Interview With United States District Judge Troy L. Nunley

Troy L. Nunley has served as a United States District Judge for the Eastern District of California since he was appointed in 2013.  At his confirmation hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “He will bring a lifetime of overcoming adversity, an impressive work ethic, a career as a prosecutor, 10 years of judicial experience, and sorely needed judicial resources to the federal bench in the Eastern District.”  Prior to joining the federal bench, he was a Sacramento County Superior Court Judge between 2002 and 2013, after having served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Attorney General’s Office for 3 years, a prosecutor in Sacramento and Alameda Counties for a total of 6 years, and private practice for two years.  Judge Nunley earned his law degree from U.C. Hastings College of the Law and his undergraduate degree from St. Mary’s College of California.

Troy L. Nunley

In this interview, Judge Nunley shares lessons he learned from many different role models, meaningful mementos in his chambers, his suggestions for addressing the judicial emergency in the district, and how he spends some of his time outside of work. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How was your mother a role model for you?

When I was very young, I noticed that my mother was doing something different.  I was the youngest of four children, and my father left when I was only two years old.  My mother, at age 21, was raising all four of us in public housing projects, while working full-time as a counselor at a home for teen girls and going to college.  She was really devoted to her work with the girls who grew up impoverished, traumatized by life, and without role models.  She gave her life over to other people and to service.  I spent a lot of time at my mom’s job when I was young, and she would bring me along when she took the girls to places like parks, in order to provide them a sense of stability and normalcy.  As a result of being raised with the girls at my mom’s work, I have hundreds of sisters!  I still stay in touch with many of them, and we send one another birthday wishes.  Because of my mother’s leadership in our community, she met elected officials like Mayor Moscone, who came to our house to meet with her, and attended my brother’s basketball game in Hunter’s Point.  My mom then earned her master’s degree at Lone Mountain College (now part of the University of San Francisco).  When I started high school, she became a Probation Officer for the City and County of San Francisco. 

Why did you decide to become a prosecutor after law school?

When I was young, I wanted to become a professional football player (unbeknownst to my mother, who did not approve).  Unlike Judge Morrison England and Justice Martin Jenkins, who both played in the National Football League, I never accomplished that wish.  The decision to become a prosecutor was heavily influenced by my mother.  A very formative world event, especially for kids like me in the projects, was the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  There was a feeling of despondence in the black community and in my family, and a feeling of injustice.  My mother always said that I would become a lawyer, which was a surprise to my older siblings, because I was the quiet one, barely getting a chance to speak with all their strong personalities.  My mother would challenge us, give us certain books to read, and frequently talk about Thurgood Marshall’s important work.  I initially wanted to be a defense attorney.  I met many judges through my mom’s work as a Probation Officer.  After college, I took a year to work for the California State Bar.  I watched famous San Francisco defense attorneys like Penny Cooper, Jeff Adachi, Tony Serra, Melvin Belli, James Brosnahan, and really respected them.  But my mom said I needed to be a prosecutor and change the system from within, and make sure there are no police abuses.  During law school, I worked for the San Francisco D.A.’s office.  I worked with homicide prosecutor Bill Fazio and was fascinated by his work and the way that he conducted himself. 

I was selected by the Alameda District Attorney’s office for their summer program and continued to work there during my last year in law school.  Once I got there, I knew my mother was right; this was the right choice for me.  We had a great group of young prosecutors, including Terry Wiley and Kamala Harris.  That office, which had a legacy of doing the right thing for the community, produced judicial legends like Earl Warren and D. Lowell Jensen.  The office also had people who looked like me in leadership, and women in leadership, at a time when that was very rare in California and the country.  I absolutely loved practicing in juvenile court, where I really felt that I was able to make a difference.  I would go directly into the facility and talk to the kids, trying to keep them on track. I really took to heart the statutory goal to rehabilitate juveniles, instead of incarcerating and punishing them. 

How did your time in private practice influence your career trajectory?

I started my private law firm earlier than I had originally planned, with a friend from the D.A.’s office.  While we were working at the D.A.’s office, there were serious budget cuts in response to a new state proposition that dramatically impacted the office’s budget.  Our family could not raise our two children on the reduced salary of a junior DDA, so I knew that I needed to leave.  This was a very difficult and impactful decision because I loved the DDA job, and cried when I turned in my badge.  I had always wanted to work in civil rights and do criminal defense and got some really good cases right away.  I tried a civil rights case here in the Eastern District.  My private law practice was thriving, and I was traveling all over the state for cases.  I was working very hard but not spending much time with my family.  My wife, who was my college sweetheart, showed me – in a memorable way – that I needed to prioritize our family.  We decided to wind down my private practice, move to Sacramento, and I quickly got a job at the Sacramento D.A.’s office doing felony trials, domestic violence and gang prosecutions.  I really enjoyed that job also, and then moved to the Attorney General’s office to focus more on legal writing.  I was always interested in trying different aspects of legal practice and loved my time at the AG’s office. 

