Meet Yolo County’s Newest Judge, Sonia Cortes

Cortes-Sonia

Ten days ago, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Sonia Cortés to a judgeship in the Yolo County Superior Court, making her the first Latino to serve on the Yolo County bench. Ms. Cortés, 43, of Woodland, has been a senior deputy county counsel at the Yolo County Counsel’s Office since 2007, where she has served as a deputy county counsel since 2002.

Last week, the Vanguard caught up with Ms. Cortés in a phone interview. Sonia Cortés told the Vanguard that they had yet to determine when she will be sworn in as judge. “I’m trying to wrap things up here at my current job as well as trying to coordinate with the court as to what the date will be, so right now it’s a work in progress.”

Ms. Cortés grew up in Winters and went to UC Davis where she received a degree in political science and psychology.

The process for becoming a judge is quite extensive. Ms. Cortés explained that she went through the application process with the Governor’s office, their Judicial Appointments Unit. They do a background screening and then the JNE Commission (the State Bar of California Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation) continues the process.

According to the California Judicial Nomination Process, the JNE Commission “is asked to review the candidate’s application. The commission solicits additional information and recommendations from other lawyers and judges who are familiar with the applicant. If the applicant receives a high rating, the Governor’s staff will submit the application to the Governor, who then decides whether to grant the appointment. The Governor will appoint a new judge when there is a vacancy at a particular court.”

Ms. Cortés went through that process and it was determined that she was qualified. At that point they provide a confidential report to the governor’s office, and “after that you are granted an interview with the senior adviser.” She said, “I was fortunate enough to be appointed by Governor Brown.”

Ms. Cortés explained, “I always wanted to help foster and promote equal justice for all. I believe that our judiciary is best when it is fair and impartial and just. So I wanted to be able to make daily decisions when I could positively effect change and also to serve and protect the community.”

She noted that she grew up in Yolo County and is rooted in the community. Her career has been focused on providing “service in the public interest and also public service. This is a continuation of that public service.”

Ms. Cortés began her career working at Legal Aid of the North Bay, and at that office she served low income clients. She said it was primarily a naturalization project, but she also dealt with unlawful detainers, domestic violence restraining orders, and did community forums to advise people of their rights.

After leaving Legal Aid, she became coordinating immigration attorney at La Raza Centro Legal. She described it as a “high volume immigration practice.” She said, “I did family-based services, violence against women act petitions, citizenship applications, deportation defense.” She did similar work at the International Institute of the East Bay.

“Our judicial system is not perfect,” she said. “I think you constantly have to be vigilant to make sure you are providing equal protection of the law, due process of the law, for everyone that comes into the courthouse.”

“But as a judge you are there to make sure that the process is fair, that the decisions are made after considering the evidence before you and that you apply that consistently across the board,” she said. She said while there are areas to be improved upon in the current system, “I think everyone who is a judge always takes the same approach which we’re going to allow those litigants before us to decide their side of the story to ascertain what the facts are and to apply the law to the facts.”

Ms. Cortés said having grown up in the county, one of things that she brings to the court is her unique experience. She said she grew up as an immigrant in Winters. “Access to Justice, access to the court, to make sure that everybody can have an equal opportunity to appear before court, to have their matters heard and to have decisions made,” she said. “Sometimes there are barriers and it’s important to recognize some of those barriers that face our population – these include socioeconomic barriers and language barriers – I think that is something that is important to make sure it’s recognized.”

Prior to beginning her judicial appointment application process, she said there were a number of local judges that she knew, from appearing before them as part of the county counsel’s office. “I tried to gain as much insight as possible from observation and as well as talking to them about the process, about what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy, what they see as challenges,” she explained.

She said that she took some steps to learn “what the role of a judge is and what’s unique to Yolo County.”

Ms. Cortés said that she doesn’t necessarily have a specific judge that she admires. However, she said, “I enjoy those judges that during the civil rights era that made the decisions that were difficult, that perhaps some would say that society wasn’t ready for those types of decisions. But they looked at the law, they applied it, it took courageous steps to make sure that there was equal protection for all.”

She said, on a day to day basis in Yolo County, “I admire those judges that are able to treat everybody with courtesy and respect regardless of whether they are an attorney or a self-represented litigant. That they actively listen to the matters that are presented before them. That they allow the arguments that are being made to be made. They make the decision based on the facts that are presented and the application of the law to those facts.”

According to a release from Yolo County Courts, the vacancy was created when Judge Janene Beronio was elected last June to fill the seat formerly held by retired Judge Stephen L. Mock. Judge Beronio’s commissioner position was converted to a judgeship by operation of law to serve Yolo County’s expanding population. The position has been vacant since January 2015.

