Litigation

Interview With United States District Judge Rita F. Lin

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Rita F. Lin has served as a United States District Judge for the Northern District of California since she was confirmed by the Senate in 2023. Upon her confirmation, Senator Alex Padilla said, “The State of California is now lucky to have a federal district court judge who not only has the judicial qualifications Judge Lin possesses, but also has the voice, the personal experience, and the passion for public service she brings to the table each and every day.” Prior to joining the federal bench, Judge Lin served as a San Francisco County Superior Court Judge between 2018 and 2023, after having served as an Assistant United States Attorney for four years, private practice for 10 years, and as a law clerk to Judge Sandra Lynch on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Judge Lin earned her law degree from Harvard Law School and college degree from Harvard College.

Rita F. Lin

In this interview, Judge Lin shares what inspired her to pursue public service full-time, memorable experiences in a key marriage equality case, her love of NFL football, and the transition from San Francisco Superior Court to United States District Court. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Who was an important mentor or role model for you, and what did they instill in you?

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Bruce Chan was an important mentor for me when I first became a judge.  Most of my practice was federal litigation; I had only litigated one criminal case in state court before becoming a judge.  I realized that I needed to learn the culture, people and history of the San Francisco Hall of Justice (where criminal cases are held) in order to effectively serve as a judge there.  I asked to be assigned to Judge Chan, because he had a long career as a Deputy Public Defender before becoming a judge and had a reputation as being a smart and savvy judge who was well-respected by both sides.  When I arrived for my first meeting with Judge Chan, he jokingly asked whether I was forced to be his judicial mentee.  I told him that I’d asked to be assigned to him, because he knows not only the law, but, equally importantly, the people in the court system, from the attorneys to the judges and the court staff.  Learning from Judge Chan about the background and history of those I’d be working with every day was very helpful and led me to understand better the culture of the Hall of Justice.  This knowledge helped me do a better job getting cases to settlement, running the courtroom efficiently, and doing it in a way that made people feel that they were treated fairly and cared for. 

What was one of the most interesting classes you have ever taken?

In my freshman year of college, I took Introduction to Computer Science with Professor Brian Kernighan, who co-authored the first book on the C programming language, as well as contributed to the development of the Unix operating system.  Although I was not a computer science major at the time, I loved the class, and found it really interesting.  Professor Kernighan was a great teacher, of course incredibly knowledgeable, and his teaching assistants were top-notch.  I loved the class so much that I switched my major to computer science for a while.  I worked at a software engineering startup after my first year in college and seriously considered staying at the company and leaving college.  After wrestling with the decision, I returned to my college campus and eventually earned a degree in Social Studies.  As it turned out, the company I worked for was purchased by a larger company about a year later, and most of the employees I worked with all retired even though they were in the thirties.  So, that was the path not taken for me, but if I had a do-over, I wouldn’t change a thing.   

Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

I really enjoyed Social Studies, especially the research and writing aspects of my courses.  I found most of my classes quite interesting and liked that they drew from different academic fields, like history and philosophy.  In fact, when finishing college, I wanted to become an academic, but I chose legal academia because I thought it would be more practical and have real-world impact.  I didn’t know any lawyers when I made the decision to go to law school.  Law school was a completely foreign world to our family.  My parents are both scientists (a microbiologist and a chemical engineer), and really wanted to support me.  When I told them I was applying to law school, they worried that my hearing disability (I have significant hearing loss because of an early childhood illness) would make a career in law very challenging.  My mom cold-called a real estate attorney they had hired years earlier in a rental dispute to ask whether I would be able to have a successful career in the law, with a hearing disability.  He told her that 99 percent of lawyers do not appear in court; they do things like review contracts and read documents, so a hearing disability would be no problem.  Little did we all know back then that I would become a trial attorney and then a trial judge!  Ultimately, I am very glad that I chose to attend law school instead of pursuing a career in computer science.  Every day, I find my work challenging and extremely interesting. 

Many people who meet you would not know that you have a hearing disability.  How has that impacted your legal career?

