Litigation

Interview with Magistrate Judge Helena M. Barch-Kuchta of the Eastern District of California

Helena M. Barch-Kuchta

Judge Barch-Kuchta is the newest Magistrate Judge to join the Eastern District in November 2020. A distinguished jurist who brings a wealth of experience and a unique perspective to the bench, Judge Barch-Kuchta is excited to be with the Eastern District and ready to make an impact.

1. What is the most important thing a civil or criminal attorney appearing in your courtroom should know before they enter?

Since my appointment on November 1, 2020 the courts have been “physically” closed due to Covid. So, counsel has not “appeared” in person but instead has appeared either telephonically or by Zoom. No matter how counsel appears, the most important thing an attorney should do before appearing before any court is know their case better than the court. In other words, an attorney should know every procedural and factual detail of their case. For example, when I was a staff attorney for a district court in Florida, in a pro se prisoner’s medical deliberate indifference case that proceeded to trial, a physician was testifying and made statements on the stand that were contrary to his deposition testimony. The judge knew the file, he had read the deposition and recognized that the physician was providing false testimony and alerted counsel to the issue. The physician’s counsel apologized and stated he was unaware of the discrepancy because his co-counsel covered the physician’s deposition. In my opinion, the attorney’s conduct was not acceptable.  He had not adequately prepared, and he should have known every detail about his case and not have had to have been directed to the issue by the court.

2. Can you share a courtroom pet peeve that civil or criminal attorneys should be cognizant of to avoid while in your courtroom? (e.g., interrupting a witness or opposing counsel.)

Cell phones and Apple watches! These devices should not be an extension of the attorney’s hand when they are in court. Attorneys should not be glancing at phones, whether to read emails or other electronic media during proceedings. Even when these devices are on vibrate, the loud buzzing can become a distraction. Both the court and the client deserve an attorney’s undivided attention.

3. You have had an accomplished and varied career, practicing law and even conducting trials overseas, what made you seek out the bench to become a Judge?

I did not initially aspire to become a judge. When I was young, I always envisioned I would go into politics or be a lawyer. I was one of those kids that did not hesitate to speak up if I saw something that I felt was wrong. Initially, I thought I would become a defense attorney and defend those accused of injustices. I even interned at the Federal Public Defenders Office. After law school, I accepted an offer with a large private firm and worked in the firm’s Pittsburgh and Washington D.C.’s commercial litigation department. As a young associate I worked on complex mass tort litigation (asbestos and breast implant litigation). Later, I began practicing in the firm’s insurance coverage group to obtain coverage for corporate policyholders for various types of product or environmental liabilities. I realized how much I enjoyed learning new areas of law, advancing complex legal theories and finding innovative ways to present those complex theories and issues to courts or juries.  When I left private practice and relocated to Florida, I joined the federal court as staff attorney.  This position afforded me the opportunity to retool and learn other areas of law and gave me firsthand insight into the innerworkings of the federal courts and the judiciary. There, I developed a tremendous respect for the Courts and the Judges.  Again, in my position with the Department of Justice I had to retool and learn new areas of law to advocate on behalf of the United States in various foreign tribunals. I thoroughly enjoyed learning how litigation is practiced in foreign tribunals, but I knew I wanted to come back to the court. When I saw the posting for the magistrate position in Yosemite, I felt like the stars had aligned. This position affords me the opportunity to utilize my diverse legal experiences and serve the court in what I think is one of the most beautiful areas of the United States. I cannot dream up a better position or a better venue to take the bench.

4. What’s one interesting fact about yourself (non-law related) that a person meeting you could never have guessed?

Honestly, I am an open book. What you see is what you get: a high energy hard worker. I have a spoiled golden retriever from England named Ike, after President Eisenhower.  I was nicknamed Martha Stewart by my colleagues in Ft Myers because I enjoyed cooking, baking and decorating for dinner parties and knew how to cut a large round cake properly. 😊

5. Other than becoming a judge, what would you say is your greatest achievement in law to date?

Without a doubt, my time volunteering for the guardian ad litem program in Florida state court was my most meaningful achievement to date.  While serving as a guardian ad litem, I helped a 12 year old boy navigate   Florida’s child foster system. As his court appointed guardian ad litem I was able to challenge many of state’s determinations, including locating relatives for him to live with (which for years the state had claimed no relatives existed)as opposed to him moving and residing in another group home, getting him adequate medical and mental health care, and helping bring much needed safety, certainty and stability to his life.

Another achievement I am proud of is a case I litigated from inception until completion in Ireland on behalf of the U.S. We advanced a theory of sovereign immunity with respect to an employment termination decision of a security guard at the embassy. The case required us to explain the interplay of complex legal and international treaties with Irish domestic employment law. We successfully convinced the tribunal that a decision to terminate employment can impinge on a countries’ sovereign rights because it can impact the security interests of a sovereign. It was an important ruling by a foreign tribunal for the United States not only because of its precedence in Ireland but its persuasive significance in other European tribunals. 

6. Can you share a litigation lesson or experience that shaped you from prevailing in a case?

First, you should always ask yourself who is your real client, and your litigation decisions and strategy should flow from there. Often, the person who you are reporting to or who is paying your legal fees is not your true client. Knowing who you are advocating on behalf of can aid you in refocusing your efforts on the actual needs and goals of your client’s case and better guide your strategy.

Second, as previously stated, know everything there is to know about your case (i.e. be the expert on your case). Only by knowing every detail about your case and the law can you break it down into its components to communicate it in the most effective way for your audience, i.e., the judge or the jury.

7. Can you share a litigation lesson or experience that shaped from a case you did not succeed in as hoped?

Don’t take it personally! Sometimes you are just on the wrong side or have bad facts. Trials become an “all or nothing” proposition by their nature. You cannot win them all and when that happens, it is best not to take the loss personally as long as you have performed your best within the ethical and legal confines. The all or nothing nature of trial is why mediation and settlement conferences are so important and can serve such a vital function in our system.

8. Is there anything else you would like Federal Court practitioners to know about you or how they should conduct themselves in your courtroom? (e.g., be prepared, bring your file, don’t be late, respect opposing counsel, etc.)

All of the above mentioned are important. But most importantly, I am excited to be here in the Eastern District of California. I am ready and eager to take the bench and to be involved with the local bar as well as the community and “open the doors” to the federal court, when it’s safe to do so, and provide educational opportunities to local students about the federal courts and the U.S. Constitution in hopes of inspiring other future lawyers and judges.  And, if there are any questions about judicial procedures or preferences, those questions are answered on the court’s website.

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