The following is a profile of the Honorable Autumn D. Spaeth, United States Magistrate Judge for the Central District of California. Judge Spaeth met with members of the Business Litigation Committee and the Insolvency Law Committee in her chambers at the Ronald Reagan Courthouse in Santa Ana and discussed her personal and professional background, her appointment as a Magistrate Judge and her experience on the bench.
Family Background and Private Practice
Judge Spaeth’s father was born into a Navy family. Her Grandfather was a sailor that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and married a native Hawaiian woman before Hawaii became the 50th state. Judge Spaeth grew up in Southern California. She received her undergraduate degree from UCLA in Political Science in 1996 and received her Juris Doctor from USC Law School and a Master of Arts in Communication Management from the USC’s Annenberg School of Communication in 2000. While an undergrad at UCLA, she was involved in recruiting for the Athletic Department and, although she is “always a Bruin,” she appreciates the excellent education she received in law school and USC’s impressive alumni network.
Prior to her appointment, Judge Spaeth was a founding partner of Smiley-Wang Ekvall, LLP a boutique law firm in Costa Mesa. Prior to its founding, Judge Spaeth was a partner at Weiland, Golden, Smiley Wang Ekvall & Strok, LLP, where she started as an associate, when it was called Albert, Weiland & Golden, and an associate at McDermott, Will & Emery’s Orange County office. In private practice, she litigated adversary proceedings in bankruptcy cases, business, commercial, and intellectual property disputes.
A Lawyer Representative Gaining Valuable Experience
While a practicing attorney, Judge Spaeth was selected by the District Court as a Central District of California Lawyer Representative to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference. She eventually became the Co-Chair of the Central District Lawyer Representatives in 2012, and in 2016 became Chair of the Ninth Circuit Lawyer Representative Coordinating Committee which is responsible for all of the Lawyer Representatives throughout the Ninth Circuit. In those positions, Judge Spaeth spent a considerable amount of time working closely with federal judges throughout the District and the Circuit. She commented, “The judges I had the opportunity to interact with and get to know are an exceptional group of people. They became mentors and friends. I learned that, besides their intense workload, many participate in other forms of community service. I came to realize that judges do a lot of good in their communities over and above their roles as judges.”
In fact, her experience as a Lawyer Representative “sparked the interest to become a federal judge.” The appointment process, however, is no picnic. An extensive application is required. The Central District of California has a Merit Selection Panel, made up of approximately twenty people selected by the District Court from the community, mostly lawyers and a few non-lawyers. It reviews all of the applications for each posting, interviewing references including opposing lawyers. A limited number of applicants are interviewed by the Merit Selection Panel, which then recommends five applicants to the District Court to be interviewed for one position. A committee of judges from the Central District of California interviews the finalists and makes a recommendation to the District Court’s Executive Committee, followed by a vote of all of the district judges of the District.
Judge Spaeth reflects that, though rigorous, the selection process is an invaluable experience for a judge. “Imagine an interview with twenty lawyers at one time, followed by an interview with twenty federal judges at one time. You have to be able to communicate what you want to communicate to a large group, when all eyes are on you.” She also commented, “I found that my role as the Central District Lawyer Representative Co-Chair was incredibly valuable to me as a lawyer, and then also during the magistrate judge selection process, because I was more comfortable speaking to the judges in the interview than I would have been otherwise.” “I had experience speaking to the entire Central District. Few lawyers have had that opportunity.” On June 15, 2018, Judge Spaeth was appointed by the United States District Court as a Magistrate Judge for the Central District of California. She maintains her chambers in the Southern Division, which is located in Santa Ana.
Experience as a Magistrate Judge
Judge Spaeth reflected that “as you mature, you come to see what’s important in life, and one of those things is community service. Serving as a judge is a wonderful opportunity to have your career also be community service.” She also said that “the job is phenomenal. I come across something new every day. I am constantly learning.” Judge Spaeth said that “magistrate judges are there to handle a portion of the District Court caseload.” She and the other magistrate judges work on cases with each of district judges in the Central District, and are assigned to a case at the same time the district judge is assigned.