I am very fortunate that technology has improved so much over the years that I can now hear very well, with hearing aids.  I even have a wireless transmission device that I can place near a podium, that feeds directly into my hearing aid.  When I implemented that wireless device in my courtroom in the Hall of Justice, I warned attorneys that whatever they said would be conveyed directly to me, so they quickly learned to be careful with what they said at or near the podium, even when we were not on the record!  Having grown up with a hearing limitation, that impacts my view of the world.  I learned to always be alert so I am not missing something important.  I am a more careful listener because of my hearing disability, and I recognize my own fallibility – I might be the one who missed something. 

How did you become involved in one of the early court challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, representing Karen Golinski?  Please tell us about your experience in that case.

When I worked at Morrison and Foerster, I always made it a rule to have at least one pro bono case on my plate, and the Golinski case was one of the most meaningful.  Karen Golinski was a staff attorney at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  She was lawfully married in California in 2008 but was unable to obtain health benefits for her wife because of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), a 1996 law that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions.  My firm joined Lambda Legal in representing Karen.  At the time, the general strategy in pursuing marriage equality was to litigate in the California court system before turning to federal litigation.  But Karen was facing a daily hardship when she was not able to enroll her spouse in the same health plan that Karen and their son were enrolled in.  Our team started by challenging the lack of health care benefits through the judiciary’s employment dispute resolution plan, which was an administrative process.  We prevailed in early 2009 when then-Chief Judge Kozinski wrote an administrative order requiring the court’s Administrative Office to enroll Ms. Golinski’s wife in her health benefits plan.  This was a significant victory.  But the United States Office of Personnel Management refused to enroll Karen’s wife in the health plan, saying the Ninth Circuit Court had no such authority, due to DOMA.  We filed a lawsuit in district court to enforce Judge Kozinski’s administrative order.  This was one of the earliest direct challenges to DOMA in any federal court.  We went through full discovery, including expert declarations and depositions, then prevailed at the summary judgment stage of the case, when District Judge Jeffrey S. White issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the federal government from interfering with the enrollment of Ms. Golinski’s wife in her family health benefits plan.  Judge White found that DOMA, as applied to Ms. Golinski, violated her right to equal protection.  While Ms. Golinski’s case was pending at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the United States Supreme Court issued the decision in United States v. Windsor (570 U.S. 744) (2013), holding that § 3 of DOMA “is unconstitutional as a deprivation of liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”  On the day the Windsor decision was issued, I got to my office at dawn to read the decision.  Karen’s holiday card with a photo of their family was still on my office bulletin board, and I kept looking at it with an incredible sense of joy when reading Windsor.  Karen spoke at my induction ceremony when I became a Superior Court Judge.

Why did you decide to leave your position as a successful partner at a large law firm to become a federal prosecutor?  Former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said that you were the happiest person in the San Francisco federal building, even considering the massive pay cut.
I loved my time at Morrison and Foerster.  I liked the challenging nature of the work and the people I worked with, and the clients.  The firm was very supportive of working mothers like me.  I took a year off when I had each of my two kids, and I was selected for partnership while on maternity leave for my second child.  When I returned from maternity leave, I experienced a period of soul-searching.  I realized that I wanted to devote every day of my working life to public service and seeking justice, as our team did in the Golinski case, which showed the direct – and broader – impact that our work could achieve.  This led me to become a federal prosecutor.  The Department of Justice has a mission to do the right thing every day.  Former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag is right that I was very happy being an AUSA; I really loved that job.  I felt the Department of Justice really trained us to believe in the mission of justice, holding accountable those who deserve accountability, and granting lenience to those who deserve lenience.  The craft of lawyering was fun, and I miss it.  But as a judge, it is a pleasure to watch extraordinary attorneys perform in court, knowing the level of preparation and experience required to reach that level of expertise. 

What are some key lessons that you have learned at various stages of your legal career?

I have gone through a lot of career transitions and have learned that it is important to be intentional about the career path at each stage of my career.  It is easy to let events take their course and ultimately end up somewhere you do not ultimately want to be.  I have had to pay attention to my head and my heart about which direction my career should take.  For instance, I decided to apply to become a federal judge when I read articles about a public corruption case that I worked on as an AUSA.  Reading those articles and remembering my experiences as a federal prosecutor helped me realize I was interested in returning to the federal system as a judge because of the broad-ranging impact that federal cases can have on the community.  Federal prosecution is intended to be impactful; federal prosecutors are supposed to choose cases that will make a difference and are resource intensive. 

