Breaking the Mold: A Conversation with Presiding Justice Bigelow
by Kim Encinas
Presiding Justice Tricia A. Bigelow of the California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Eight, seems almost destined for her occupation. Her late father, M. Ross Bigelow, was also a lawyer and eventually a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. Her legal education began early. She recalls being regaled with stories of his day at work as a high school student, and even then, she was a rapt student of the law. Some of their father/daughter bonding time in her teenage years consisted of discussing the felony-murder rule or the difference between the guilt phase and the penalty phase of a criminal trial. But to chalk up her successful career to "destiny” or her father’s early influence does not do justice to her hard work and achievements along the way. She is not simply a jurist; she is also a leader, an educator of the judiciary, and a prolific author of legal texts.
Presiding Justice Bigelow is a native Southern Californian, born and raised in Long Beach, California. Her father started his career in private practice as a civil litigator and opened his own firm, Bigelow & Sullivan. Governor Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Municipal Court and then the Superior Court. Her mother was a school teacher. Presiding Justice Bigelow graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism. Around this time, she worked at Bobby McGee’s, an old restaurant chain that might be described as part eatery, part theater. The servers dressed in costume and were encouraged to play their costumed parts to the hilt. Presiding Justice Bigelow dressed as the cowgirl "Barbed Wire,” and her costume was complete with boots, a stick pony, and a lighter that looked like a gun. She remembers her time at Bobby McGee’s fondly, noting she made lifelong friends there. Ultimately, the practice in public speaking and presentation was good training for her future profession.
Putting her degree in journalism to work, she also externed for the Orange County Register. But she quickly decided a career in journalism was not for her after all. Law school seemed like a natural choice, having been steeped in and fascinated by stories from her father’s career. Her father’s stories had convinced her she wanted to be a prosecutor. She graduated from Pepperdine Law School and then joined the criminal division of the California Attorney General’s Office in Los Angeles.
During her nine years there, she rose to Supervising Deputy Attorney General and Trial Coordinator and oversaw all the criminal trials and investigations in Los Angeles. She represented the state in hundreds of felony appeals and argued cases before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the California Supreme Court, and the California Court of Appeal. She also joined the Special Prosecutions Unit, a task force that tried multi-jurisdictional and complex cases, such as major fraud and organized crime cases. For her work in that special unit, she was cross-designated as a Special Assistant United States Attorney and a Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney.
One of her most memorable cases as a prosecutor came during her time in the Special Prosecutions Unit. She was prosecuting Mark R. Weinberg, a commodities broker charged with fraud. Weinberg had close ties to Ira Reiner, then the Los Angeles District Attorney. Weinberg was Reiner’s biggest campaign contributor. The Special Prosecutions Unit took over the case from the District Attorney’s office because of this conflict of interest.
Weinberg’s alleged scheme consisted of obtaining personal loans from wealthy investors under false pretenses. He told victims he would use their loans for a great purchase on the commodities market and promised them a substantial return within a short time frame. Some of his high profile victims included John Paul Jones De Joria, co-founder of the Paul Mitchell line of hair products, and James Aubrey, former head of CBS.
Weinberg represented himself in pro per at trial, which is part of what made the case such a memorable experience for Presiding Justice Bigelow. She recalls him wearing a bright orange sweater every day during trial. One day, she had a witness on the stand from the commodities market in Chicago. She began to lay a foundation and asked the witness to explain how the commodities market worked. Weinberg interjected, "Objection. Booooooooring!” Needless to say, the court did not sustain the objection.
Weinberg claimed Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was a friend and said he was going to call Mayor Bradley as a character witness. Presiding Justice Bigelow spoke with Mayor Bradley about Weinberg as she was preparing for trial. When she asked Mayor Bradley what he thought about Weinberg’s character for truth or veracity, he told her Weinberg was "a pathological liar.” Presiding Justice Bigelow elicited the same statement from Mayor Bradley during her cross-examination of him at trial. The all-female jury, chosen by Weinberg, convicted him of five fraud counts.
