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Morada justice elevated to federal court

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Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2003 10:00 pm

When she was growing up, Consuelo Maria Callahan wasn't sure whether she wanted to be an English teacher or practice law.

The law won, and on Wednesday, the Morada resident was sworn in as the newest member of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Callahan, who'll turn 53 on June 9, will assume her duties as soon as she hires staff and completes her move to the federal courthouse in downtown Sacramento.

"I looked at office space today," Callahan said late Wednesday afternoon.

Connie Callahan

The Senate confirmed President Bush's nomination of Callahan by a 99-0 vote.

Callahan, who goes by Connie, said she doesn't know why the Bush Administration selected her for the federal bench. She's met the president, but she admits she doesn't really know him. Callahan guesses that her selection was based on her body of work.

Her appointment to the federal court ends her seven years as an associate justice for the California 3rd District Court of Appeal.

"I sat in court for the last time on Friday," Callahan said Tuesday in her chambers, just a half-block from the state Capitol.

Nominated on Feb. 12, Callahan appeared May 7 before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C.

Callahan will fill a vacancy on the 9th Circuit created when Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez took senior status in June 2002. She will maintain her judicial chambers in Sacramento.

"I've defended people she has prosecuted, and I've appeared before her," said defense attorney Al Ellis. "I am very proud that she is from San Joaquin County. She has really distinguished the bench in San Joaquin County."

Callahan will join the often controversial - and what some have labeled as an extremely liberal - federal appeals court.

"I think the 9th has gained some celebrity status from the 'Pledge of Allegiance' and some other recent decisions," Ellis said. "But it is the same court that (more conservative judges) like Earl Warren and Sandra Day O'Connor came from."

The most famous decision of late was a ruling by three 9th Circuit Court judges last year that including the words "under God" in the "Pledge of Allegiance" is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state.

Ellis, who practices in Stockton, describes Callahan as neither liberal nor conservative, which he thinks is a real feather in her cap.

Callahan was the first woman and Hispanic to become a Superior Court judge in San Joaquin County and the first judge from San Joaquin County to be named to the 3rd District Court of Appeal in more than 73 years.

Born in Palo Alto, Callahan grew up in Palo Alto, Los Altos and Fremont. Her father was a Spanish teacher and high school principal, while her mother, who is Hispanic, worked for the state Employment Development Department. In her retirement, Callahan's mother teaches English as a second language.

Callahan reached the conclusion that high school students probably wouldn't share her love for English, so she turned to law.

"The autonomy of the position rather appealed to me," said Callahan, explaining why she preferred law. "Knowing my personality, I wanted to be the one in charge."

She received a bachelor's degree in honor's English from Stanford University in 1972 and a law degree from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento three years later. She was admitted to the California Bar in December 1975.

Callahan, who goes by her maiden name, worked in the Sacramento County Public Defender's Office while she was in law school, but her first job after passing the bar was in the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office. She focused on career criminal, homicide and child abuse/sexual assault cases during her 10 years as a prosecutor.

She also served as deputy city attorney in Stockton for a year before being appointed a court commissioner in 1986. Callahan was appointed to the Superior Court in 1992 and was elevated to the appellate court four years later.

Callahan maintains strong ties in San Joaquin County, having lived a year in Lodi and 26 years in Morada.

"I guess it's my emotional home," she said. "If it weren't for working in Stockton, I wouldn't have had the opportunities I've had."

Callahan said she hadn't always aspired to be a judge, not to mention serving at the federal level.

"My goals have been a moving target," she said. "I didn't say when I was young I wanted to be a judge. I wanted to be a lawyer.

"When I decided I wanted to be a judge, I decided I will go as far as the opportunity provides me," Callahan said.

Some judges prefer the Superior Court level because they deal directly with people on both sides of a case, said George Abdollah, presiding judge at San Joaquin County Superior Court.

At the state and federal level, they spend more time reading case law and working with attorneys than with the general public, Callahan said.

In addition to hearing appeals from the Superior Court, the 3rd District Court of Appeal justices also interpret state law. In her new position as a federal judge, Callahan said she will weigh bills that Congress passes to see if they meet constitutional muster.

To make up for not working with the general public like she did in Superior Court, Callahan is busy doing community outreach work with high school students.

Earlier this year, Callahan appeared at Stagg High School in Stockton to help students understand the court system, said Superior Court Judge Bill Murray Jr.

Most recently, she hosted a group of minority and disabled adults in an adult leadership academy, Murray said.

"She's the same person she was when I met her 25 years ago," Ellis said. "She has the same friends, enjoys doing the same things. She hasn't let power go to her head."

Laurence Drivon, known widely as a hard-nosed defense attorney, doesn't always have flattering comments toward other attorneys and judges, but he respects Callahan.

"In 33 years of practice within California and elsewhere, I have seen the entire Bell curve of judges," said Drivon, also a Morada resident. "Connie Callahan epitomizes the best of what a judge should be. She's a real lawyer, a real judge and a real person.

"She has great legal instincts, and as a judge, I found her to be extremely bright, grounded, well-researched, fair and above reproach ethically," Drivon said.

Ellis said Callahan has distinguished herself through her work ethic, studying legal issues, understanding human beings, making sure all participants have had their day in court and not taking herself too seriously.

"She has personalized the bench and personalized the judiciary to the public," Ellis said. "Judges all too often think too much about cases as principle, not how they affect people. She has great empathy for people and the system."

Abdollah added, "As a prosecutor, she was a tough prosecutor, but she was fair. She almost immediately established a reputation as judge as being fair. In addition, she has a great heart."

Callahan will be the first member of the 9th Circuit District to be headquartered in Sacramento since Anthony Kennedy was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988.

The 9th district is headquartered in San Francisco and serves California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Callahan will travel about one week a month to hear cases in San Francisco, Pasadena, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle. She will work in teams of three judges when she hears federal cases.

As a justice for the 3rd District Court of Appeal, Callahan oversaw 23 counties ranging from San Joaquin County to the Oregon border, an area larger than the combined states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Delaware.

Callahan said she hopes to work another 15 years.

"They're not going to get rid of me anytime soon," she said with a smile.

She has enjoyed every job she's had, and she especially hates to leave the appellate court.

"If you can die and go to heaven, I have done so with this court," Callahan said. "I've never had a bad day here."

When she's not wearing her judge's robe, Callahan said she enjoys reading and tap dancing. Her husband's name is Randy, and they have two adult children.

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