News Release

Appellate Mentorship Program Expands to Court of Appeal Attorneys

Program aims to diversify pool of justices and attorneys working in the appellate courts.
May 14, 2024

More than 50 people have graduated from California’s judicial mentorship program for aspiring appellate justices—the program’s newest goal is to also diversify the branch’s hundreds of appellate court attorneys, who help justices research and write opinions. The job can also serve as a stepping stone to future service on the superior court or appellate bench.

“Historically, people have been connected to opportunities on the bench through connections and people they know,” said Presiding Justice Teri L. Jackson, the First Appellate District’s first black female justice who helped guide the mentorship program over its first three years. “You miss out on huge pools of talent that way.”

Mentor Program Graduate Appointed to Bench

The appellate mentor program recently hit another milestone—its first graduate elevated to the appellate bench.

Late last year, Justice Monique Langhorne Wilson became only the second black female jurist to be elevated to the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

Her success in being confirmed to the appellate bench came after a long string of hard-fought firsts, and she often felt unwelcome.

At four years old, Justice Langhorne Wilson knew she wanted to become a judge, but there were no lawyers or judges in her family to help guide the way. 

As one of the few black students at UC Berkeley Law, she would be questioned about taking a “deserving white student’s seat.” In Napa, she became the first black district attorney—“some people were not happy about that,” she said.

As a commissioner, her application to join the superior court bench was passed over year after year until 2018, when Gov. Jerry Brown named her the first black judge in the history of the Superior Court of Napa County. Within her first year on the bench, she would be subject to a contested election—the first time a judge had been challenged in 40 years.

After such a long road to the trial court bench, Justice Langhorne Wilson questioned whether she wanted to go further and try for an appellate appointment.

“I felt that imposter syndrome everyone talks about—with all of the rejection, do I want to do this again?” she said. “Despite wanting to be a judge all my life, my path was not easy. Having the support from the mentorship program, I could understand how the process goes, and who I should talk to or what I should do to get there.”

Mentor Program Webinars Spread the Word

Justice Helen Zukin, who assumed the mentorship program’s co-chair role this year alongside Justice Charles E. Wilson, said she struggled with self-doubt at every stage of her career. But she acknowledged she had the benefit of insight into how the appointment process worked.

“We’re trying to get rid of the old backroom decisions about who goes to the appellate courts,” Justice Zukin said. “Women and people of diverse backgrounds have a very high incidence of imposter syndrome for very real reasons. It is mentors that often alleviate doubt, show you the way, and see the next step for you.”

This week, the program will hold its first webinar for aspiring appellate attorneys, which will feature Gov. Gavin Newsom’s judicial appointments secretary Luis Céspedes, Presiding Justice Jackson, Justice Shama H. Mesiwala, and Justice Victor Rodríguez.

Judicial Branch Effort to Increase Diversity on the Bench

The California Judicial Mentor Program is a statewide undertaking between the executive and judicial branches to advance the shared goal of an inclusive judiciary that reflects California’s diverse population.

The program includes the appellate court program, as well as a Trial Court Mentor Program, which is now active in all of California’s 58 counties.

The Judicial Council’s “Pathways to Achieving Judicial Diversity” toolkit has also served as a key resource for these mentorship programs. The council’s Advisory Committee on Access and Fairness created the toolkit in collaboration with the State Bar of California’s Council on Access and Fairness.

California’s judicial bench has grown more diverse every year since 2006, the first year the Judicial Council began collecting this data. The number of female judicial officers has grown to more than 40% of judicial officers across all levels, while the percentage of Asian, Black, and Hispanic judicial officers has more than doubled.