Two UC Hastings alumni, Roger Chan ‘98 and LaRonda McCoy ‘86, were among 18 new trial court judges that California Gov. Jerry Brown appointed to the bench last week. After spending decades as attorneys for underprivileged populations, including as public defenders, both will be sworn in the third week of July.
“When I was at UC Hastings, I was very much aware that a number of alumni have become judges. I’ve always had a commitment to public service, and I feel privileged to have been selected by the Governor,” Chan says. “I have come to appreciate how important it is for people who come to court to feel heard, and as a judge I want to have a very client-centered approach.”
“I’m so looking forward to being able to make a difference. I want to make sure that people with similar backgrounds can look at me and say, “If she can do it, I can do it,” and feel that they will get fair treatment from the court,” McCoy says.
For both Chan and McCoy, the path to the bench began at UC Hastings. Chan enrolled after studying political science at UC Berkeley with plans to focus on land use law. That changed after an internship and clinic in the juvenile unit of the San Francisco Public Defender’s office.
“Everything started to click in terms of how the law has a direct impact on people’s everyday lives,” Chan says. “I felt it was an opportunity to use the system as a way to improve the situation of young people and their families.”
Chan went on to serve as a public defender in Alameda County and then in San Francisco. He became known for staying late into the evening to talk with clients in Juvenile Hall. In one memorable case, in 2007, he represented a 17-year-old boy in front of a judge deciding whether to prosecute him in adult court. After learning that the boy had a serious drug addiction, Chan convinced the judge to keep the case in juvenile court and refer him to treatment. “This saved the young man’s life, as he was able to get the help he needed. He still stays in touch with me today to let me know that he is doing okay,” Chan says.
In 2009, Chan cofounded the East Bay Children’s Law Offices, where he is executive director. The organization represents youth in cases related to child welfare, probate guardianship and juvenile defense, and in school discipline matters. It also co-sponsored three successful bills in recent years that banned jailing youth for truancy, decriminalized foster youth conduct in a group home and established minimum qualifications for court-appointed lawyers in juvenile court.
As a judge, Chan plans to maintain his focus on giving people a voice. “I’ve seen how important it is for clients to experience a court system that they feel is fair, accessible and transparent, and that’s the kind of courtroom that I want to have,” he says.
Unlike Chan, when McCoy came to UC Hastings, armed with a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills, she was set on going into criminal law and becoming a judge. A defining point was a judicial externship with the late Leon Thompson, an associate justice in the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.
“I learned that decisions are rarely clear on their face-you’re interpreting the law. You have to dig deep inside yourself and ask, ‘What is the right outcome here?' I carry that with me now,” she says.
After graduating, McCoy joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office, transitioning to a newly formed Alternate Public Defender’s office in 1996. McCoy, who grew up with ten siblings in Compton, Calif., often ran into people she knew from her neighborhood on the job.
“I saw a lot of crime and knew a lot of victims of crime. I knew there were good people doing bad things, and someone making a bad choice needs the same representation as someone who can afford to pay a high-priced attorney,” she says.
McCoy stayed with the agency ever since, eventually becoming the first African-American woman to be named head deputy. She has kept her optimism along the way.
“There is not a single person without redeeming qualities. We represent the castaways that no one else believes in. If you can connect with people and make them feel human again, you can make a difference in their lives. Even if I don’t get the ultimate result I wanted in trial, I speak to my clients and get them to understand that their lives aren’t over.”
She plans to bring that perspective with her to the bench. “I can have compassion and render fair punishment, where it’s warranted. As a judge, I’m not here to punish you and throw you away. I want to see progress in your life,” she says.