Interview with Judge Sunshine Sykes of the Central District of California

Judge Sunshine Sykes

Judge Sykes was confirmed as a District Judge for the Central District of California in May 2022.  She is a member of the Navajo Nation and is the first Native American to serve as a federal district judge in California. 

Before becoming a federal district judge, she served as a Riverside County Superior Court Judge, a position she was appointed to in 2013.  As a Superior Court Judge, she presided over civil matters, including over 90 trials, and beginning in 2019, she presided over matters in the complex civil litigation department.

Prior to her appointment as a Superior Court Judge, Judge Sykes served as a Deputy County Counsel for the Riverside County Office of County Counsel for eight years.  As a Deputy County Counsel, Judge Sykes handled a variety of matters, including representing the Department of Public Social Services in proceedings concerning abused or neglected children, enforcing subdivision bonds and agreements, assessing risk management cases, and handling Registrar of Voters actions.  During her time as a Deputy County Counsel, Judge Sykes also conducted numerous trainings on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) for judges, attorneys, and social workers throughout California.

From 2003 to 2005, Judge Sykes was a contract attorney with the Juvenile Defense Panel in Riverside County.  In that role, she provided direct representation to parents and minors in juvenile dependency and delinquency cases, specializing in cases involving ICWA.  From 2001 to 2003, Judge Sykes worked as a staff attorney at California Indian Legal Services where she focused on domestic violence issues in rural and urban Native communities.  As a staff attorney, she also handled ICWA cases and represented American Indian Tribes in a broad range of matters.

Throughout her career, Judge Sykes has been involved in multiple bar and judges associations and civic organizations, including the California Judicial Council’s Tribal Court/State Court Forum and the Riverside County Tribal Alliance for Indian Children and Families.  Judge Sykes received her Bachelor of Arts degree, with Departmental Honors, from Stanford University in 1997, and her Juris Doctor degree from Stanford Law School in 2001.

In this interview, Judge Sykes discusses what motivated her to pursue judicial service, her experience transitioning from state court to federal court, the experiences that influenced her as a jurist, her views on what makes a successful advocate, and the importance of respect and civility in the courtroom.

Before joining the federal bench, you had a distinguished career in public service, having served as a Riverside County Superior Court Judge, a Deputy County Counsel for the Riverside County Office of County Counsel, an attorney with the Juvenile Defense Panel, and a staff attorney at California Indian Legal Services.  What made you decide to pursue becoming a judge, first in state court and then in federal court?   

It all goes back to when I was a young child, and I had this dream of becoming an attorney.  Where I came from, there weren’t any Native attorneys that I could look up to or talk to, so I didn’t really understand what an attorney did.  My understanding of attorneys was mostly based on what I saw on TV.  At the same time, I experienced and was very aware of injustice and had this sense that attorneys helped people and helped resolve problems for people, which is why I wanted to be an attorney and why I dedicated my career to public service.  As an attorney, I saw the lack of mentors and role models from Native backgrounds and Native perspectives, so I wanted to be a role model to others.  Part of my journey in my career has been dedicating time to mentorship and going to schools and talking to kids because I’m a firm believer in, “If you can see it, you can be it.”  When I visit classrooms, I see surprised looks on children’s faces when they learn that I am a judge, saying, “You’re a judge?  You don’t look like a judge.” 

Just as there was a lack of Native representation in the legal community generally, there was no Native representation in the judiciary in my community despite the large number of Native American tribes and people.  If I could be in a position to change that, I wanted to at least attempt to do so.  So, going into the state court and now the federal court is an extension of my career in public service, but also an extension of my dream as a young girl and my desire to see people in these roles that reflected who I was and where I came from.

Can you tell us more about your pathway to the bench and any significant mentors who helped guide you through the process?

