upper waypoint

Santa Clara County's New Top Judge Is First Minority and a 'Testament to Change'

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Judge Rise Jones Pichon looks over court documents before becoming Santa Clara County's first minority presiding Superior Court judge. (Beth Willon/KQED)

It's been a long time coming in one of the most diverse counties in California.

On Jan. 1, Rise Jones Pichon, who is African-American, became Santa Clara County's first minority presiding Superior Court judge.

"One of our most profound institutions in any society are the courts. And the courts need to reflect the diversity in any society," said Chris Arriola, supervising deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County's juvenile justice unit. "So the fact it's taken 164 years to get a minority (presiding) judge does seem like quite a long time."

Pichon, 62, said she got to the top of her legal career by taking chances outside her comfort zone and learning how to deal with obstacles tied to her race. Today she brings to her new position a lifelong understanding of race relations.

"Having lived when I lived gives a person a great understanding of how people feel, how they feel when there's only one of them in a group," said Pichon.


"The fact that they can feel powerless and some can abuse their power. ... It's given me the courage at this point of my life to make sure people are treated fairly. I can't say it's best to treat everyone the same because that's no longer true. Justice is not blind."

Pichon's immediate family in Little Rock, Arkansas circa 1950. (Courtesy Pichon)
Rise Jones Pichon's immediate family in Little Rock, Arkansas, circa 1950. (Courtesy Rise Jones Pichon)

Pichon grew up in the segregated South, where her great-great grandmothers were slaves and "colored only" signs were posted in public places.

"The signs were still on the bus, you know, that you sat behind. The signs were still on the water fountains and the restrooms. It wasn't anything that made me sad. It was just the way it was," she said.

She developed a way of dealing with these obstacles that has stayed with her. A good example is what happened at her high school  in Little Rock, Arkansas, when it was the third year that African-American students were allowed to attend classes. She wanted to play in the band but was forced to play the baritone horn instead of the instrument she chose.

"I really wanted to play the French horn. But the instructor said that my lips were too big so I couldn't play a French horn," said Pichon.

Instead of talking back to the instructor, Pichon said she excelled at the baritone horn. From then on, excelling became her way of navigating around the barriers of racism.

And there were plenty more to come.

The biggest shock was when she moved to San Jose with her family in 1969. When they bought a home, a number of the houses on the block immediately went up for sale. Coming from the South, Pichon expected California to be the land of golden racial equality. That was not the case.

"And my brothers, on their way to the corner to the elementary school to play basketball, would be stopped by the police," Pichon said.

Pichon graduated from Santa Clara University in 1972. (Courtesy Pichon)
Pichon graduated from Santa Clara University in 1972. (Courtesy Pichon)

As an undergraduate at Santa Clara University, she felt marginalized and dismissed by some of her professors who, she said, had low expectations of her as a math major.

But that all changed when she went to law school at the same university. Out of 260 classmates, only eight were African-American. And, she says, they were treated equally.

"We stood out because you could see us, but the atmosphere was comfortable and we were very welcome there," said Pichon.

Once again she excelled -- becoming a public defender, a commissioner and then a judge. Outgoing Presiding Superior Court judge Brian Walsh symbolically handed her the gavel at the judges' holiday party in December.

"Someone asked me if I was going to lose a lot of weight today and I thought, 'Well, I know the gavel isn't that heavy but I'm going to pass on a load here, a real load,' " said Walsh.

It is a heavy load and a tough job, assigning judges to cases they sometimes don't want and moving cases through the courts efficiently when lawyers want to stall them.

Pichon will also manage the court's budget and deal with state cuts that already have shut down courtrooms from Morgan Hill to Palo Alto. And there's pressure to deal with the disproportionate number of African-American and Latino kids in juvenile hall.

"If we don't get the proper rehabilitative services for young people, particularly young men of color, we're going to create a system where we create adult criminals," said Arriola.

Pichon (right) with classmates at Santa Clara University Law School. (Courtesy Pichon)
Pichon (right) with classmates at Santa Clara University Law School. (Courtesy Pichon)

In the last four years, he said, the number of kids in juvenile hall has dropped from 400 to 100 a day in Santa Clara County, but the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos has gone up. Many of the nonviolent juveniles are put into rehabilitative programs.

"She can make sure the funding is available, which is always tight at the court for such programs," said Arriola. "She can make sure the courts can monitor and seek out new programs so we can continue to do better."

Pichon also believes the courts can do better reflecting diversity, so she mentors African-American law school students like Nnennaya Amuchie, who is ready to graduate. She wants to become a judge because of Pichon's influence.

"I don't think she lets her experiences dictate what her perception of the world is," Amuchie said. "And I think it's important for us not to be jaded by issues because she is a testament to change."

There have been changes. Still there are only eight African-Americans in Amuchie's law school class -- the same number as when Pichon was there. And more than three decades after police used to stop her brothers on the streets of San Jose, protests over the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police are rattling the nation.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
Paleontologists Discover 240-Million-Year-Old 'Dragon' Fossil in Full'Everybody Is Just Scrambling': Nationwide Cyber Attack Delays Bay Area Pharmacy OrdersMacy's to Close Flagship San Francisco Union Square StoreCrowds (and Dragons) Pack Chinatown for San Francisco's Chinese New Year ParadePerformance Reviews are Underperforming. What Should Replace Them?Proposition A: Why SF Is Asking Voters For a $300 Million Affordable Housing BondA Growing ‘Right to Repair’ Culture in CaliforniaCharles Duhigg's “Supercommunicators” Breaks Down How to Talk Better and Forge ConnectionsHow to Correct a Mistake on Your Ballot for the 2024 California Primary ElectionTommy Orange’s ‘Wandering Stars’ Examines the Legacy and Consequences of Cultural Erasure