Judge Schopler was confirmed as a District Judge for the Southern District of California in March of 2023. Judge Schopler was a magistrate judge for the Southern District of California since 2016. Before his appointment to the bench, he was deputy chief of the Major Frauds and Special Prosecutions Section at the Office of the U.S. Attorney in San Diego. He joined the office as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2004. Judge Schopler is also a member of the U.S. Army, California Army National Guard and holds the rank of major.
In this interview, Judge Schopler describes what led him to consider becoming a judge, his experience deploying on active duty in Afghanistan while serving as a U.S. Magistrate Judge, and his views on what makes a successful advocate. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your career?
Early in my career, I worked as a public defender before moving to a small firm. I primarily did criminal defense for the first seven years of my career. That was all in North Carolina. I ended up being appointed to the Capital Roster in North Carolina, which is a panel of attorneys who represent defendants charged with capital murder cases. And I also did some significant civil cases at the law firm in North Carolina.
But eventually, in 2004, I came out to San Diego to be a federal prosecutor. I worked my way around almost every department in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. And then was appointed as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in 2016. And then recently as a U.S. District Judge. Overlapping with most of my time in San Diego, I have served in the U.S. Army in the National Guard and even deployed to Afghanistan in 2018 as part of my duties.
Q: Do you know if other judges have deployed on active duty?
It has happened before. It doesn’t happen very often because, by the time someone becomes a judge, they have mostly finished any military service in their life. But it’s happened.
Our court was very supportive of my service and my deployment. And the Administrative Office of the Courts was also very supportive. They got a slew of volunteer Judges to come through and help run my chambers while I was gone. The volunteers kept things humming along until I got back.
Q: In what capacity did you serve and how long were you deployed?
I was a JAG for a Green Beret unit called Special Operations Detachment–North, and we were working on special operations issues throughout Afghanistan.
I think I was gone from the courthouse for just about a day shy of eight months. It was certainly an honor and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Q: Well, thank you for your incredible service. It looks like you’ve really kind of hit all aspects of federal court.
I’ve been lucky enough to litigate in all four corners of the courtroom and spend time on the bench as well. I did criminal defense and prosecution, but also did both plaintiff’s work and defense work on the civil side. And I’ve also done both sides of military justice.
Q: Do you think that doing both sides has given you a unique perspective?
I like to think so. I think it is important for advocates always to be able to see things from somebody else’s point of view. When I was a defense attorney, I wanted to be able to see the case through the prosecutor’s eyes and the jurors’ eyes. And same thing as a prosecutor: I wanted to be able to see how the defense was going to approach the case and also how the average juror was going to look at it. But I think that that is universal for advocates. It’s also useful, I think, as a judge to have been in each of those roles because I can understand a little better, I hope, what the advocates before me and the litigants are going through.
Q: What led you to become a judge?
I guess at the 30,000-foot level it was just my long-standing desire to find the best ways to serve the public. I’ve always tried to find the best way to serve my community. Honestly, the idea of being a judge was not on my radar for most of my career. I think the thing that sort of spurred me in that direction was that a couple of the judges here on the court suggested that it was something I should consider.
One of those was Judge David Bartick, who was a good friend of mine, and is sadly departed now. But he and I had tried cases against each other when he was a defense attorney and I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He became a Magistrate Judge, and he pulled me aside one time and said it was something I should consider.
Judge Moskowitz also had a couple of conversations with me that inspired me to look into becoming a judge. He gave me some advice about things to do to see if it was something that would interest me. Among those was volunteering as a Judge Pro Tem in San Diego Superior Court, which I did for five or six years. I found that I liked that role of being the neutral and making sure that justice was done.
Q: What kind of cases did you hear as a pro tem?
It was all civil. But everything from landlord-tenant disputes to – we had one that involved a manufacturing-defect issue. It ran the gamut. So it was a very interesting job. I was always trying to educate myself on some new facet of California state law while I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Q: Do you miss being an advocate?
From time to time, I miss it. But I think when I became a judge, I was ready to focus on other aspects of the legal field, like running a courtroom and opinion writing. I’m happy with the change, but there are certainly times that I miss it. I have to remind myself about all of the sleepless nights and everything when you’re in trial.
