Judge Richard L. Seabolt Shares His Thoughts and Provides Advice to the ACBA

Judge Richard Seabolt
Judge Richard Seabolt, Superior Court of California County of Alameda

The Trial Practice section recently had the pleasure of meeting with Judge Richard L. Seabolt to conduct an interview for the Summer 2020 ACBA Trial Practice Section newsletter. Since January 1, 2020, Judge Seabolt, who sits in Dept. 521 of the Alameda Superior Court at the Hayward Hall of Justice, has had a Civil Direct Calendar assignment.  Judge Seabolt was kind enough to take some time to discuss his past employment experience, his work since his appointment, information about appearing in his department, and his broader thoughts and insights for civil practitioners. 

Background

Prior to becoming a lawyer, Judge Seabolt had an eclectic job history, which included working at the original McDonalds that had been opened by Ray Kroc in Des Plaines, Illinois, as a newspaper deliverer, as a member of the high school bookstore staff, a golf caddie, encyclopedia salesperson, a maintenance worker, a law firm messenger and a furniture mover. However, what proved to be the most valuable position for his eventual career in the law was the summer he spent working as a ‘courtroom observer’ in the Chicago courts, which required him to sit in on criminal trials for a summer as well as to interact with the city’s newspaper reporters. 

Both literally and figuratively, this gave him a ‘front row seat’ to witness the workings of our American jury system, which he still considers to be one of our most unique and extraordinary contributions to modern society. While his observation has been that the parties in any given case tend to focus too heavily on viewing the facts from only their own perspective, a jury of 12 citizens is able to consider and resolve the dispute through the application of the more objective, ‘common wisdom’ of the community. It was through this experience and observing this key dynamic of jury trials that he first developed his self-described love for the law and the mechanisms we have for resolving legal disputes. Thus, it is something he would encourage lawyers of any age, but especially young lawyers, to do if given the opportunity, as he feels that the chance to observe jury trials provides the best training for building one’s own trial practice.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1971, he attended Hastings College of Law, where he met his wife (and future lawyer/Contra Costa County prosecutor) and obtained his JD in 1975. In contrast to his varied employment history before law school, after graduating he remained at essentially one firm for the next 43 years. He was hired as an associate attorney at Hancock, Rothert & Bunshoft in 1975, and remained at the firm (including through its merger with Duane Morris LLP in 2006) until his appointment to the bench. During that tenure, he worked as a litigator with an emphasis on complex commercial and contract disputes, including litigation involving technology, construction, and insurance coverage. In this role, he was involved in numerous complex, multi-party, multimillion dollar lawsuits, many of which were resolved via lengthy jury trials lasting weeks or even months.

While these matters certainly kept Judge Seabolt busy, he also has served the legal community in numerous other ways. Of particular relevance to civil trial lawyers, he was a lawyer-member of the CACI Advisory Committee (the Judicial Council Committee on Civil Jury Instructions) from 2003-18 and is now a trial judge-member, so we suspect litigators will find few judges with greater familiarity with the current civil jury instructions and the history behind their development. He has served as an officer of the State Bar’s Litigation Section, (including serving as Chair from 2005-2006) and as an officer of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers (including serving as President in 2013). He also has published numerous articles, authored sections of California practice guides, and given a number of presentations at various speaking engagements over the years, both before and after his appointment. Finally, Judge Seabolt remains a member of ACBA, as he feels it is essential for both lawyers and judicial officers to stay connected to the local legal community, and to continue to give back. 

Appointment To the Bench

Although his above-described activities kept him quite busy, Judge Seabolt loved his work, and did not expect to make a major career change, at most thinking he might explore becoming involved in law school instruction. However, at the suggestion of a colleague who felt that he should consider a judicial appointment, he decided to explore this and eventually submitted an application during the most recent Brown administration.  After completing all of the many steps in the process, including multiple rounds of interviews, he was appointed by Governor Brown and took the oath of office on June 29, 2018. 

Judge Seabolt was initially assigned to a Family Law department, which was an area of law with which his prior involvement had been relatively limited. But, he was enthusiastic about taking this on, as he is an eager learner who has always appreciated the opportunity to further his own education, including his knowledge of the law. On that note, he keeps a plaque on his desk with a quote from Michelangelo at age 87, when the artist stated “I am still learning.” Judge Seabolt strongly feels that this adage provides key guidance of lawyers of all ages, to remember that no lawyer will ever reach the point of ‘knowing it all’ and instead to be mindful that there is always more to learn no matter how many years one has practiced or how many trials one has done. 

Despite the hard work required with a Family Law assignment, Judge Seabolt believes that his time in that role was well-spent, both for his own education and training as a judge and because of how significant such matters are for the parties. As he observed, each litigant’s case is the most important matter in their life (and also a great challenge for most, as the vast majority of the litigants are self-represented). Each case must be afforded a level of attention, consideration and respect which acknowledges this. Indeed, he found himself working at home for 2-3 hours every night to ensure that he was adequately prepared for the next day’s docket to most effectively resolve the 10-15 new matters before him each day.