When I was thinking about becoming a judge, I had support from both outside and within the Native community.  I first decided to apply for a commissioner position in Riverside County because I thought it would be a good entryway into the judiciary.  At the time, I was practicing in juvenile court and the commissioners were the ones presiding over juvenile proceedings.  I thought it would be a good transition from advocate to decisionmaker.  Around this time, I met Judge Raquel Marquez, who was the first Latina judge appointed to the Riverside County Superior Court.  She really stepped into the shoes of a mentor for me and is probably one of the first female mentors I had in my life.  She took me under her wing and encouraged me to apply to the state court bench and see myself as someone I had dreamt of but hadn’t seen as a reality.  When I decided to pursue the federal bench, she similarly was by my side, helping me throughout that process.

Can you reflect on the significance of being the first Native federal judge to be appointed in California?

It is heavy and it is a weight, but it is not a negative weight.  It is something that I humbly embrace.  It is also something that I am constantly mindful of, and I am especially willing to do outreach, give speeches, and participate in events because I’m the only one; it’s just me.  That’s why I say there is a weight there; being the only Native federal judge in California carries a lot of responsibility.  I accept that responsibility because I know that there are other young girls out there like me who don’t realize that such a dream is possible, so I devote a lot of time to speaking at different engagements, going to elementary schools and high schools, and bringing in students to my courtroom so they can see me and hear my story.  It is a large responsibility but it’s also one that I welcome. 

When you first became a judge, how did you find the transition from advocate to neutral?  More recently, how have you found the transition from state court to federal court? 

Before I was on the state court bench, I primarily practiced in juvenile court and in that arena, I initially represented tribes where tribal children were removed from their parents for abuse or neglect.  I later represented parents and then children in these proceedings.  And, as a Deputy County Counsel, I represented the Department of Public Social Services.  These experiences impacted my ability to see and digest sensitive issues, especially in juvenile court, from all sides of the spectrum.  Representing every position within the juvenile dependency court helped me to understand all sides and varied perspectives.  This is similar to what a judge does, as a judge listens to all sides, tries to understand everyone’s perspectives and arguments, and then utilizes the law to render a decision.  Coming from that background of being in an area of law where I had to advocate for each of the positions helped me transition to the bench and develop the ability to listen to all sides and digest different arguments and perspectives.

When I joined the federal bench, I had practiced as a state court judge for almost 10 years, so the transition was pretty smooth in that I already knew how to be a judge.  I knew how to deal with issues in cases, how to manage a calendar and caseload, and how to deal with attorneys and different personalities.  The main difference was the substantive law, as I wasn’t as familiar with federal law, so the learning curve was on substantive law as opposed to what to do as a judge.  What I did find in the federal court is that while (like in state court) the caseloads are significant, it’s nice to have the support of law clerks.  There is also more written work on the federal court than the state court.

How would you describe your approach as a jurist?  What experiences have most influenced your approach as a jurist?

I always try to carry myself and my courtroom with respect.  That is what I demand from those appearing in front of me.  I think that if I am respectful and everyone else is respectful, then things run a lot more smoothly than if there is disrespect or no respect.  Coming from state court, where we had a lot of self-represented litigants, I want to make sure that when people come before me, they are treated with respect, whether or not they are attorneys, and that they understand that they need to treat others with respect.  I also want to make sure that self-represented parties are given the same consideration as other litigants both by the opposing side and by the court.  Ultimately, I want to make sure that when I do render a decision, the litigants understand the basis for my decision and feel they had a fair shot in presenting their case or argument. 

This approach comes from how I grew up and the things that I saw – people being disrespected, dismissed, and not heard.  As a judge, I want to make sure that all people (especially self-represented litigants) feel like they were respected, heard, and seen.   

Do you have any tips for attorneys who are arguing motions in your courtroom?  What about tips for effective brief writing?

