State High Court Gets New Justice

Times Staff Writer

Carol A. Corrigan, a moderate Republican, former prosecutor and state appeals court judge, was sworn in Wednesday as an associate justice of the California Supreme Court.

The ceremony came immediately after a hearing before the three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments, which voted unanimously to approve her nomination by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Corrigan wore a black robe over her plum-colored suit for her swearing-in and, in answer to reporters' request to describe herself, quipped: "A heck of a gal." More seriously, she added, "I am in the middle.... I am in the center."

Among the major questions Corrigan will face in the next several months on the court is the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Corrigan refused Wednesday to discuss her views on the issue and has said that Schwarzenegger never asked her about them. She said as an appellate judge in 2001 that the state Constitution bars employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Corrigan said Wednesday that she assumes the ruling will be cited by advocates of same-sex marriage. When pressed about her views on discrimination against gays, she said: "Americans think that everybody should be equal before the law, and we have to look carefully at how laws are crafted."

Schwarzenegger issued a statement congratulating Corrigan. "I have full confidence she will continue to be a thorough, fair and conscientious justice and will serve the people of California with honor and dignity as a member of our state's highest court," the governor said.

Corrigan, 57, replaces Janice Rogers Brown, a libertarian-leaning conservative who left California last summer to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

The new justice speaks crisply in an open, straightforward manner and frequently punctuates her remarks with wit, often aimed at herself.

A former Democrat, Corrigan changed her party registration to Republican in 1995 soon after then-Gov. Pete Wilson elevated her from the Alameda County Superior Court to the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

The state bar gave Corrigan a "well qualified" rating -- the bar's second-highest ranking.

In a report to the commission, Todd D. Irby, chairman of the bar's evaluating committee, described Corrigan as "brilliant, decisive, articulate, courteous, compassionate, collegial and scholarly."

"She is held in great esteem by attorneys as well as fellow judges, and is fair and well-balanced," Irby said.

He told the commission the bar had received more than 6,000 responses to questionnaires about Corrigan from lawyers and judges, most of them positive.

One prosecutor complained to the bar that Corrigan had been overly harsh and cutting to a student lawyer arguing a case before her. A civil rights lawyer said Corrigan had behaved unethically in prosecuting a death penalty case while working in the Alameda County district attorney's office.

Only one opponent spoke Wednesday before the appointments commission, which is headed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, a Republican, and includes Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, both Democrats.

David J. McMahon, a civil engineer who lost an appeal in a decision written by Corrigan, complained that she believes "government can do no wrong" and displays "fascistic tendencies."

McMahon was cited for placing garbage on a tarp during an Albany Unified School District board meeting to protest littering at the high school. Corrigan ruled that the citation did not violate his free-speech rights.

Three judges who spoke in favor of Corrigan's confirmation praised her intellect, wit, ethics and fairness.

Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Lois Haight, Corrigan's friend of 30 years, said the judge helped tutor the children of farmworkers when she was in high school, and urban youths as a graduate student.

U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins recalled that Corrigan stressed personal integrity and ethics when she tutored new prosecutors in the Alameda County district attorney's office.

"She described these qualities as the currency of our profession," said Jenkins, a former prosecutor who attended the sessions.

California Supreme Court Justice Ming W. Chin called Corrigan "a legal superstar" who "elevates everyone around her."

"Carol will never approach cases with a personal or political agenda," Chin said. "Her sole goal is to get it right."

Corrigan, who will begin serving on the court immediately, will earn $170,694 annually as an associate justice. Voters will decide on the November statewide ballot whether to retain her for a 12-year term.

Paul Fogel, a San Francisco lawyer who regularly appears before the appellate panel where Corrigan had been seated, as well as before the California Supreme Court, said in an interview that Corrigan was "pretty pro-prosecution" but "not afraid to side with the defense when she believes the prosecution has crossed the line."

In civil disputes, "she has proven to be very moderate," siding with environmentalists against developers in one case, Fogel said.

He described her written rulings as "crisp and cogent" and her questioning during oral arguments as "aggressive but not overly so."

"When you go to oral arguments with her, you can expect a dialogue. And it may not be all that comfortable all the time," Fogel said.

As an appeals court judge, Corrigan voted to uphold an Oakland ordinance that authorized forfeiture of vehicles involved in prostitution and drug activity and to overturn a judge's decision to reduce a robber's sentence in a three-strikes case. She also joined in overturning a man's conviction for kidnapping and oral copulation because the judge had improperly admitted evidence that the defendant fit the profile of a sexual offender.

Corrigan will participate in her first oral argument for the high court next week.

The only child of a librarian mother and newspaper reporter father, neither of whom graduated from college, Corrigan grew up in Stockton. She graduated from Holy Names College (now University) in Oakland and attended graduate school in a clinical psychology program at St. Louis University.

After studying psychology for two years, she decided she wanted to pursue a legal career; she obtained a law degree in 1975 from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Corrigan has long been active in the Catholic Church and in Catholic charities.

She is chairwoman of the board of trustees at Holy Names University and heads the directors of the Saint Vincent's Day Home, an early child development and educational program for disadvantaged children in Oakland.

She is unmarried, and shares a home with a female friend in Oakland.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World