“We are absolutely delighted by the appointment,” said Judge Kathleen M. White, Presiding Judge of the Yolo bench. “Ms. Cortés is a superb lawyer with an extensive legal background. Yolo’s judges carry a heavy caseload and must handle everything from felonies to family law. Ms. Cortés is more than up to the task, and we look forward to her joining us in the new courthouse.”

The Yolo Superior Court has ten judges and two commissioners. Ms. Cortés will be the 11th judge on the Yolo Superior Court bench.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 Comments

  1. sisterhood

    Dear Ms. Cortes,

    Congratulations on your appointment. I wish you much success and job satisfaction in your new career. As you probably know, California has a serious problem with the plea bargaining system. It is not fair. Many innocent low income folks agree to pleas because they cannot afford legal fees. As you are well aware, even public defense is not 100% “free”. And middle income folks often have to choose between supporting their families or their lawyer. This is a decision no innocent person should ever be forced to make.

    The sex offender registry is wrought with injustice. There is no precise standards for which level of offender one is placed into. It varies to extreme from state to state. The sex offender registry used to have at its lowest level a category called “zip code only”.  As you are well aware, CA laws changed & it was done away with. However, everyone who plea bargained with the research and understanding that they would probably be placed into this category, after assessment, were automatically placed into the next lowest category, without a legal hearing of any kind. Many folks probably could not have afforded a new hearing, anyway. This is a grave injustice that needs to be corrected. Anyone who plea bargained and later was assigned “zip code only” should be allowed a new free legal hearing to present their case to a judge as to why they should now be removed from the registry altogether, not automatically bumped up to the the next higher level of offender. Some innnocently accused people would have chosen a jury trial over the next higher level on the registry.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

  2. Davis Progressive

    interesting interview.  there are a few clues for me about what kind of judge ms. cortes will be.

    first, “I always wanted to help foster and promote equal justice for all. I believe that our judiciary is best when it is fair and impartial and just. So I wanted to be able to make daily decisions when I could positively effect change and also to serve and protect the community.”

    what is interesting here is that she notes “equal justice for all” which is a phrase generally used by the left rather than the right.  a conservative judge would be more concerns with carrying out the exact letter of the law, but she sees the judgeship as a means to help instill social justice, even though she didn’t use that term.

    the other interesting thing is that she expressed admiration for judges ruling during the civil rights era.

    1. Barack Palin

      but she sees the judgeship as a means to help instill social justice, even though she didn’t use that term.

      Should be according to the law and not some judge’s opinion on what the law should be.

      1. Davis Progressive

        everything is based on some judge or some judges view of what the law is.  have you ever read a law?  have you ever read jury instructions?

        1. hpierce

          I have.  I have also read (and understood) AG opinions, apellate court decisions (full opinion), etc. I am not an attorney, but attorneys have consulted with me as to the letter, and the spirit of the law, and legislative intent.  In my field, I am somewhat of a SME.   (not criminal law)

          What’s your point?

        2. hpierce

          Sorry, didn’t fully respond… never read jury instructions… only time I was empanelled, the instructions were verbal, so, no, never read jury instructions.

  3. Tia Will

    BP

    Should be according to the law and not some judge’s opinion on what the law should be.”

    This misses the point that part of a judge’s responsibility is to accurately interpret the law. Obviously, reading Supreme Court decisions, there is variation in interpretation of the law and this is a major part of their responsibility.

    1. Barack Palin

      This misses the point that part of a judge’s responsibility is to accurately interpret the law.

      Exactly, to accurately interpret the law, not put some spin on a law for what the judge considers social justice.

      Thank you for that Miss Will, you helped me prove my point.

      1. Tia Will

        BP

        Respectfully, your idea of what is “accurate” representation of the law frequently varies from mine. Our world view informs our judgements on what is “accurate” interpretation. That is just as true for the various justices as it is for us as can be seen in the differing opinions of for instance Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg.

          1. David Greenwald

            That’s a romantic but probably unrealistic notion. It ignores the existence of gray areas and it ignores that legal interpretation is colored by individual interpretations which is colored at least somewhat by ideology. It is why we have split decisions at all levels of the judicial system where more than one judge sits in ruling.

        1. sisterhood

          I agree w/Tia.

          Judges are humans who make opinions, hopefully, based on the law and previous precedents. But they also judge based on the entirety of their life experiences. Sit in any courtroom for a few weeks and anyone will be able to determine who are liberal judges, and who are conservative.

          What a shame that jury instructions are only read. I sat on 2 juries and could have sworn we were given written instructions. DP, it would be interesting to have jury instructions printed here, or even in a separate article, and read the opinions of our readers re: what the instructions mean.

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