing in her life is her "posse," a core group of close female friends she met serendipitously seven years ago at a women's fitness center. Two are old friends she became reacquainted with, and the others are new friends. "We're from all walks of life-I'm the only one who is a judge or former lawyer. We have the best bond." Judge Jackson explains, adding with much emphasis: "They are my life." Regardless of work demands, they meet twice a week to exercise and then go on a social outing. "And we do not talk about the law!" She jokes. "It's very important to get a core group of friends and it's never too late to expand that core - you'd be surprise. They are like my posse, and I am theirs," she explains.

On Diversity: "I believe the Constitution is a living document, and I believe the word diversity is a living definition."

Judge Jackson possesses an expansive definition of diversity. As she explains, "It's always for me a very liberal definition. Of course when we talk about diversity, we talk about women, we talk about people of color, and people from different socioeconomic positions, and sexual orientation. But diversity also means people who disagree with me. I think everyone should come to the table. I don't want someone who's always going to think the same way that I do. I don't want someone who's always coming from my background and my lifestyle and my wants and so forth. I want to hear from everyone." Further, diversity is "always going to have to get redefined because things are always going to be changing. I know that a few learned scholars would disagree with me, but I believe the Constitution is a living document, and I believe the word diversity is a living definition. That's how I view diversity."

Diversity, for Judge Jackson, is vital to the learning process because people are constantly evolving. "Diversity means you're going to grow. Exposure. I think it's kind of reflective of my life. If you look at my resume, some people say I haven't figured out what I want to do. I look at it as always a learning process. And that's why diversity is important."

Advice for practicing lawyers

Judge Jackson, who has been on the bench for approximately a decade now, noticed a significant transition from lawyer to judge. "When you're an advocate-and I've been on both sides of the aisle; I've done prosecution and also defense-your back is to the audience and you're zealously advocating for your side. But, you don't see the impact it has on your clients, or the victims, or the families, and so forth. As a judge, you sit as a neutral. You don't look at it as a case, you look at it as a decision that you're going to make that will have an impact on people."

"It has been a rude awakening," Judge Jackson explains. "My back is no longer to the person whom whatever I'm doing is going to affect. And it makes me realize that they're not cases, they're individuals and even antitrust has impact on someone and now I see it, because I see them in the audience."

When we asked Judge Jackson for advice for the advocates in her courtroom, she responded enthusiastically, but firmly. "I hope you can tell I like what I do. I know people are going to disagree; I want zealous advocacy." However, she emphasized the need for preparation and professionalism. "Please understand we do read your briefs." While it is important to argue your most important point, "reading verbatim your brief is not well-prepared." Further, "the judge is going to give the other side an opportunity to be heard-even if they're making the most outrageous argument-but do not interrupt them. And do not think I'm going to be swayed by it, but I want to make sure I understand it. And if I find that it's getting repetitive, if I find that it's unprofessional, if I find that it's being personal, I know how to control the courtroom. Personal attacks turn me off as a judge. If a case can go either way, I tend to go with the side that's most professional."

As for aspiring judges, the advice Judge Jackson gives is to focus on being a great lawyer. "Don't ever say 'I want to be a judge.' If you're working to be a judge, you're going to be a very miserable person. You are only going to get involved and do certain things to be a judge, and you're not going to get the benefit of being a good attorney. If you work to be a good attorney, your name and reputation will go places that you physically could never go. So I never tell someone not to become a judge, I say, become a great attorney. And if along the way you have the tenures and you find yourself at that place where you meet all the qualifications, then I'll sit down and talk to you about the application process."

Parting thoughts

After conversing with Judge Jackson, we came away refreshingly grounded and inspired. Her story is a warm one-filled with family, friends, a love of the law, and genuine modesty and generosity. While we pointed out that she achieved a lot of "firsts," such as being the first African-American female judge to sit on the San Francisco Superior Court bench, her perspective was different. "You know," Judge Jackson replied, "I never looked at it as being a pioneer. I looked at it as a lot of people who had come before me who should have achieved what I have. I might have been the first to accomplish it, but there were many people who laid the path for me to walk, and they carried and dragged me along the way and still do. So I guess yes, you're right, I'm the first to achieve this, but I'm not the first to go after this. And I am the beneficiary of a lot of people and a lot of sacrifices."