Reflections on a Career on the Bench

After 23 years on the bench, I’ll be retiring in January. I’m looking forward to this next phase in my life, but as my retirement date approaches I’m having some mixed emotions. Being a Superior Court Judge is the best job in the world and I’ve loved every minute. It has been intellectually challenging, emotionally fulfilling and always interesting. The job has immense responsibility over people’s lives and society’s most difficult issues, while offering the opportunity to profoundly affect our world for the better. It also comes with the bonus of getting to watch and interact with some of the best lawyers in the state as they represent their clients. I can’t think of any better career.

I didn’t know all of that in January of 1999 when I showed up for my first day of work at the old Pittsburg Courthouse. It was quite a shock to walk into that rickety old building to begin my judicial career as a criminal trial judge after 18 years as a civil litigator. The one long public hallway was packed with people there for a court appearance or to visit the methadone clinic in the middle of the courthouse for their daily dose. I remember learning on that first day that because there were no metal detectors I should always be aware that people in the hallway or in my courtroom may be carrying a gun or a knife. My bailiff also showed me how to crouch under my Kevlar-lined bench in case of trouble in the court. I remember thinking, “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore!”

But from that first day, I was hooked. The courthouse was always buzzing with activity and the busy calendars made every day fly by. The criminal attorneys were talented and patient with me as I learned how to be a judge while simultaneously learning criminal practice. And the staff, both inside the courtroom and in the Clerk’s office, was so knowledgeable and helpful that it made my transition feel effortless. They were also wonderful people and a joy to work with every day, both during my first stint in Pittsburg and later when I returned for three years during the transition to the beautiful new courthouse.

One thing I’ve enjoyed most about being a judge is the chance the job offers to get involved in an entirely new area of the law. Besides my time in Pittsburg, I’ve had assignments in Family and Felony trials. It was so exciting and interesting to learn about those practice areas and to see the differences in the legal culture in each. I also served as Presiding Judge for our court a few years ago. I’m still amazed at the scope and breadth of the issues that landed on my desk as PJ. But with seven court locations, over 300 employees and thousands of people coming through our buildings every day, the complexities of that job should be expected. I really enjoyed the unpredictable nature of my responsibilities and the opportunity it gave me to help develop programs and policies that benefited our community.

After all of that, my home for most of my time on the bench has been in the Civil Department. I can’t think of any part of my 13 years here I didn’t like. The legal issues presented by the thousands of cases I’ve presided over have always been interesting and often complex. One of the best parts about the position is getting to take a deep dive into all kinds of interesting things in the world around us. Like how the brain works, the mechanics of a railroad crossing, how a gas station makes money, methods for dredging coastal waters and how you can get a nasty fungus from a pedicure. Every day I learn something new while participating in the human drama inherent in every lawsuit.

I’ve gotten to do all of this while working each day with the remarkable and dedicated people that staff our court at every level. A number of them had worked with the Court for many years before I was appointed. And I’ve been blessed with the best and nicest courtroom staff all throughout my time on the bench. Annie Young has been my clerk for the last 10 years. She is incredible at her job and a warm, funny and engaging person. I’ve looked forward to seeing her and our bailiff Paul Welge each day for a long time now. I’m going to miss them both very much.

I’m also going to miss all of the judges and commissioners on our bench. I’ve gotten to know a lot of bench officers around the state in my time here and I know no other court has a better, more collegial or supportive group of bench officers than Contra Costa. It has truly been an honor to serve with them. I feel the same way about the many, many lawyers who have appeared in my court and who have selflessly volunteered as mediators, discovery facilitators and Pro Tems over the years. Thanks for all you have done to improve the justice system in our county and to make my life on the bench so memorable and rewarding.

Editor’s Note: Help the CCCBA honor Judge Austin at the Installation and Diversity Awards event on Friday, January 28, 2022. More information is here.