I do not keep a lot of motions on calendar for argument, which stems from my state court days.  In state court, I would issue tentative decisions and attorneys would have to request oral argument by a certain time or oral argument was deemed waived.  Regardless of whether I thought the decision was easy or clear, we had to allow oral argument, if requested.  In federal court, you don’t have to allow oral argument, and there are times where it is unnecessary because the issue is clear.  When the law is clear and I understand the arguments in the briefs, I don’t need oral argument, so I’ll take those motions under submission.  That is what I do 95% of the time.  However, if there is something about a motion that I don’t quite understand or that I would like additional argument on, then I’ll keep the hearing on calendar.  And if I need more elaboration, I may issue text entry questions for the attorneys to think about and be prepared to address.  In general, when I do hold argument, I let the attorneys know from the get-go what I’m concerned with and what issues I want them to specifically address.  As a default, except for the hearings that I require to be conducted in person (class certification motions, pretrial conferences, etc.), I hold remote hearings via Zoom, but attorneys have the ability to request an in-person hearing, and when they do so, I generally grant those requests. 

As to brief writing, my main advice for attorneys is to get directly to the point: less is more.  You don’t want your argument or your most important points to get lost in a brief that is longer than it needs to be.  Especially for motions to dismiss, unless the case is particularly complex, the brief doesn’t need to be long, let alone the maximum word count.  Concise writing is important, and the focus of the brief should be the substance of the argument, not the proper legal standard or background law (which is often not in dispute and with which I am familiar).  It is also important for attorneys to be detail-oriented and carefully proofread their briefs.  As an English major, I do notice errors when I’m reading a brief and they can be frustrating and distracting.  I’ve seen my name misspelled several times.  While I do not hold these errors against the attorney or their client in reaching a decision, it does put a bad taste in my mouth and makes me think the attorney wasn’t as diligent as he or she should have been.  Finally, I would advise attorneys to put together well-organized briefs, with headings for distinct arguments and causes of action.  It makes it much easier to review a brief and find a particular argument when the brief makes use of clear and descriptive headings.

Over the course of your career, you have worked with and observed many lawyers, both as a practitioner and as a judge.  Do you have any thoughts on what makes a good or successful advocate?  Do you have any additional advice for practitioners appearing before you in court?

Successful advocates are always familiar with the local rules and the assigned judge’s standing orders and trial orders.  In my standing order, for example, I have more requirements for the meet-and-confer process; I sometimes have to strike motions because parties have failed to comply with the meet-and-confer requirements in my standing order.  It is similarly important to read the judge’s trial order, so that when you come to trial, you have organized everything in accordance with the trial order and are ready to go.  There have been a number of times where litigants haven’t read the standing order, the trial order, or the local rules, or they don’t appreciate the differences between the local rules and the standing orders.  Because all judges are different and have different preferences and expectations, it is very important to familiarize yourself with their individual rules. 

As far as hearings are concerned, preparation is key.  You should know your case, the cases you cite to, your best arguments, your weakest arguments, and the other side’s best and weakest arguments.  You also should be an active listener in court.  Sometimes I find that if I am asking questions to only one side, the attorney for the other side is thinking about what he or she will say next, rather than listening to the dialogue between the judge and opposing counsel.  Instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next, you should be listening to what’s happening in court, paying attention to jurors, etc., so you are one step ahead and know what the judge or jury is focused on.

Can you speak a little about the importance of civility and professionalism in our courts? 

I already spoke about the importance of respect in the courtroom, but it is also extremely important to recognize the formality of judicial proceedings.  Especially now that we do a lot of virtual proceedings, some attorneys think that because they are not right in front of me but are appearing through a screen, they do not have to abide by the same formality.  However, a virtual proceeding is still a court proceeding, so litigants must behave as though they are in court and not just in their living room.  I have found that on virtual proceedings, attorneys are more emboldened to do things they wouldn’t do in the courtroom, like make snide remarks or roll their eyes.  Whether appearing for hearings in person or remotely, attorneys must carry themselves professionally, show respect to the judge and opposing counsel, and never lose sight of the fact that they are in court. 

Judge Sykes was interviewed by Eddie Jauregui and Allison Westfahl Kong on August 24, 2023.  Mr. Jauregui is a partner at Holland & Knight in Los Angeles and the immediate past chair of the Committee on Federal Courts, a standing committee of the CLA’s Litigation Section.  Ms. Westfahl Kong is a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and a member (and past chair) of the Committee on Federal Courts.  Any views expressed herein do not reflect the position of Holland & Knight, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or the U.S. Department of Justice

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