After her nine years as a Deputy Attorney General, Governor Pete Wilson appointed Presiding Justice Bigelow to the Municipal Court in 1995 and elevated her to the Superior Court in 1998. As a Municipal Court judge, she was Supervising Judge of the Hollywood Branch Court and presided over misdemeanor cases. As a Superior Court judge, she spent seven years presiding over long cause criminal trials, the county’s most significant, high-profile, and lengthy trials. She then spent three years presiding over general jurisdiction fast track civil trials.
It was during her time as a trial court judge that Presiding Justice Bigelow began to pursue her calling as an educator of other judges. Her father had also taught classes for his fellow judges, and teaching "seemed instinctual” to her. She began as a seminar leader at the B.E. Witkin Judicial College of California, the education program for newly appointed/elected judges. The seminars she led were small break-out groups of approximately eight judges. That grew into teaching classes at the college. She eventually served several years as Associate Dean and then Dean of the Judicial College.
Judge Richard Couzens (Ret.), as a more experienced teacher, was assigned to observe her teaching one of her first classes. After observing the class, Judge Couzens asked her to co-author a treatise on three strikes sentencing. From that fortuitous meeting sprung a years-long partnership. Judge Couzens and Presiding Justice Bigelow have now co-authored three comprehensive treatises — California Three Strikes Sentencing, Sex Crimes: California Law and Procedure, and Sentencing California Crimes — published by The Rutter Group. In addition to their prolific writings, they regularly co-teach at the Judicial College and elsewhere up and down the state.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Presiding Justice Bigelow to the Court of Appeal in 2008 and then appointed her Presiding Justice of Division Eight in 2010. Her advice for counsel appearing before Division Eight: be prepared, be courteous to the justices and opposing counsel, stand firm in your positions, but at the same time have the flexibility to admit the weaknesses in your case. Being able to admit the weaknesses lends you credibility. Also, directly answer the questions the justices ask. If they are asking, they truly want your thoughts or opinions.
She has advice for lawyers looking to become judges as well. It is imperative to get trial experience. Get experience in both criminal and civil law. Be ethical in your interactions with the court and with people in general. Be involved in bar associations. And lastly, "It never hurts to be kind.”
In her opinion, a good judge will be patient, fair, an exceptional listener, and courteous yet firm. In addition, something she once heard United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor say resonates with her. Justice O’Connor noted judges can be so erudite and intellectual that they sometimes lose sight of common sense in their decision-making, and they should never forget common sense. Presiding Justice Bigelow agrees judges "will arrive at the right answer” if they remember to exercise their common sense in addition to their intellect.
The late Presiding Justice Mildred L. Lillie of the California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Seven, is one of the judges she admires and considers a role model. Presiding Justice Bigelow externed for Presiding Justice Lillie and describes her as an exceptional jurist and brilliant writer who had the highest standards for professionalism. Justice Carol A. Corrigan of the California Supreme Court is another one of her role models. Presiding Justice Bigelow has worked with Justice Corrigan at the Judicial College and on a death penalty case Justice Corrigan authored when Presiding Justice Bigelow sat as a pro tem justice on the California Supreme Court. She describes Justice Corrigan as "the Mary Poppins of the bench” in that "she is practically perfect in every way” — she is thoughtful, articulate, witty, and an extraordinary teacher, and she writes clear, direct opinions.
Presiding Justice Bigelow loves "everything” about being a justice and believes there is no better job. She is proud to be in a position to shape the law in California and is particularly proud of her working relationships. She describes the justices of Division Eight as diverse in their politics and personalities. Despite those differences, she believes they have managed to work together effectively and collegially, respecting each other’s different perspectives.
Being a judge and justice has not been without its challenges, though. Her biggest challenge has been that she does not think she "fit[s] the mold of what people expect judges to be.” When she was a new judge, she and the other new judges at the Judicial College took a Myers-Briggs personality test. They were told most judges have an INTJ personality type, standing for introversion, intuition, thinking, and judging. Her results were the exact opposite in almost every category — ESFJ, or extraversion, sensing, feeling, and judging. She was told only five percent of judges have ESFJ results. Her results said she would make "the perfect mother” and "a very good hostess.” Maybe so. But as it turns out, breaking the mold of the typical judge has worked out just fine for Presiding Justice Bigelow. Kim Encinas co-chairs WLALA’s Membership Committee and is an Appellate Court Attorney at the California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Eight.