If California wasn’t facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, Katherine Feinstein ’84 might have stayed out of the limelight, contentedly performing her chosen form of public service as the presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court.
But when Gov. Jerry Brown announced his plan to cut $544 million in funding to California’s already crippled judicial branch, Feinstein swiftly jumped to defend her court in her role as its chief manager. “The governor has taken the third branch of government and treated us like we are the department of cosmetology,” Feinstein fumed, echoing other statements she had made to newspapers. “We have examples in history of when the third branch is killed off, and it is not pretty. It is definitely not something we would ever want to see repeated.”
Generally low-key and even shy by temperament, Feinstein, who is the daughter of longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), says her upbringing taught her to speak out when needed. “Let me put it this way: I’ve spent a lot of time in wood-paneled rooms with important people,” she says. “I respect them, but I don’t fear them.”
After attending UC Berkeley and working in the newsroom at KQED-TV throughout college, Feinstein enrolled at UC Hastings, intending to return to a journalism career once she finished her law degree. “I thought, and I continue to think, that the skills I learned at UC Hastings would be invaluable in many professions,” she says.
She decided, however, to take a job as a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. She entered private practice with a focus on juvenile dependency and contested family law custody matters before moving to serve as the lead attorney of the Family & Children’s Services Team at the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.
Feinstein was a member of the San Francisco Police Commission, where she had the opportunity to act as a hearing officer, when she decided to become a judge.
“I found myself really enjoying being a neutral,” she says. “Life is not black and white. I think that at a certain age, you start to realize that. As a young attorney, you may be more of a true believer, but then you see there are two sides to every story. I liked being neutral, ensuring that relevant, admissible evidence was considered, that evidence that was not relevant was thrown out, and that decisions were based on sound evidence.”
In 2000, Feinstein was appointed to the San Francisco Superior Court by Gov. Gray Davis. Within the court, she again gravitated toward juvenile dependency, delinquency, and family law cases, as well as the Youth Family Violence Court.
“I loved being in juvenile court,” Feinstein says. “With the lessened formality, you get to know families and have the ability to be creative. You can try to put together something that works.”
Feinstein was the cofounder of SF SQUIRES (San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experience, and Studies) program, which brings young people in the juvenile court system to San Quentin to learn about prison life form inmates serving life sentences.
In 2011, Feinstein was unanimously elected by her peers to serve as the presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court. She was promptly thrust into the middle of the worst budget battles the state has ever seen.
So what’s she going to do about it? “Believe me, although I’m fundamentally a pretty shy, introverted person, I can be scrappy,” says Feinstein, who has proposed that the judicial branch be more active about explaining myself to legislators. “I’m going to fight for my court.”