Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Jan Scully transformed Sacramento DA’s Office during 20-year tenure

Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, the first woman to serve as district attorney of any large California county when she won the election in 1994, has led the office for 20 years and will step down next week.
Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, the first woman to serve as district attorney of any large California county when she won the election in 1994, has led the office for 20 years and will step down next week. Sacramento Bee file

Jan Scully will serve her last day as Sacramento’s district attorney next week, ending a remarkable career that almost never happened.

Scully, 63, was the first woman to serve as top prosecutor in Sacramento County – and the first female DA of any large California county. Her ascent is particularly notable because she graduated from California State University, Sacramento, in 1973, a time when leadership positions and lofty aspirations were still almost exclusively reserved for men.

Lacking role models, she dropped out of McGeorge Law School before finishing her first quarter because no one else believed in her dream of becoming a lawyer.

“That was very un-Jan,” she says now with a smile.

Scully got back on track, and went on to preside over a 20-year period of stability in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. She served as a role model to other women, including incoming DA Anne Marie Schubert.

Her tenure spanned a period that began when many people still didn’t use cellphones. It included the rise of DNA evidence and the eventual rethinking of hard-on-crime initiatives. In all those years, Scully had critics who disagreed with her on the law, but her office was scandal-free. It grew with the times. It was responsive and flexible.

Lawyers, especially prosecutors, do not lack confidence. And yet once Scully was elected in 1994, none of the formidable people working below her ever broke ranks and ran against her.

It’s not that Scully threw her weight around or threatened or bullied – quite the opposite. She built an office on loyalty and professionalism – a much different environment from the one that confronted her when she first hired to prosecute misdemeanor cases in February of 1979.

Some talk about changing the culture of this or that, but Scully did change the culture at the office charged with seeking justice in Sacramento County. She leaves it stronger and more consequential than when she took the job as DA – right after the tragic death of her first husband.

“Jan is a strong, powerful woman, a real leader,” said Schubert, who will be sworn in as the new DA in the first week of January. “She never had another pro career, came here right out of law school. It’s pretty telling about how dedicated she was to the office.”

Scully had been a government and journalism student at Sacramento State. She said she had envisioned herself as a “Nancy Drew investigative reporter.”

That idea faded, and a job at the State Personnel Board was in the offing as she finished college. She took the job, but kept her bigger dreams alive by attending law school at McGeorge at night.

There weren’t lawyers in her family; her parents were career state employees.

In Scully’s world at that time, a job with the state meant that she had it all lined up. She was set. What did she need law school for?

So she gave up.

“It made me mad,” she says now.

It would be the last time Scully quit anything, but hardly the last time the idea of giving up menaced her thoughts.

Scully enrolled at Lincoln Law School because it was the one school she could most afford to attend. For four years, including summers, she took law classes at night while working full time for the state by day.

Purely by chance, a law firm where she was working had contacts with the DA – and so off she went.

You could almost count on one hand the number of female lawyers who had worked at the Sacramento County DA’s Office when Scully walked in the door in 1979. Her first trial was a DUI case in which the defendant had refused to take to take a blood test to determine his blood alcohol level – something defendants can no longer do today.

An opportunity presented itself when the defendant said he had stopped at a weigh station before he was arrested. Scully thought he meant a freeway weigh station used by truckers, but the defendant was referring to the name of a bar where he had been drinking. The case ended in a hung jury.

“Even if you know the answer, you have to ask the question,” Scully said. “If I had asked, there probably would have been a different verdict.”

Scully had such setbacks early on. “I tell my attorneys now that I wouldn’t hire myself,” she said. “My supervisor called us in and said, ‘You’re never going to be a great lawyer.’ ”

“I wasn’t super-aggressive and didn’t go for the jugular.”

At one point she remembers going to her office, closing the door, and getting very teary-eyed until there was a knock on her door from fellow prosecutors there to bolster her spirits. One of these friends was Patrick Marlette, now a Sacramento Superior Court Judge.

“Jan has an immense talent for invoking loyalty,” Marlette said. “Her personal integrity is remarkable. She once told me that she never lies, and she doesn’t.”

The young woman who once doubted herself started winning cases and grew into the mature veteran who decided to run for DA in 1994, though the field was packed with candidates – including a boss who told her she was “divisive” and would make a terrible DA.

Her main opponent that year, the then-incumbent, Steve White, labeled her “party girl” during the campaign. Opponents would try to portray her as a lightweight. She won the election and built a career that makes such comments laughable now. Her first days in office were right after the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack.

As far as back as 1997, Scully pushed for a special court to handle domestic violence cases. She set up a team of prosecutors to handle elder abuse. She deployed lawyers to work with struggling communities, focused on truancy in schools, prosecuted big polluters, and won many big cases.

She will now devote herself to establishing a regional family justice center that will directly confront the epidemic of domestic violence.

“A family free of violence is a community free of violence,” Scully said. “If you look at the people we are putting away, a vast majority of these people are exposed to violence or abusive situations.”

Scully will also spend more time with her parents, her lifelong advocates. Her two children are grown and both engaged to be married. She is happily married.

What if she had never gone back to law school after she had quit? A community can be grateful that she did.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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