Alameda County Superior Court Judge Carol Brosnahan received the Aranda Access to Justice Award on Nov. 14 for her four decades of dedication to equality and access in the judicial system. The California Lawyers Association recently spoke to her about her journey to the bench and her groundbreaking work with the collaborative courts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch a video of the award presentation.
You recently received a note of congratulations from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Tell us more.
It was a very nice note congratulating me on my 40 years on the bench. We were in the same class at Harvard Law School. There were nine women and 525 men. There’s a story Ruth tells about the dean inviting us to dinner and telling us we were taking the place of a man who would do something with the profession. That’s a true story.
What was your law school experience like?
It was an interesting experience. I had gone to an all women’s college, Wellesley, and found myself in essentially an all men’s college. I met my husband, Jim, in our third year. We met on the 25th of September and got married on the eighth of November of that year. We knew each other for six weeks. We’ve now been married 61 years. He’s much better known than I am. You can google him and you’ll get pages and pages. He’s very committed to the profession and to lawyers. He just finished an autobiography of his cases. He’s still teaching and lecturing but he’s not taking clients anymore.
What made you decide to become a judge?
Sex discrimination. That’s the short answer. I was working for Continuing Education of the Bar. I was head of the program department. I was designing all sorts of programs for CEB. I was their director of local bar relations and I also edited some books. At the time there was a director and two assistant directors (both men). And I asked the director, I said I really ought to be an assistant director. And he wouldn’t do it. It’s kind of ironic because now the head of CEB is a woman. That wasn’t the case 40 years ago. It’s water under the bridge now, but at the time I didn’t think it was fair.
How did you navigate the judicial appointment process?
I knew an awful lot of lawyers throughout the state. And I had been on the Fair Political Practices Commission. So I put my name in and Jerry Brown ‘the first,’ which means it was his first stint as governor, appointed me. I felt I had the temperament to be a judge. Being married to a trial lawyer, I did a lot of listening (laughs). So there I was down in the Berkeley-Albany Municipal Court. It was wonderful—like a small-town court.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
As far as judging is concerned, I’m right now doing what I really like the most. Collaborative courts. That is my real love because you actually try to keep people out of jail rather than put them in. And that’s very rewarding. You have your ups and downs with people who have either addiction problems or mental illness. But you have successes. And they’re extremely rewarding. And you work with just the best people because they’re so committed to the recovery of people and finding the good in everybody. So it’s really a dream assignment for me. I do two mental health courts and drug court. Two days a week I go out to the psych ward. We have a little courthouse there. I do conservatorships and habeas proceedings, things like that.
What was your role in forming the behavioral health court in Alameda County?
When I was in Berkeley this woman came to the court and said there’s no drug and alcohol program for street people and I want to start one. Her name was Davida Coady. She was an absolute saint. She passed away just recently. We said that’s wonderful. We started what’s called the Options Recovery Service. That’s been more than 20 years. They started with maybe 20 people and now serve over 100 people a day. The father of the behavioral court program was a judge in Santa Clara County (Judge Stephen Manley). It seemed logical to start one here in Oakland. I’ve had that assignment for about 10 years.
Tell us about some of your favorite cases over the years?
It’s the ones where you see their lives turn around. My favorite cases are the ones where you have someone who has been estranged from family either because of their mental health or because of their alcoholism. And at the end of the program, they’ve reunited with their families. They’re no longer living on the streets.
I have some favorite people over the years. There was a guy by the name of Danny. Danny drinks a little bit, so I have to see him in court. But if he didn’t get arrested he’d come and bring me a Christmas card. He brought me a card that said ‘Judge Brosnahan, I love you. Nothing sexual.’ Signed Danny (laughs).
And then there’s Edwin. Edwin and I first met in Berkeley. In the old days, you’d call him a remittance man, which means he gets money from his family to stay away. He just comes to court regularly. He doesn’t get arrested. He just comes to court to say hi. One time he had a present for me. He had somehow found a 1920s Restatement of the Law of Trusts and brought it to me as a present.
I had a young man in the mental health court. He came in and had a flower pot on his head (laughs). He very proudly walked up to the bench and presented it to me. There are light moments as well as some very sad moments.
I had a very sad one yesterday. There was a young man who had been in my mental health court. He had done very well. He was a very talented musician, who came and played his guitar at graduation. But he has now been hospitalized. His mental illness has taken a complete hold of him. He won’t take his meds. When he gets off his meds the demons come. He’s not doing well at all. And, you know, you don’t want to lose anybody.
There are people I first saw in Berkeley that I still see. They do OK. They get out, they get off meds and then they’re back in. I can understand not wanting to take the meds that make you feel groggy and all doped up all the time.
What’s astonishing to me is the genetic aspect of mental illness. So many of the people have parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings. There’s one family who’s on my calendar out at the psych ward. The father, the son and the daughter all are hospitalized. The mother comes to court and tries to hold it all together. She’s just a saint. So there are a lot of people who are much more deserving of getting an award than I am. There are so many people who do remarkable things.
The story of Davida and Tom is a wonderful story. One of the first very first people that the Berkeley court sent to the options program was a guy by the name of Tom. Tom was almost 50. He had had 400 arrests. He went kicking and screaming into this alcohol rehab. Very bright guy. He became sober, went to JFK University and got his certificate as an addiction counselor, then went to Cal and got his masters in marriage and family counseling. He and Dr. Coady fell in love and got married by Father Bill O’Donnell in our backyard.
What inspires you to keep a rigorous calendar when at age 84 you could retire?
The fact that even though you feel like Sisyphus every once and a while—pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down on you—you have successes. You have people who you never thought would make it, who make it. It’s just a wonderful feeling.
For a lot of people who come into the collaborative courts, I’m the only grandmother they’ve ever had. It was funny, last week I was on vacation and another judge came in to do my mental health calendar. A number of the clients were very upset and he had to say to them, ‘It’s OK she’s coming back next week.’ I think it’s giving some people a sense that something is permanent, that something is predictable in their lives. And that’s a good thing.
Have any of your children followed their parents into the legal profession?
My daughter, Amy Brosnahan, sits on a small-town court in Minnesota. She does everything from probate to murder and domestic relations and traffic. She does it all. We’re very pleased with her. She’s a good judge.
My son is a teacher and a dancer. My youngest daughter is an opera singer and writer. So they’re very creative kids.