The Bench

Of the more than one million licensed attorneys in the United States, about three percent are members fo the judiciary. It's a small, elite group that includes more than 100 California Western alumni and adjunct professors. Two veteran judges and one new judge discuss their experiences on the bench.

Haller's world as an appellate judge is very cyclical. She and her fellow justices on the panel are assigned cases about three months in advance. Haller's team of research attorneys gathers information for her to provide context for the array of cases she will review.

"Our research attorneys are patient and deliberative. They're willing to go through every page to put the puzzle together," she said.

About a week before oral arguments, the activity level in the appellate court increases dramatically. "The week of oral arguments, there's definitely a buzz. Everybody starts focusing on the oral arguments cases and you're reading the proposed opinion and the briefs. You're trying to decide if you agree or disagree. You're talking to other judges on the panel."

And then the arguments begin. During her 11 years on the 4th District Court of Appeal, Haller said she has seen superb attorneys argue cases, and she has heard her share of attorneys who simply don’t understand the appellate process.

"Appealing to our passions or getting angry or talking about how this has had a devastating impact on one side or the other - we're painfully aware of that,” she said. “For me the attorneys who are most helpful at the appellate court level are the attorneys who start with the proposition that we are trying to get this right. The attorneys who set aside the emotion and the passion and force us to focus in on what the law is and what the issues are."

Haller understands this process very well. Before she was appointed to the Court of Appeal, she served as superior court judge in San Diego for five years. Like David Gill, her path to the judiciary involved stints in the district attorney's office and in private practice. Her experiences have given her a broad context for her position on the appellate court, and they forced her to view the law in a different way.

"It is so much different to be the decision maker than to be the advocate. And it was so dramatic to me because I had this sense that I knew what was going on in the legal system. And yet when you become a judge, you just see it from an entirely different perspective," she explained. "As a litigation attorney, I really thought your stock and trade relied on your oral advocacy. I quickly learned that it's really the quality of the written work that is so critical," she said. "Oral advocacy can make a difference and it is important. However, typically you win or lose based upon the strength of your brief writing."

Haller pores through the briefs methodically for the cases that she reviews. Unlike her time on the superior court, where she might have two hours to spend on a summary judgment, she has the precious commodity of time on the appellate level.

"I like to say that we have the luxury of time and the responsibility of time. We can't ever say that we didn't have enough time to figure it out. We're supposed to get it right," she said. "We are mindful of the fact that for most people this is their last appeal."

A full version of this story appears in the Fall 2005 Res Ipsa.