Women Attorneys and Judges in Contra Costa County over the past 85 years
We’ve Come a Long Way Baby!
In a world where less than 36 percent of working attorneys are female, it can be tempting to dwell on the long road ahead to achieve equal footing for women in the legal profession. While continuing along this road to equality, we must remember that the foundation for this path is already in place. As we celebrate the 85th Anniversary of the Contra Costa County Bar Association, we recognize the trailblazing women attorneys and judges of our county who have demonstrated their passion for the law and who set up a foundation for countless other women attorneys to follow in their footsteps. We highlight some of these women attorneys and judges who practiced in our county and participated in the Bar Association.
Suzanne Chapot – First Female Bar Association President
The Contra Costa County Bar Association can trace its beginnings back to 1934, with all male attorney Board Presidents for 51 years. In 1985, Suzanne Chapot, who was the only female attorney Board of Directors member, became its first female Board President. Her presidency was historic for several other reasons: she served a second consecutive term and faced the challenge of presiding over the newly formed county wide association after the merger of West County, East County and the Mt. Diablo Bar Associations. Suzanne, who graduated from Golden Gate Law School in 1975, was a trailblazer right out of school when she and fellow classmate Harriett Parker-Bass opened their own law firm in Walnut Creek handling family law and probate matters. When she appeared in the family law department in the basement of the Martinez courthouse shortly after her admission to practice, she recalls the judge commenting “why are you in court–shouldn’t you be home baking bread?”
Several years later they were successful in challenging the law regarding the assignment of a surname of a child in custody disputes. In the 1980 published California Supreme Court decision, In re Marriage of Schiffman, the court observed that common law and custom which had given the father the primary right to have his child bear his surname had to give way to present-day norms. They held that a child’s surname should be decided based on the child’s best interests. Subsequently Suzanne left private practice and joined the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office in 1982. At that time there were very few female public defenders. She worked there for 30 years until her retirement as the second in command of the office – the Chief Assistant Public Defender. During her tenure she tried several death penalty cases including the infamous defense of Glenn Helzer who was convicted of killing an elderly Concord couple and Selena Bishop, the daughter of the bluesman musician Elvin Bishop. Since her two term Bar presidency, 34 years ago, the CCCBA has elected seven female presidents including Suzanne Fenstermacher (1992), Tammy-Lyn Gallerini (2003), Helen Peters (2007), Robin Pearson (2008), Kathryn Schofield (2011), Audrey Gee (2012) and Elva Harding (2016). The Bar Association continues to see growth in female membership and in leadership roles throughout its Sections.
Female Attorneys Serve as the Contra Costa County Counsel, the District Attorney and Public Defender
The Contra Costa County Counsel’s office which represents the various public agencies of the County and advises the Board of Supervisors was created in 1969. Forty years later, in 2009 Sharon Anderson, who joined the office in the 1980s, was appointed by the Board of Supervisors as the first female County Counsel and she serves in that position today. The first Contra Costa County District Attorney was J.F. Williams who served from 1850-1852. In September 2017 Diana Becton who served for 22 years as a Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge was appointed by the Board of Supervisors as the first female District Attorney in the history of the office that opened in 1850. She subsequently ran for election in 2018 and was successful in her bid. Finally, for the first time in the history of the Public Defender’s Office, the top position is held by a female attorney, Robin Lipetzsky who has served in that position since 2009. Contra Costa County now has all female attorneys leading all three public legal offices.
The History of Female Judges in the County
Betsy Fitzgerald Rahn became the first female judge in Contra Costa County serving on the Walnut Creek Municipal Court until her retirement in 1979. During her tenure on the bench she presided at several locations including the Veteran’s Building courthouse on Locust Street which is now the site of the Walnut Creek Cinema movie theaters.
In 1977 Patricia Herron was appointed as the first female judge of the Contra Costa County Superior Court and was elected Presiding Judge within two and one-half years of her appointment.
Ellen James who worked in the Public Defender’s office and was a founder of the Women’s Section, was the first female judge of the Mt. Diablo Judicial District and now serves as a neutral at JAMS.
Patricia McKinley was the first female African American judge in Contra Costa County and started her tenure on the bench in the Richmond courthouse at the age of 33. Sadly, she died in 1986.
Irene Takahashi was the first female Asian American judge in the County. She worked for the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office from 1982 to 1989 and transitioned to private practice with her last position as a partner at Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith. She now serves as a neutral at ADR Services. The County has also had several Superior Court judges elevated to the First District Court of Appeal. In 1998 Patricia Sepulveda was appointed to the Court of Appeal. She served as a Contra Costa Superior Court Judge starting in 1989 and was a Deputy District Attorney for eleven years.
Maria Rivera who served on the Bar’s Board of Directors from 1990 to 1996 and was a founding member and officer of the Women’s Section was elevated from the Superior Court to the Court of Appeal in 2002. She presently works as a neutral for ADR Services. Today the Superior Court bench which has 43 Departments (Departments 1-40, 52, 54, and 57) is occupied by 23 female judges/commissioners which is over 50% of the bench.
CCCBA Women’s Section
For the past 25 years, the Women’s Section has been a strong presence in the Contra Costa County Bar Association. The goal of the Section is to further the advancement of women in the legal profession and Judiciary. The Section annually awards scholarships in the names of former Judges Patricia Herron and Ellen James to law students who have shown leadership potential and helped to advance women’s issues. They have hosted an Annual scholarship fundraiser for several decades. The current Board President is Patanisha Davis-Jenkins.
Contra Costa County and the Bar Association can be proud of its women attorneys and judges who have practiced in the County for over 80 years and now represent a majority of leadership and judicial positions. WE HAVE COME A LONG WAY, BABY!!