The following article is a profile of the Honorable Ernest M. Robles – the third in a series of profiles of Ninth Circuit bankruptcy judges. Judge Robles and members of the Insolvency Law Committee met in his chambers and discussed his personal and professional background, observations from the bench, and issues of interest.
The Judge’s Hometown and Education
Judge Robles was born in Mexico and was raised in San Francisco. As Judge Robles remarked, “in those days, San Francisco was a workingman’s town”—a town he regards as home, which explains his love for the Giants despite having chambers that overlook Dodgers stadium.
Judge Robles always wanted to be a lawyer and was interested in public service. After graduating from high school, Judge Robles attended the University of California at Berkeley—receiving a degree in political science. Following his graduation from Berkeley, Judge Robles attended the University of Michigan for law school, an experience that made him a fan of Michigan football. As he recalled, “at Michigan, we didn’t have a choice. The Big House was the place where all your friends were.”
Prior to Taking the Bench
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Judge Robles returned to the bay area to begin his career as a litigation associate with Musick Peeler & Garrett LLP. Over the following years, Judge Robles litigated a wide range of matters from maritime to insurance bad faith cases, and tried numerous cases before juries, which he commented was a “wonderful experience.” Judge Robles recalled one case in particular—a case that shaped one of his views on his role in the cases pending before him to this day. In his first jury trial, the judge kept calling Judge Robles into his chambers after each day of trial. On each occasion, the presiding judge would tell him that he had a terrible case and was going to lose, and pressed Judge Robles to explore settlement. Judge Robles, however, did not buckle under the pressure and pressed forward with litigation. Ultimately, Judge Robles obtained a jury verdict in favor of his client. After the trial concluded, the judge once again brought Judge Robles back to his chambers and told him “never let a judge tell you how to try your case”—advice Judge Robles continues to follow now that he is the judge.
After several years as a big firm litigator, Judge Robles saw an advertisement for a position with the newly-formed Office of the United States Trustee (UST). Despite minimal bankruptcy experience, Judge Robles saw the position as an opportunity to pursue his interest in public service.
Due to his extensive litigation and trial experience, the UST hired Judge Robles as an Assistant United States Trustee. Judge Robles recounted that they liked that he was quick on his feet. Over the following years, Judge Robles represented the UST in a wide array of cases, including some of the largest cases in the Northern District. Ultimately, Judge Robles was elevated to the head of the San Jose office of the UST.
During his time with the UST, Judge Robles learned a great deal that helped him develop his judicial style. As he recalled, “I saw how judges ran cases, learned how they governed the courtroom and how they read pleadings. I also got up-to-speed on bankruptcy law.” After eight years as an Assistant United States Trustee, Judge Robles began pursuing his goal of becoming a judge. “Being a judge is a calling. It fit my personality. I wanted to settle disputes and be of some help.” In 1993, Judge Robles was appointed to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California, Los Angeles Division, where he has served since his appointment.
Observations from the Bench
Over the past 23 years, Judge Robles has carried his desire to serve the public into his courtroom—focusing on giving every party a full and fair opportunity to present their case and “have their day in court.” Ideals of equity and fairness influence his actions daily and, more importantly, his treatment of parties and attorneys appearing in his courtroom. During this time, Judge Robles has also developed certain preferences for attorneys practicing in his courtroom.
Judge Robles places a great deal of emphasis on written pleadings. He considers a motion submitted once he receives all of the pleadings and believes it is unfair to make new arguments after a motion has been fully briefed. The judge prepares detailed tentative rulings that discuss the pleadings filed and how the court intends to rule. He believes that “it is good for everyone to have the court’s feelings out there for parties to respond to, and it is good for the reviewing court.” The judge is not often swayed by arguments at hearings, and usually only if counsel can show that the court was incorrect in the analysis of a case, or if the argument is policy driven. “The tradition of the court is written advocacy, but being able to answer questions is noticeable and terrific.”
As for technical or stylistic aspects of the pleadings, the judge looks for brevity in briefs, and often looks to the reply brief first. As Judge Robles remarked, “the reply brief boils everything down in a cogent fashion.” Judge Robles also looks for good organization in briefs and for briefs to argue the big points.
