Q & A with Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California

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Judge Vince Chhabria

Judge Chhabria was confirmed by the Senate as a District Court Judge for the Northern District of California in March 2014.  Prior to joining the bench, Judge Chhabria worked as a staff member for U.S. Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey in Washington D.C. and California.  He served as a Law Clerk for three different judges: Hon. Charles R. Breyer, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, from 1998-1999, Hon. James R. Browning, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, from 1999-2000, and Hon. Stephen G. Breyer, Supreme Court of the United States, from 2001-2002.  In addition to his clerkships, Judge Chhabria worked as both a litigation associate in private practice and as the Deputy City Attorney for Government Litigation in San Francisco, California.  From 2011 to 2014, he was the Co-Chief of Appellate Litigation.

Judge Chhabria was the first person of South Asian descent to serve as an Article III judge in California history.  Judge Chhabria was born in San Francisco and educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (B.A.) and University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law (J.D.). 

Judge Chhabria shared his thoughts with the Federal Courts Committee on a wide range of topics from practice tips to the importance of diversity in the legal profession.  Here are his thoughts on his role in the federal judiciary. 

Before joining the bench, you had a distinguished career as an associate in private practice, a clerk for Justice Breyer, and as Deputy City Attorney here in San Francisco. What made you decide to become a judge?

I never really imagined becoming a judge, even during the three years I was clerking. I always assumed I would do public policy lawyering throughout my career, and I assumed that I would end up doing too much controversial stuff to ever be considered. I first started thinking about applying to be a judge towards the tail end of the marriage equality litigation. For a long time, lawyers who worked for marriage equality seemed like they were disqualifying themselves from positions like that. But kind of like public defenders today with President Biden, working for marriage equality eventually became a plus. I also received encouragement from the South Asian Bar Association—specifically, former president Kiran Jain, who ended up coming to my confirmation hearing and is a great friend. I think she was the first person who ever raised the issue of my becoming a judge.  

How have you found the transition from advocate to neutral?

Easy. Working for San Francisco, as opposed to a private client, allowed me to be more objective in my advocacy. Sometimes we would take positions contrary to our immediate, narrow interest if we felt it would serve the greater good. And in advising policymakers on what they can and can’t do under the law, you need to be sort of judicial. So it was not a particularly jarring transition for me.

What experiences have most influenced your approach as a jurist?

Other than what I just said, I think probably clerking. Judge Breyer is the ultimate problem-solver, and he showed me that mastering the intellectual aspect of the job is only half the battle if you want to do your job really well. Judge Browning modeled how to be respectful of, and learn from, other people who might disagree with you. Justice Breyer’s near-singular focus was to make sure that the law is working for ordinary people and the public officials who work for them, which is something I’m always thinking about. And I’ll add one more person who I didn’t clerked for. I wish more judges would be as terse and as plainspoken as former Chief Justice Rehnquist—I always thought his writing was great in that regard and I’ve tried to emulate it.  

Over the course of your career, you have worked with and observed many lawyers, and are now presiding over criminal and civil calendars. What makes a good or successful advocate?

I think most judges would say this, but you need to be super well-prepared, and you need to be credible. My former law clerk Jenn Bennett argued a case at the Supreme Court the other day. Towards the end, Justice Gorsuch said to her: “I have a historical question you’ll probably know the answer to.” He might as well have said, “You will know the answer to this question because you’re totally crushing it.” By that time in the argument, the Justices totally trusted her. She gave truthful, nuanced, fact-based answers to all their questions—many of them arcane—and made concessions whenever necessary rather than trying to b.s. them or gloss over weaknesses. I’m quite sure she did the same in her brief. So if you want to see what makes a great advocate, listen to the argument in Southwest Airlines v. Saxon  from March 28.    

What other advice do you have for practitioners appearing before you?

Other than what I just said, I would emphasize that I want to have a regular conversation with you. I want you to be yourself—if you’re an arm-waver, wave your arms. If you have a casual demeanor, don’t put on some fake formal air. And above all, if I’ve said something that you think is wrong, don’t cower, even if I’ve said it forcefully. Say, “that’s wrong, and let me explain why.”  

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

Judges often complain that lawyers are uncivil or unprofessional. But another problem is that judges are increasingly becoming uncivil and unprofessional towards each other. I feel like every time I read a split appellate decision, one side is accusing the other of bad faith, or of being results-driven. I fear that sometimes I may be insufficiently respectful when expressing disagreement with other rulings as well. I think one way we can help in this area is by setting a better example in how we speak to, and about, each other.

You wrote a great tribute article on Justice Breyer for SCOTUSBlog highlighting his commitment to diversity.  Can you speak about the importance of diversity in the legal profession?

Thank you for saying that. From the beginning of his judicial career, Justice Breyer has been deeply committed to diversity in law clerk hiring, and that’s one of the many things about him that I try to emulate. You can see today the impact of his commitment—he helped launch so many lawyers of diverse backgrounds into the upper echelons of the profession. Neal Katyal, former Solicitor General of the United States. Jenny Martinez, Dean of Stanford Law. Risa Goluboff, Dean of UVA. And perhaps you’ve heard of Ketanji Jackson. Those people bring different perspectives to the profession, and having them at the top of it helps all of us—it helps our democracy. Beyond race, sex, and sexual orientation, I also think that experiential diversity is really, really important, both on the bench and in the profession as a whole. I totally agree with the Biden Administration that too many judges historically have come from prosecutor’s offices or big firms, and it’s great to see people with different professional perspectives getting appointed to balance things out in the federal judiciary.

Interviewer Information: Judge Chhabria was interviewed by Shireen Y. Wetmore, an attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP.  Her practice focuses on Labor and Employment law, including defense of class, collective, and representative actions, as well as employment advice and counseling for clients in a variety of industries. 

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