California Supreme Court Associate Justice Carol Corrigan ’75 has infinite respect for the law in a democracy.
“Judges are stewards of the law, not philosopher kings,” she says. “I’m not allowed to say, ‘If I ruled the world, this is how it would be.’ Instead, I ask, ‘What does the law require or allow in a certain circumstance?’”
When the court sided with Oakland’s Catholic bishop and refused to reinstate a lawsuit by six brothers who alleged they were molested by a priest in the 1970s, Corrigan, a lifelong Catholic, dissented. She also dissented on a search and seizure case later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, surprising many who know her as conservative by arguing that the majority wanted to grant too much authority to the police.
Repeatedly, Corrigan has ruled not with her community, and perhaps not always with her heart, but with her best appreciation of where the law stands.
Such was the situation when the California Supreme Court ruled that voters had the authority to limit the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Corrigan agreed that Proposition 8, passed by 52 percent of California voters, should stand. As she wrote in her dissent, “In my view, Californians should allow our gay and lesbian neighbors to call their unions marriages. But I, and this court, must acknowledge that a majority of Californians have a different view.”
When the court ruled on Proposition 8, Corrigan said that throwing out the measure would amount to a pocket veto by officials over the electorate. “By allowing that, you run the risk that people will lose faith in the law, and disenfranchisement is a corrosive problem in society,” she says.
Corrigan’s steadfast adherence to the law as it stands follows her conviction that “a judge’s power is circumscribed by the people who give us these jobs.” The daughter of a librarian and journalist, neither of whom attended college, she describes her career trajectory as completely unscripted. “It would have been presumptuous to assume I would have the opportunities I had had,” says Corrigan, who is deeply committed to giving back. Among her many charitable activities is serving as board president of Saint Vincent’s Day Home, a child development center in Oakland.
After graduating from UC Hastings and working as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, she became a judge in the county’s Municipal Court in 1987. She became a judge in the Alameda County Superior Court in 1991 and a justice in the California Court of Appeal, First District, in 1994. In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to California’s highest court.
“It is a great privilege to be able to decide on the pressing issues of American life,” she says. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
What advice would you give a lawyer on how to interview clients?
Ask open-ended questions. Really listen to the answers, and reward honesty, even if you don’t like the answers. It’s of course never a good idea to lie to your attorney, but the attorney plays a part in that not happening.