Information For Appearing In Dept. 521

Since being reassigned to a civil direct calendar, Judge Seabolt has taken over nearly 700 cases, so he has a very busy docket. As with all civil direct departments, lawyers are advised to closely read not only the Judicial Assignment order issued at the time a new case is filed and assigned to his department, but also to review the information for Judge Seabolt’s courtroom available on DomainWeb. This can be found by going to the main DomainWeb page (from which one does case-specific searches of dockets), scrolling down to the bottom of the page and clicking on the middle link on the bottom row, which is:

https://publicrecords.alameda.courts.ca.gov/PRS/Case/SearchByDirectCalendaring

As set forth on his courtroom’s page, Judge Seabolt holds trials Tuesdays through Fridays, from 8:30-1:30 p.m., with 2 morning breaks but no lunch break. Based on his own experience as well as feedback from counsel, he believes this is the most efficient and workable schedule for both lawyers and jurors. For counsel, it allows time to prepare for the next day’s session, including meeting with witnesses and preparing evidence, while it addresses such issues as accommodating jurors who have children in school who require pickup/after-school care, and allowing those in the work force to spend some time on their jobs in the afternoons. 

Other, non-trial events are generally held at 2:30 p.m. on various days of the week, including CMCs (Mondays and Thursdays), law and motion (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and ex parte applications (Tuesdays and Fridays). As with other departments, contact by email is always preferred, such as for reserving motion or ex parte hearings.

Thoughts On ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ From Judge Seabolt

Having been a successful litigator for decades, Judge Seabolt has several important thoughts on how best to advocate for your client in his courtroom. First, his view is that one of the most important skills for lawyers is the ability to take complex facts and legal principles and make them simple. Jurors often come from a varied educational background, while judges have a limited amount of time to address and resolve the issues before them, so do not make things unnecessarily complicated by not getting to your point. Instead, make it easy for the judge and jury to understand what you are saying/seeking, by putting that right up front.

Applying this to written submissions to the court, he recommends making your most important points in in the first 100 words, or roughly 90 seconds of reading.  While you can provide additional background and develop the argument later in the brief, burying the ultimate issue or key point will not increase your chances of prevailing. With regard to oral presentations, whether at law and motion or trial, focus on points that truly matter which, if you are being objective in preparing your oral argument, should be apparent.

Related to this, ‘shorter is better’ in nearly every case; while it can be more work to make your presentation briefer, it will ultimately be more effective. Finally, focus on your best arguments because if you are not going to prevail on your first or second strongest arguments, you are probably not going to prevail on your third or fourth strongest arguments. Moreover, such fallback/secondary arguments tend to weaken your main points.

As to things to avoid, he noted that showing a lack of civility to the court, opposing counsel or parties, or other persons in the courtroom, will never be to counsel’s advantage. With respect to his own personal ‘pet peeve,’ he advises lawyers not to ‘duck’ or avoid questions from the court, or to try to defer responding to them until later in their argument. If the Court is seeking information or a response to a particular query, assume it is important to the judge and an answer they need, not a trivial or secondary point to be dealt with as counsel may feel is important.  Related to this, he encourages lawyers to view their cases objectively, and give ground when they need to, as fighting every point and battling over every issue typically only weakens their position.

As with many civil judges, resolving discovery disputes is the least favorite part of his job, and in particular finds that the Separate Statement required by such motions often serves as more of an impediment than a useful tool to resolve such disputes. Thus, he would strongly encourage parties in his department to find the means to resolve their discovery disputes informally, by finding areas where they can agree or compromise, rather than taking a ‘hard’ position on every point. For example, if you feel that a requested discovery point would not ultimately fit into a closing argument at trial, consider whether it is worth spending your or the court’s time on the issue.  While some motions are required because of the uniqueness of the issues or the conflict being too intractable, this should be the exception and not the rule.

On that note, he too finds great value in the newer Alameda County process for Informal Discovery Conferences. He added that, regardless of that process, parties are best served by speaking directly, at least by phone if not in person, rather than sending letters or emails. Such more impersonal forms of communication can often serve as a shield from behind which lawyers lob insults and ultimatums, often escalating rather than reducing the level of tension and disagreement. 

Advice for Younger Lawyers

As a general rule, he has always felt that the best advice for anyone new to a profession, but especially in the law, is “do something that scares you.” In other words, he sees great value in taking on new challenges, even if outside one’s comfort zone, rather than simply continuing to tread the same familiar path. In his own career, he found that those opportunities to ‘try something that is hard’ provided the greatest means for both personal and professional growth. 

Applying that to younger lawyers in particular, he believes that best thing that any newer lawyer can do is to find his or her way into court as often as possible, particularly for trials when that is an option, but even for lesser appearances. Even if the particular motion or case to be tried may be intimidating and full of difficult issues, the education and training from such experiences is invaluable. While there are also any important and valuable experiences outside the courtroom such as depositions and mediations, he feels that to excel as a trial practitioner one simply must spend time in court, not only actively on one’s own case but taking the time to observe other matters on the calendar, including how the lawyers and judge address and resolve the issues in those cases. 

Final Thoughts

Like other judicial officers we have interviewed, Judge Seabolt expressed how much he enjoys being a judge, and seconded the comment of others that it is the ‘best job he has ever had,’ although he concedes that he may not have said that during his first few months when the learning curve was quite steep.  There is still a learning curve, of course; Judge Seabolt has found that he has found that the hardest part of being a judge is recognizing that there is always more to learn, as new and unexpected facts, issues, and arguments are presented every week.

Judge Seabolt finds great enjoyment and satisfaction in his new role, which is quite different from his work as an attorney for 4-plus decades. The biggest change he has noted is that as a litigator, he was always heavily invested in his side prevailing on whatever issue was in dispute. Now as a judge, he obviously has no such allegiance or need to advocate for one side or the other, as his role is simply to provide a level playing field in jury trials and to reach what he believes is the correct result in court trials. He finds this not only less stressful, but also intellectually stimulating. More generally, he reiterated that he finds trials to be inherently interesting proceedings, and something which he greatly enjoys, albeit now as the judicial officer rather than counsel. He is therefore looking forward to 2020 and beyond in Dept. 521.