Judge Robles believes civility in the profession is very important. The judge reflected that the bankruptcy community “is a small community. You see the same faces again and again. Be civil and give a break to the other side. You’ll need a break sometime.” He continued that “there’s nothing wrong with being an aggressive advocate and being civil. Not being personal, being above board. Being an attorney is tough enough without having to worry about opposing counsel knocking you in the back.”
While he recognizes advocacy can create extraneous disputes, Judge Robles believes that interpersonal disputes or gamesmanship only serve as distractions to the issues presented. As Judge Robles remarked, “interpersonal disputes and lack of civility are just static.” Judge Robles wants to render a decision on the merits of a dispute.
Not surprisingly, this perspective carries-over into his view on motions under Rule 9011 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. When discussing this point, the judge asked: “Do you really want to bring a 9011 motion if there is another way to bring the issue before the court and have the court resolve it?” Quoting Abraham Lincoln, the judge instead calls on the “better angels” of the attorneys to conduct themselves in a professional manner and, thereby, resolve such matters without court intervention. That being said, if court intervention is required to end obstreperous or contemptable conduct, Judge Robles will not hesitate to maintain civility and order in the matters pending before his court.
Honesty with the Court
Judge Robles also encourages attorneys not to try to hide the ball from the judge. “If you know the answer is out there and dodge, the court loses confidence in that attorney. Attorneys have reputations and you shouldn’t do anything that would damage your reputation. Clients come and go, but once you lose your reputation, it’s hard to get it back. I put a lot of stock in attorneys being officers of the court. That’s what I expect. We’re all part of a process that’s bigger than ourselves.”
The Judge’s Chambers
In chambers, Judge Robles embraces his affinity for technology and mentorship.
As to the former, Judge Robles has incorporated technology in his chambers in multiple respects. “I try to be paperless. I take extensive notes and then pdf them.” With paperless filings, the judge reviews and annotates orders on computers, and tries to turn around orders as quickly as possible. The tentative ruling is always part of the order. “I like the use of technology during hearings and trials. I wish we had better technology in the courtroom. Now you can refer to exhibits on digital pads. Binders and binders of exhibits are stone age stuff.” One area where the judge relies on older technology is hard copies of the case reporters. While his clerks often use Westlaw, the judge prefers the hard copy books.
As to the latter, Judge Robles views his clerkship program as an important aspect of the court and has a great deal of respect for the role of a law clerk in his chambers. The judge has two law clerks, one term clerk and one career clerk. “It is one of the most difficult jobs out of law school. It is a steep learning curve.” He notes that “I’ve never had a clerk that was not up to the challenge. Some clerks feel the stress more and the ramping up time differs.” Once the judge gets a comfort level on his clerks’ abilities, he and his clerks work closely together. “It’s like MASH. Radar and the Colonel finished each other’s thoughts.”
As he spoke of his current and former clerks, it became clear that Judge Robles cares deeply about his law clerks, noting that “the greatest feeling of accomplishment is my relationship with my law clerks. How they impacted me and how I impacted them. Also how they now give guidance to people working for them.”
Life Outside of the Court
Judge Robles has five children and has been married to his wife for more than 30 years. In speaking of his family, Judge Robles recalled challenges resolving disputes outside the courtroom, including his youngest son’s affinity for video games when it is at odds with his need to study and practice the cello. As in the courtroom, Judge Robles received arguments on the benefit of the Minecraft video game, which his son contended is educational because it is about “economics…supply and demand.” Although he respected the argument, Judge Robles was not persuaded and his son lost the motion for additional video game time. “You have to put limits,” Judge Robles remarked.
In addition to his family, Judge Robles has a love for music—an appreciation that began as a child and grew as a performer in his younger years. Judge Robles commented that “performing gives you a different perspective on listening to music.” As a former performer, it is no surprise that he enjoys live performances and is a regular attendee of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Judge Robles also noted that sometimes he will fly somewhere just to see a concert. As Judge Robles put it: “It’s different live. Recorded music is too perfect and antiseptic. If you go to a performance, you see the interactions between the performers and the interaction with the audience.”
This article was written by Corey R. Weber (email@example.com), a partner at Brutzkus Gubner Rozansky Seror Weber LLP and Co-Chair of the Insolvency Law Committee, and Michael Delaney (firstname.lastname@example.org), an attorney at BakerHostetler LLP and member of the Insolvency Law Committee.
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