Patricia Guerrero

At Home on California's Highest Court

In the lead-up to a major motion in the most significant case of her career as a litigator—defending San Diego Gas & Electric Company and three individuals against criminal charges related to the federal Clean Air Act—Patricia Guerrero, JD ’97, was, as usual, well prepared. She had drafted the brief ahead of time and planned to file the document before the scheduled cesarean section for her first child.

When her son arrived early, she didn’t panic; she made the final edits and coordinated the filing from her hospital room.

“I’m a father,” says Jason M. Ohta, a Latham & Watkins counsel who worked with Guerrero on the case. “And I—who did not give birth—was not responding to emails when my son was born. I didn’t have the brain capacity.” Guerrero laughs at the memory.

“I thought I had timed it perfectly,” she says. “But he ended up coming early. I emailed everyone to let them know what was going on and said, ‘Oh, and I have a son now named Anthony.’”

For Guerrero, who was appointed to the California Supreme Court in March and will become its first Latina chief justice in January after a majority of voters elected her in November, that sort of dedication is not unusual. She doesn’t just give 100 percent of her attention to her work and her family; she gives 100 percent to . . . “everything,” Ohta says.

Guerrero credits her work ethic to her personal background. Both her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. In their native country, her father left school at the age of eight to help support his family. After he arrived in the U.S., he worked as a farmworker, farrier, and a foreman for feedlots. Her mother cared for neighborhood children in their home in Southern California’s Imperial Valley.

“My father worked such long, hard hours—often in 110-degree heat—and he did it without complaint,” she says. “I made a comment recently that he must have loved his job, and he said he worked hard because he had to, so that I could work at finding something I love.”

From an early age, what Guerrero loved was reading, writing, and the idea of becoming a lawyer. She says her parents emphasized the importance of education for her and her sister; her mom completed only two years of high school but kept “stacks and stacks of books” around the house in both English and Spanish.

“We didn’t have a lot of money,” Guerrero remembers, “but we didn’t need for anything.”

Teachers recommended Guerrero think about becoming a lawyer, and, as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, she majored in legal studies, an interdisciplinary program in which courses are taught by law faculty and practicing attorneys and judges.

Guerrero applied to 15 law schools out of concern she might not get in; she was accepted to every single one, including Stanford and Harvard. She says she was “sold” on Stanford as soon as she came to campus for admitted students day.

“All of the professors were amazing,” she explains.

In particular, she recalls taking constitutional law with Professor Gerald Gunther, who literally wrote the book on the subject. “I remember feeling very fortunate that I had the opportunity to be taught by someone who had such insights into the law, through his own experiences,” she says. “There was some discussion at the time as to whether we were learning what we needed to learn for the bar exam. And I remember thinking, ‘I wouldn’t trade what we were learning and how we were learning for anything.’ You can take a bar review course, but there’s no substitute for what he was giving us in terms of an education.”

Patricia Guerrero At Home on California's Highest Court
California Supreme Court Justice Patricia Guerrero, JD ’97, in her San Francisco chambers

Guerrero also recalls taking a class with Kathleen M. Sullivan, who would go on to serve as dean of the law school from 1999 to 2004.

“She was so fast you could see her brain working,” Guerrero remembers.

“Trish was one of the nicest people in law school,” says Truc T. Do, JD ’97, associate justice on California’s 4th District Court of Appeal, who was Guerrero’s classmate and overlapped briefly with her on the appeals court. “She was very humble—you would never know she was the smartest, most hard-working person in the room. She is completely without pretense.”

Early on, Guerrero knew she wanted to be a litigator—as a Stanford 1L, she won the Hilmer Oehlmann, Jr. Award for excellence in legal writing. And at Latham, which hired her after graduation, she quickly acquired trial experience. Still, she wanted more ownership over her cases, so, in 2002, she moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, prosecuting mostly drug and immigration matters.

Ohta, who joined the prosecutor’s office several months before Guerrero left in 2003, says he immediately sought her out as a mentor.

“She was always at her desk, and, if she wasn’t at her desk, she was in court arguing on behalf of the United States,” he says. “I used to make fun of her: ‘Have you looked at the internet today?’ She didn’t have time for that.”

Yet Guerrero always made time for him.

“No matter how late, no matter what question I had, I always felt I could talk to her,” he says. “It never felt like I was bothering her, and, believe me, I know I was bothering her.”

At Latham—before and after her time in the U.S. Attorney’s Office— Guerrero handled environmental litigation. The case on behalf of San Diego Gas & Electric Company, which dragged on for years, ultimately ended with the government dismissing the criminal charges.

“That was the highlight of my work at Latham,” she says. “Not just for the work, but because we had a wonderful team, a wonderful client in a case with huge, huge stakes. We were ultimately able to prevail, and I think it was the right result.”

In 2013, then Governor Jerry Brown appointed Guerrero as a judge on the San Diego County Superior Court. She oversaw a family law courtroom and later presided over that department.

“She is so smart, so intuitive, and so charismatic,” says San Diego County Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge Maureen F. Hallahan. “She took to the family law assignment quickly and unbelievably well. She was able to come up with the right decisions in the cases and do it in a way that all parties and lawyers felt that they’d been heard.”

Between 2017 and early 2022, Guerrero sat on the 4th Appellate District Court, writing opinions on issues ranging from Amazon’s exposure in product liability suits to the emergency zero-bail law passed during the pandemic to address overcrowding in prisons and jails.

“I enjoyed being an advocate; I think I did it well,” she says of her time at the firm. “But my preference was always trying to figure out what’s the right thing, what’s the correct thing.”

Now, she’ll have the chance to do that as the leader of the state’s highest court. She says she’s still “absorbing” her elevation to the court and her appointment as the presumptive chief justice. Others believe she’s precisely
where she belongs.

“Her nomination to be chief justice is an historical and inspired choice, and a no-brainer,” says Do. “I just feel such an overwhelming sense of pride to know someone like that.”

Ohta agrees.

“She is where she should be,” he says, “and everyone in California is better off for it.”

Rebecca Beyer is a former staff writer and editor for the Daily Journal.