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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Kevin Culhane Picked as Next|Sacramento County Presiding Judge

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - One day in 2011 during the height of the economic crisis, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kevin Culhane noticed a line of people snaking through the courthouse doors to an adjacent park. Hundreds of people were waiting to file paperwork in Culhane's family court, and some were bartering and exchanging their numbered-tickets in order to skip the growing line. Recent budget cuts slashed 10 employees from the family court and the number of clerks' windows shrunk from nine to one seemingly overnight.

Now, after eight years of navigating overloaded court calendars and increasingly reduced resources, Culhane has risen to the top of the bench after being selected to be presiding judge of the Sacramento Superior Court. A cache of private and public law experience has prepared Culhane to lead 61 judges and approximately 650 employees in one of California's busiest superior courts.

Before being elected to the bench in 2008, Culhane was a partner at a law firm in Sacramento for 32 years handling trial and appellate cases. Along with his private practice, Culhane served as vice president of the State Bar of California and headed numerous Judicial Council committees.

Culhane spent three years on the state bar's board of governors in the 1980s and credits the stint with allowing him to network and practice with some of the best and most talented attorneys in the state, like Ron Olsen and sports business law expert Alan Rothenberg.

"They are great sounding boards and good friends," Culhane said.

During his time on the board, Culhane helped create the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act and implemented legal classes aimed at reducing gender bias in California courts. Culhane received the Judicial Council's distinguished service award in 1993 and has continued to serve on various committees over the last 20 years.

Serving on the state bar and Judicial Council forced Culhane to dissect complex statewide issues and argue solutions in front of the state Legislature.

Growing up in Los Angeles and later Yucaipa, Culhane was surrounded by the successes of his large, accomplished family. Leaning forward in his chair, legs crossed, Culhane proudly recounted his family's achievements and casually proclaimed himself "the underachiever" out of his six siblings.

"I was never that kid that got the straight A's in class and that sort of thing," Culhane said from his chambers on a fall afternoon. "I have a brother that wrote the algorithm for your FICO score- he spoke at the Smithsonian last year. I have another brother that runs every Sutter hospital [emergency room] between here and Dallas. My oldest sister teaches Chinese history at the University of New Mexico."

Culhane is inherently loyal and brushes off questions about his career path, preferring to talk about the exploits of his family and fellow superior court judges. He's had the same clerk since he arrived at the Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse in 2007 and he's taught law at the same school - the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law - for 39 years.

Sacramento has provided a stable foundation for Culhane and enabled him to plant deep roots for both his family and career. He and his wife Jeanne first stumbled upon California's capital city when he enrolled at McGeorge. Over 40 years later, he can still be found on the small campus tucked in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.


Culhane says decades of teaching advanced torts, insurance law and ethics has enabled him to stay in touch with the constantly evolving legal profession and interact with bright, young, smart and forward-thinking people. When he began teaching at McGeorge, most of his students were older than him and finding ways to communicate complicated topics was a challenge that did and still does provide Culhane with "an adrenaline rush."

But how long does he plan to teach?

"Until I know that someone else could be more relevant to [the students]. You don't want to become a caricature of what you tried to do," Culhane said, refusing to open the retirement window.

Meshing his time on the bench with advising and lecturing college students often keeps Culhane up at night, occupying him with the latest evidence or professional responsibility topic.

"I think being in the classroom makes you better in practice, because it keeps that discipline working; you're in the books all the time trying to keep up with developments in at least in one area of the law," Culhane said of the benefits of teaching.

Culhane will draw on his teaching experience as he prepares to take over for current presiding judge Robert Hight in January. Culhane will be responsible for managing five different courthouses and uniting a superior court still reeling from budget cuts.

On any given day at the Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse, Sacramento's busiest court, five courtrooms stand dark and empty due to a lack of staffing. Culhane says there are open spots on the bench but the court is currently unable to fill the vacancies due to a lack of money.

While the state's economy has recovered, court funding remains an issue across California. Sacramento Superior Court judges and employees have learned to adapt to minimized staffing and become more efficient. Culhane says his main initiative is assessing and pooling the talent of his overworked judges and developing a mentoring system for sharing information - not focusing on the lack of funding.

"We have the capacity here and certainly the ability when I look at our bench, to really put together top-notch education and mentoring programs among our bench," Culhane said. "You could really get a unified effort to tap into what some of our very accomplished and very experienced judges can do."

Culhane points to similar support systems already in place for presiding judges that allows them to share time-saving innovations and new programs between the state's 58 counties.

A more immediate challenge for Culhane will be deciding what to do with the civil court's outdated case management system - the now-defunct CCMS - which is running out of state funding. Sacramento is just one of four superior courts still using the program and Culhane says they are actively searching for a replacement while consulting with the Judicial Council on potential options.

In what little free time Culhane - judge, professor, father and grandfather - has, he says he spends it taking guitar lessons and vacationing in Lake Tahoe with his wife. An avid reader, the judge hasn't slept a full night in years - routinely waking up at 1 a.m. to turn on his Kindle and power through another novel, most recently "The Martian." His wife calls his habit "unhealthy" but Culhane insists he's had the same routine since he was 16.

Old habits die hard, especially the "unhealthy" ones and it's unlikely Culhane will ever quit reading and learning. When asked another question about his laundry list of accomplishments, Culhane peered across the room, eyes gazing toward a photo of his granddaughter that lives with him and momentarily dodged the question.

"I spend a lot of time with my grandkids; we're a really tight-knit family."

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