Three proud and accomplished women took their seats side by side Tuesday as the first all-woman panel in the 107-year history of the Sacramento-based 3rd District Court of Appeal.
"It's a great day," said retired 3rd District Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland, summing up the sentiment of the crowd of well-wishers that packed the courtroom.
"It illustrates how much the legal profession has changed from the days when it was dominated by men and when women graduating from law school had great difficulty getting jobs in law firms," said Scotland, who was among the spectators.
While hearing oral arguments in a high-profile Sacramento murder appeal, the justices sat poised and attentive. Their ease on the bench belied the fact that the lot of women in the legal profession has been anything but easy.
Less than 150 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that women were not fit to practice law because most of them were married and that would be an impediment to the adequate representation of their clients.
A generation later, the distinguished trial lawyer Clarence Darrow told a group of women lawyers in Chicago they could not be "shining lights at the bar because you are too kind," they could not be corporation lawyers "because you are not coldblooded," they did not have a "high grade of intellect" and, consequently, could not expect to get the fees paid to men. "I doubt you can even make a living."
If only Darrow could have been at the 3rd District on Tuesday morning to watch Associate Justices M. Kathleen Butz, Elena J. Duarte and Andrea Lynn Hoch assume the weighty task of deliberating and eventually deciding the defendant's appeal of a first-degree murder conviction in the killing of a Sacramento County sheriff's gang detective.
A jury two years ago found street gang member Jimmy Siackasorn guilty of gunning down Vu Nguyen just before Christmas of 2007 as the detective chased the teen over backyard fences and onto a chicken coop. Siackasorn was 16 at the time of the homicide. At age 19, he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
His lawyer, Ann Hopkins, argued to the justices that interrogators bullied a confession out of Siackasorn. It was reversible error, she insisted, for the trial judge to allow some of the most damning parts of the confession to be presented to the jury.
Deputy Attorney General Darren Indermill countered that a defiant, cop-hating Siackasorn was more than willing to take credit for shooting Nguyen to death atop the chicken coop. The statements he volunteered were admissible, Indermill told the panel.
The justices will issue an opinion later this year.
In remarks following the arguments, Butz noted there have been eight women on the 3rd District, including the current state chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Up until the waning days of Arnold Schwarzenegger's second term as governor, there had not been three at the same time, thus precluding a panel like Tuesday's.
In late 2010, Schwarzenegger appointed Duarte and Hoch to the court, where they joined seven men and Butz, who was appointed in 2003 by then-Gov. Gray Davis.
"After 107 years, we're on a roll," Butz said in concluding her remarks.