Are you still a student of American football?  Do you envision a retirement gig as an NFL commentator or Commissioner?  And what exactly is so appealing about the sport to you?

I do love NFL football; it is so fascinating.  It is deeply strategic, with complex plays and offensive and defensive schemes.  And the game involves such physical prowess, requiring speed, strength and finesse of the players.  As a kid in the Bay Area, I grew up a 49ers fan, in the Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young era.  Although we did not attend the games at Candlestick Park, we watched almost every televised 49ers game as a family until I left for college.  I play fantasy football and co-own a team with Tracie Brown [who is the Presiding Justice of Division Four of the First District Court of Appeal, after having served as a San Francisco Superior Court Judge and an AUSA in San Francisco].  Tracie and I won our fantasy league this year!  I wanted to be an NFL color commentator as a kid.  But I will stick to the law.  I love listening to Mina Kimes’ podcast, who is of course much more knowledgeable about football than I am, and much funnier, and I hope to see her become a color commentator one day.   

What has been the most significant or surprising change in the transition from state to federal practice as a judge?

The volume of work in state court was at such a high level, I am very grateful for the fact that I have the luxury of resources and time in federal court.  I wish we had those resources in state court.  My first assignment in state court was in felony preliminary hearings.  Each of the three judges had around 600 cases, and we would call 40-50 cases per day.  There were only three staff attorneys for 22 judges at the Hall of Justice.  On the federal court, I am now fortunate to have three highly qualified law clerks in my chambers.  I have about 300 federal cases now, many of which are complex and interesting.  For civil law and motion hearings, I schedule about 30-40 percent of motions for hearings.  The week before, I try to send a notice of questions I have for the attorneys in each case.  I find that sending questions in advance gives the attorneys the opportunity to research and prepare answers to the questions that are the most important to my decision, which leads to better and more thoughtful answers. 

Judges often say that being a judge is a lonely occupation:  is that true for you, after working in teams at the big law firm and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and if so, how do you cope?

I do not find being a federal judge a lonely occupation, because the other judges have been really welcoming, and my chambers team and courtroom deputy are amazing.  But being a judge can feel insular.  It is unhealthy for any human being to be in an environment where people’s constant default reaction is to defer to you.  To stay grounded, I try to maintain long-term friendships with friends who are not lawyers.  I also find that having teenage and pre-teen children keeps me very grounded, because they definitely do not defer to me!

What can be done to expand the pipeline of diverse people moving into the areas where you have served as an attorney or judge, particularly in light of the massive debt burden law school imposes?

I strongly believe that the legal profession should reflect the society we serve.  Diversity in the legal profession is important.  The way that I try to contribute to attorneys and judges representing our society is by actively being involved in mentoring law students and attorneys.  I believe it is important to connect people to one another and lift up people of all backgrounds.  I find that discussions I facilitate can help people envision different career paths.  I have mentored people through various bar association groups, in my law firm and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and while serving as a judge, including participating in Pathways to the Bench programs.  Graduating from law school with a lot of debt can limit career choices, and, unfortunately, I do not have a ready-made solution for that problem. 

What is a meaningful object or memento that you keep in your chambers?

One of my most treasured mementos is a custom-made clock presented to me by the legal assistants and paralegals at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  It was not customary for support staff to give a departure gift to AUSAs, so I was very touched by it.  That clock reminds me of the wonderful relationship I had with them.  The staff members put in so much crucial work without receiving public recognition.  I remember my legal assistant coming with me and the agents one time to inventory a storage locker filled with high-value items for a forfeiture proceeding, because she was very knowledgeable about fashion, which I know very little about (and she taught me how to correctly pronounce certain brand names, so I did not embarrass myself in court).  I also treasure my family photos, Jeremy Lin Warriors basketball jersey, and little lending library of my favorite books. 

Interviewer Information: Judge Lin was interviewed by Christina McCall in March of 2024.  Ms. McCall is a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of California, after previously serving in the Northern & Southern Districts of California.  Any views expressed herein do not reflect the position of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or the U.S. Department of Justice.


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