As a Magistrate Judge in the Central District of California, Judge Spaeth’s caseload covers a broad spectrum of cases including pro se civil rights cases, state and federal habeas petitions, civil settlement conferences, discovery disputes, social security appeals, initial appearances, detention hearings, search warrants and arrest warrants in criminal cases, and other civil matters assigned by district judges or upon consent of the parties. Judge Spaeth cautions lawyers that each district court utilizes its magistrate judges differently. Lawyers should review each district court’s general orders when a question arises. However, it is universal that unless the parties have consented to a magistrate judge, case dispositive decisions are made by report and recommendation to the district judge assigned to the case. Judge Spaeth and the other magistrate judges in the Southern Division have criminal duty one week per month. In the other Divisions criminal duty varies based upon the number of judges. During that time, they continue to hear civil matters. Judge Spaeth’s civil motion calendar is held on Wednesdays.
Judge Spaeth hopes to learn from the examples set by many of the district’s judges as she molds her own judicial philosophy – for example, Judge David Carter’s efforts to train lawyers to be completely prepared for court appearances and responsible for the progress of their clients’ cases, Judge Andrew Guilford’s efforts to give lawyers courtroom experience by maintaining the practice of oral argument for civil matters, and Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell’s efforts to “support young attorneys and build relationships between the Bar and the bench.”
She gladly accepts her role in mentoring and training her law clerks. She implemented a policy of hiring law clerks for one-year terms instead of longer terms, which allows her to give more young attorneys the opportunity to learn from a clerkship. Each law clerk is given a lot of responsibility. “The experience I give my law clerks will leave them with advanced case management skills, which is something that takes years to learn in private practice.” Judge Spaeth commented that mentoring “is incredibly important for future of the legal profession and has the positive side effect of making the profession more enjoyable for the mentor.”
Observations from the Bench
Judge Spaeth generally reviews pleadings electronically and encourages the use of hyperlinks in briefs for cases, statutes, articles or other legal authorities cited in filings by represented parties (and notes that there are instructions for hyperlinking briefs on the Court’s website and Judge Spaeth’s procedures page). The hyperlinks allow immediate access to the referenced citations. Judge Spaeth, however, encourages parties to remember to tab mandatory chambers copies because paper review is also common.
For discovery disputes, Judge Spaeth conducts informal conference calls with the attorneys to resolve disputes without the need for a time consuming joint motion.
Regarding telephonic appearances, Judge Spaeth commented that “telephonic appearances make sense if you are trying to be economical, but it’s also a lost opportunity for the lawyer.”
Although she loves being a magistrate judge, and enjoys her new colleagues, Judge Spaeth admits she misses a few aspects of private practice. Judge Spaeth says she misses being an advocate and the adrenaline that comes with court hearings, trials and deadlines. She does not, however, miss time sheets or monthly invoices.
Continued Involvement in the Community and Coming to Work Every Day
Along with her duties as Magistrate Judge, Judge Spaeth remains actively involved with the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference. In 2018, Judge Spaeth served as the Program Chair for the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference and is the Chair of the 2019 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference. This is the annual conference for the entire Ninth Circuit judiciary. Although she had to resign her position on the board of the Orange County Bar Association upon her appointment, Judge Spaeth continues to serve on the board of the Federal Bar Association-Orange County Chapter.
Asked what part of being a Magistrate Judge she most enjoys, Judge Spaeth states, “at this point, I enjoy every aspect of the job.” When Judge Spaeth leaves the courthouse at the end of the day, she goes home to enjoy time with her family.
This article was written by Philip Bonoli, a partner at Brutzkus Gubner Rozansky Seror Weber LLP and Co-Chair of the Business Litigation Committee of the California Lawyers Association (CLA) Business Law Section (firstname.lastname@example.org), Misty Perry Isaacson, a partner at Pagter and Perry Isaacson, APLC and a member of the Insolvency Law Committee of the CLA Business Law Section (email@example.com), and Corey R. Weber, a partner at Brutzkus Gubner Rozansky Seror Weber LLP and Vice Chair of the CLA Business Law Section (firstname.lastname@example.org).