California Supreme Court Associate Justice Joshua P. Groban sat down with Riverside Superior Judge Kira L. Klatchko and Desert Bar Association President Lori Sanford after the Hall of Fame awards concluded March 2, to talk about his time with Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, the experience of sharing a name with a multiplatinum singer-songwriter, and his commitment to social justice.
Groban, a Harvard alumnus, has been a state justice since January 2019 when he was appointed by Brown. Groban was Brown’s adviser in the appointment of more than 600 judges.
The discussion was casual and candid, and Groban was told from the outset he had to bring the funny.
Sanford asked the first question: Are you a surfer?
“I’m surfer-adjacent,” Groban said, and we were off.
He talked about growing up with “an ethos of public service,” raised by a father who provided psychiatric treatment to veterans and a mother who was not only a social worker but a member of the Del Mar City Council. That ethos shone from his college days fighting for social justice in death penalty cases to his private practice where he did pro bono work for disabled people in substandard housing, to the consideration he gives California cases he reviews today.
“I was looking for mentors to talk about what was most meaningful about their career,” he said. “No one was reminiscent about the big slip-and-fall or copyright matter they handled. They wanted to talk about their years in public service or their pro bono work.”
Groban has had some diversity in cases. He has done commercial, anti-trust and other kinds of cases that were not part of his dedication to social justice. Sanford gave an example of a case he handled in Los Angeles.
“That case wasn’t about the dollar amount. It was about geo-orbital satellites,” he said, emphasizing the value of intellectual engagement. “I learned all about geo-orbital satellites. You get engaged in the thing.”
On both sides of cases, he said, he saw how rewarding this was.
“I started looking around the offices, looking around the hallways and thinking, long term, whose career would I want to emulate?”
The real Josh Groban
Sanford jokingly asked him if it was true he was the only Supreme Court Justice with a top-10 hit. Groban said people often confuse him with the music artist, who not only tweeted Justice Groban to congratulate him on his Supreme Court appointment, but showed up to a party in the justice’s honor that night.
“He lived a block away from the person hosting,” Justice Groban said. “He found out about it and just showed up.”
Groban, (the real Josh Groban, as the justice’s mother was quoted in a news article saying), joined Brown’s team during Brown’s 2010 election campaign.
Advising Gov. Brown
“I saw this guy I respected was running again,” Groban said, adding that he expressed interest in helping with the campaign. He prepared Brown for speeches, wrote platforms on various issues and other things that made his role bigger than he expected.
“I thought I would just do a little bit, and they kept asking me to do more and more,” he said. “Came to learn he’s the most frugal man I’ve ever known. The campaign was his wife, a college intern and his dog.”
Groban ended up taking a leave from his firm for what he thought would be a three-month transition period for Brown, but as the governor started his administration he realized it would be permanent.
“He said, ‘Can you stay on? We’ll make up a title for you.’ …After inauguration we all went back to his office and made up titles. So I made up a press release and said I would be the special adviser to the governor, and made his wife senior adviser to the governor. He said, ‘No, my wife is special,’ so we switched and that’s how I got my title.”
The real Gov. Brown
Groban describes Brown with awe.
“He had an incredible intellectual curiosity. He had almost a photographic memory. You’d be talking about a bill and he’d say, ‘I think you’re talking about (exact bill number) sponsored by (the bill’s author).’ …His knowledge of ancient Greek was good. His Latin was flawless. He could recite sonnets from memory. …He was a lawyer, and he viewed himself as a lawyer. Judicial appointments mattered. He cared about the legal community.
“It felt like a really good law firm with a really good managing partner.”
Groban said when Brown was considering candidates, he was most interested in who they were as people.
“I remember one who did a dissertation on field work in Papua New Guinea, and that was just as interesting to him as what they did as a lawyer,” Groban said. “He wanted people with different backgrounds who had different life experiences. He knew how much that would matter when they got to the courtroom.”
Klatchko was Brown’s youngest appointee. He appointed people in their 30s and in people their 70s.
“He didn’t care about age. He didn’t care about party affiliation. He just cared about people,” Groban said.
Brown set a great example for how to interview judicial candidates.
“Early on I asked the questions I thought you were supposed to ask. Pro or against the death penalty? Stuff like that,” Groban said. But he quickly changed to questions like “Tell me about growing up, your folks, what did you talk about at the dinner table?”
One of the things Groban said he could gauge from this new tack was a candidate’s humility.
“Nobody’s ego went down once we put a robe on them,” he said. “If there was a sense during vetting there was going to be an issue with ego, it was fatal. It never improved once we started calling them ‘Judge.’”
Groban said he made sure to do his job checking candidates out. He called various people who knew or worked with the applicants under consideration, looking for candid assessments.
“The fear is some press release goes out that somebody got appointed or promoted, and they go, “Oh my gosh, didn’t they call around? Didn’t anybody tell them?’” he said. “It was making sure we hired good lawyers who would be good judges, and they weren’t jerks.”
Klatchko asked what advice he would offer judicial hopefuls.
“Fast forward to all these calls we’re describing being placed,” he said. “When you’re dealing with tough counsel, picture someone calling and saying, ‘What were they like to deal with in a tough case? What were they like in trial?’ We call everyone from bailiffs to court reporters to see what people are like.
“Conduct yourself in a practice as if, when you’re done with that interaction, someone will call and say, ‘Give it to me straight, off the record. What were they like?’ And that’ll put you in good stead, no matter what you do.”
California Supreme Court
Klatchko asked about the most surprising and best part of being a California Supreme Court justice. Groban said he was blown away by the intelligence and collegiality of the other justices.
“Being in a place where it’s just seven people really trying hard to get it right, and that’s the goal, feels really good.”
And the worst part?
“Staring at a statute and thinking, ‘Boy the Legislature really screwed this up.'”
Klatchko asked what advice Groban would offer lawyers at all levels. He did not miss a beat before answering, “The No. 1 mistake I see lawyers make in all levels of our courts: If a judge asks you a question, answer the question she asked you. The number of times I’ve seen lawyers — I can see the wheels turning — thinking ‘I’m gonna divert. I’m gonna deflect.’ I think, ‘This is bad.'”
Photos courtesy of Lori Sanford.