Please tell us a bit about your wife and children

First, my wife, Susan, is fantastic, and I am very proud of her.  She raised four amazing humans while working as a paralegal at large law firms and as a successful realtor.  I am also very proud of all our children, who have each gravitated toward service and helping people.  My oldest daughter is an attorney specializing in employment and civil rights, and recently represented an employee in a racial discrimination trial where the jury ordered the employer to pay over $100 million in damages (later reduced).  My second oldest daughter is a supervising medical assistant, who served as a street medic for all sides during recent protests.  Our third son is in college and works at an elementary school full-time.  Our youngest son recently finished high school and is currently working at a supermarket.  I also want to mention that my oldest sister is my hero.  She is strong, extremely smart, and very resilient.  She was the first person from our community to attend Convent of Sacred Heart High School and went on to earn two Stanford degrees and become a tech executive.   I have tremendous respect for her.

What is the best advice another judge gave you (at any stage of your career)? 

The first judge who made a lasting impact on me was San Francisco Municipal Court Judge William J. Mallen.  I was friends with his son since third grade and would see him when I was waiting for my mom at the courthouse in high school.  Judge Mallen, who was from a very different background (the Marina District, which is a wealthy part of San Francisco) believed I could become a judge.  He told me not to limit myself, and to pursue anything I wanted to do during my lifetime.  The fact that Judge Mallen knew that I could become a judge one day gave me the confidence to pursue a legal career.

Another judge whom I consider to be a mentor is Judge (now Justice) Martin Jenkins.  He was presiding over a contentious misdemeanor case that I was litigating against one of my law school mentors, John Burris.  I was arguing with John over something.  Judge Jenkins called me over to the side of the bench and told me that I need to listen and get all of the information to make the right decision, not just argue.  He emphasized the need to step back and gather facts.  I still look up to Justice Jenkins, who has always counseled me to trust that I know the right thing to do. 

What was the biggest change when you moved from Superior Court to Federal Court?

In short, the nature of the work and the volume of the work were the biggest change.  Being a Federal District Court judge is very different from a Superior Court judge.  There is a substantially different allocation of time.  We are not in court as often as state court judges and have a huge caseload of complex cases of all different varieties.  Every single judge in this district works extremely hard, due to the highest caseloads in the nation.  We are under siege in this district due to the volume of cases and have an all-hands-on-deck mentality. 

Speaking of the heaviest caseload in the nation, how does that impact the judges, and what can be done to alleviate that burden?

The heavy caseload does take its toll on the judges and staff of this Court.  Senior District Judges and Magistrate Judges are very crucial; we would be nowhere without them.  The senior judges are still here working hard to be a part of the solution.  We don’t complain to one another about the crushing workload, we just work hard and help one another.  An example is Sacramento District Judges are currently taking on some Fresno cases, since we are down to one District Judge in the Fresno courthouse.  The solution to this crisis is to have more district judges authorized by Congress for the Eastern District of California.  We currently have only five active district court judges, and there are only six authorized spots.  This district has had explosive population growth (now well over 8 million people) and covers more than half of the land mass of California.  Yet the allocation of judges has not changed in decades.  We need more judges to reduce the burden on the existing judges and staff, and speed up decisions in cases, especially civil.  While we wait and hope that additional judgeships will be authorized for this district, we encourage civil litigants to consent to magistrate jurisdiction.  We have very accomplished Magistrate Judges, such as Carolyn Delaney, who will soon become the Chief Magistrate Judge for our district. 

Do you look forward to becoming the Chief Judge for the EDCA?  Where do you see the district in 10 years?

I do not know what lies ahead when I become the Chief Judge.  In my time on the bench, our court has lived through budget challenges, sequestrations, a pandemic, and civil unrest.  I will do the best I can, following in the footsteps of some great Chief Judges in this district.  I will continue trying to get more judicial positions authorized.  As I’ve said before, we really need more judges, and there are real costs to litigants of not having enough judges.  Who knows what might happen in the future?  But we will try our best to be ready for any challenges that arise. 

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

Some of my most cherished mementos are the photos from coaching my kids’ little league teams and other high school and law school trial teams.  Also, I have a large portrait of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., both historical figures whose legacies are very important to me and my family.  There is an open space on my wall for either a photo of my mom receiving an award from Governor Deukmejian, or a portrait of Justice Ginsburg. 

What do you enjoy doing in your time away from the courthouse?

I enjoy giving back to kids and the community, and frequently serve as a speaker, a judge for events, and a coach.  I have gotten pretty good at backyard grilling, and my kids want me to grill for them when they come home.  Golfing is something I’m not very good at, but I aspire to one day be as good as Judge Mendez.  Primarily, I enjoy spending time with my family, and strive to make sure I accomplish that goal.

Interviewer Information: Judge Nunley was interviewed by Christina McCall in December of 2023.  Ms. McCall is a federal prosecutor in Sacramento, 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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