Q: How was the transition to becoming a full-time Magistrate Judge?
I enjoyed the transition to being a Magistrate Judge. I think one of the things that surprised me was that I still was able to rely on my advocacy instincts in a certain sense in all the settlements I handled. On the one hand, when I was talking to parties privately during settlement conferences, it helped me to be able to analyze the case as an advocate in their shoes and think through the issues with them and maybe point out weaknesses that I saw. But also, since you’re sort of advocating for the settlement to each side, you want to be able to marshal your best arguments and think very much as you would as a trial advocate. It was sort of surprising to me that I wasn’t leaving my advocate chops behind entirely and that I advocated on a fairly regular basis as a settlement judge.
Q: What’s been the most surprising part of the transition to district judgeship?
The biggest difference from being a Magistrate Judge, to me, has been sentencing. As a Magistrate Judge you sentence misdemeanor cases, but the stakes are so much higher when it comes to sentencing felony offenses. There are also usually a lot more complex issues regarding sentencing guidelines and things like that as a District Judge. There are a number of differences in the job, but I think that is the most weighty one, because you’re dealing with somebody’s liberty.
Even as a Magistrate Judge, when I was sentencing someone and the maximum sentence was six months, I remember being surprised the first time I did a sentencing about the weight you felt when it’s really on you to decide how much of someone’s liberty is going to be taken.
I feel it much more now. And quite frankly, I think I should always feel that way. The day I stop feeling the weight of that decision probably is the day I shouldn’t be a judge.
Q: How much of your caseload is criminal versus civil?
I had a very clear answer for that as a Magistrate Judge. While the number of cases were roughly equal as a Magistrate Judge, I certainly spent about 85% of my time on the civil case load and about 15% on the criminal. You’re dealing with more complex matters on the civil side and so a lot more of my time and my staff’s time was spent drafting civil orders and reports and recommendations.
I have not been on the job long enough to give you a reliable percentage for criminal versus civil now that I’m a District Judge. I would guess they are probably close to the same number of cases. I still think we spend more time on the civil, but I devote a lot of extra time every week preparing for sentencing hearings. And when you get into trial, that is full time, and often those are criminal cases.
Q: What advice, if any, do you have for lawyers appearing before you?
Q: The first thing that springs to mind is President Franklin Roosevelt’s advice on public speaking: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” I think along similar lines, I would say, “be prepared, be brief.” And there’s really no substitute for preparation in getting to the point quickly.
Quite frankly, I don’t know how useful it would be to your readers for me to just give more sound bites in terms of advice, but there are a few books I would direct people to for advocacy tips.
Ross Guberman has written Point Made, and I think that is an excellent book on legal writing. Bryan Garner has authored several books, including The Winning Brief, with sound advice on persuading judges. For oral advocacy, probably my favorite is Trying Cases to Win by Herb Stern. I think he has a lot of great advice about the most persuasive ways of arguing your point.
Q: Relatedly, what makes a lawyer a successful advocate?
As I alluded to earlier, I think perhaps the most important skill for an advocate is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. There are some people who have difficulty seeing how a juror or how the other side is going to see the case. Having that ability to see the case through someone else’s eyes is critical.
One of the best practical advocacy techniques I learned when I was at my law firm in North Carolina was the way we would brainstorm the best ways of arguing a case. We would bring non-lawyers in to hear the facts and tell us what they thought was important. Because a lot of times what lawyers and law students think is persuasive is not what a jury is going to be interested in. We did mock juries and things like that, but oftentimes we would just pull in the investigator, the intern, the administrative staff, or whomever. It was just useful to get people’s views on which facts move the needle for you. You know, what do you find to be important about the case?
Interviewer Information: Judge Schopler was interviewed by Christian Andreu-von Euw and Jenn French in July of 2023. Christian Andreu-von Euw is a principal at the Business Litigation Group and his practice focuses on intellectual property, data security, and other technology litigation. Jenn French is a trial attorney with Williams Iagmin LLP, where she represents plaintiffs in catastrophic injury, employment, and real estate fraud cases and is Of Counsel at Patterson Law Group, APC, a San Diego based commercial litigation firm that focuses on complex class action litigation, including consumer protection, privacy, and employee rights.