The desire for justice burns white-hot in Allison Claire. Always has.
It was stoked when she was a teen listening to an admired pastor and remained undiminished as a college sophomore responding to the prejudice she encountered after she came out, and as a young adult spending nearly a decade confronting social and political ills at the trench level.
The fire was there when she decided to become an attorney, fully understanding that truth is the purported goal in a courtroom, but often not the result. And it burned intensely throughout her 17 years as an assistant federal defender toiling for clients unable to afford a lawyer.
Now she has assumed the trappings of her latest gig – a seat on the federal bench as Sacramento's newest U.S. magistrate judge. She was sworn in Nov. 19 and celebrated at a formal investiture Feb. 22.
"So, you're not going to fight for the underdog any more?" one of her three children asked when Claire announced she was going to be a judge.
"I've been fighting for underdogs most of my life, and now I'm shifting to a different role," Claire explained to the teenager. "As a judge, I won't fight for anybody, but I'll get to make sure that underdogs get a fair chance and that underdogs and top dogs play by the same rules and are treated with the same respect."
She brings notable intelligence, a strong work ethic and real-life experience to the Sacramento-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. She also brings to the somewhat conservative court a unique diversity that would have been unthinkable not long ago.
Claire, 52, is the first member of the nation's federal judiciary, at any level, to be in a state- sanctioned same-sex marriage. She and her wife, Teri McKown, were married during the 4 1/2-month window – June 16 to Nov. 5, 2008 – between the California Supreme Court's validation of such marriages and the passage of Proposition 8, a ballot measure outlawing them.
She is also the first to come to the Eastern District bench directly from working as a court-appointed, publicly funded lawyer for criminal defendants, convicts already serving long prison terms, and death-row inmates.
Like all magistrates in the Eastern District, Claire was appointed by its district judges.
One of them, an emotional Lawrence K. Karlton, for whom Claire clerked, reminded the audience at the investiture that Claire "comes from years of practice in a place that is not a traditional source of judges in this district."
Saying, "I can't tell you the pride I have today," he commended his colleagues: "This is a mark of the integrity of this court."
Another of the district judges, Kimberly J. Mueller, recalled at the investiture that, after she became a magistrate judge in 2003, "it was not long before I heard a law clerk whisper in fear and awe, 'Petitioner's attorney is Allison Claire!'
" 'So?' I said.
" 'If there's anyone who can get you reversed, it's her!' whispered the clerk. 'Aha,' I said. 'It's a good thing my goal is not to never be reversed.' "
Joseph Schlesinger, another speaker and Claire's boss in the federal defender's capital habeas unit, told of an appeal she argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She lost the appeal but gained the admiration of the three appellate judges.
One of them phoned, Schlesinger said, to say how impressed the panel was with her presentation, especially the way she was able to seamlessly weave the answers to their questions into her argument.
"Allison is brilliant, a towering, formidable person," said Caro Marks, an attorney who served with Claire in the defender's office. "Her writing carries you along like the best book you've ever read, and one of her most extraordinary traits is her verbal ability. When she talks, words just flow out of her mouth in perfect sentences and complex phrases that would take anyone else a long time to write, never mind spontaneous speech."
In her own talk at the investiture, Claire said, "It's still remarkable to me that I'm the one doing the job of a U.S. magistrate judge."
Turning to her father and stepmother in their Connecticut home via Skype, she told them: "I know there were times when you doubted I would ever join mainstream society." Stepping out from behind the lectern and spreading her arms to better display the judge's robe she had just donned, she exclaimed, "Well, it doesn't get more mainstream than this!"
The oldest of three children of a now-retired divinity professor at Yale University and a now-deceased poet, Claire grew up in the Arcadian suburbs of New Haven, Conn., and attended public schools. She took to heart the words of Yale's chaplain, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin Jr., the civil rights and anti-war crusader who reveled in the role thrust upon him by government officials and conservatives as a dangerous dissident.
"He was very much a role model," she said in a recent interview. To her, Coffin was a local leader who "interfaced various segments of the community and created coalitions in the interest of economic and racial justice."
She attended Wesleyan University but dropped out after five semesters.
"I was young and idealistic, and I wanted to be out there in the world instead of in an ivory tower, so I took myself to San Francisco and threw myself into the thick of it," she said.
She settled in Santa Cruz soon after her arrival in California and spent much of the 1980s there protesting nuclear weapons proliferation and advocating for victims of sexual violence and people living with AIDS.
Then she met Adrienne Rich, a poet of enormous influence and rage, whose work brought the oppression of women – lesbians in particular – to the forefront of poetic discourse.
Claire wrote opinion pieces and essays for a local alternative newspaper and became the engineer, producer and host of a public affairs radio program on a local station, eventually wangling an interview with Rich, who lived in Santa Cruz.
"She did not come to the station, I went to her," Claire stressed. "I took my recorder and rode my bicycle to her house."
"I was amazed at how gracious she was to me, and how she was so encouraging to a young writer, a 20-something want-to-be feminist revolutionary," Claire recalled. "She treated me as if what I was doing was important in the world."
As an amateur broadcast journalist, Claire covered legal issues, interviewed a wide variety of public-interest lawyers and was drawn more and more to the law.
"I had my epiphany sitting in a tiny little sound booth," she remembered. "There was a time when I thought maybe I would be the next Nina Totenberg. But I decided I didn't want to comment on what others were doing in court; I wanted to actually be in court as a participant."
She finished her undergraduate work at UC Santa Cruz and moved on to the UC Berkeley School of Law, graduating Order of the Coif, a national honor society for law students, in 1993.
"I had pretty much written off clerking for some judge," she said. "I thought that was for people who wanted to get into and advance in a big firm."
Then a friend who had clerked for Karlton told her, "It is the best training you can have if you want to be a civil rights lawyer with a public interest firm. You will learn more in those two years than you would in the first six years of practice."
That was the good news, her friend said. The bad news: Karlton was "incredibly demanding."
That sealed it for Claire. If something is exceptionally difficult, she wants to do it.
As a clerk, she carved out an enviable record, and showed no signs of folding under a regimen that's been compared to Marine boot camp.
In that high-pressure situation, "I never saw her stressed," said Mary-Beth Moylan, a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law whose stint as a clerk for Karlton overlapped Claire's by a year.
Claire had planned to return to the San Francisco area after her clerkship. But grants and other funding for public interest law had mostly dried up, and nobody was hiring. Karlton told her the federal defender had an opening.
"And I said, 'So,' " she recalled. "He said it was an opportunity. I said I knew nothing of criminal defense. He said, 'Don't you want to help poor people? Don't you want to defend the Constitution? Don't you want to defend the rights of people who really need you?' I said, 'Yes, but I don't know the law.' He said, 'You'll pick that up in no time.' "
She came to like trial work, she said, but eventually immersed herself in capital habeas, "the most intense area of the law because the stakes are so high." Capital habeas civil petitions attack the convictions and sentences of condemned inmates.
Yet, she left this labor of love.
"It is a very, very narrow area. You make a very big difference to a very small number of people.
"I decided I wanted to be of broader service. Here, you get to provide access to the legal system for a whole lot of people and make them feel that they had a fair shake when they came to court, that they had justice."
The eternal flame burns as hot as ever.
Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.