2015 SCBA – Judge of the Year Robert Hight

By Judge Allen H. Sumner sits in department 9 of the Sacramento County Superior Court.
By Judge Allen H. Sumner sits in department 9 of the Sacramento County Superior Court.

“He is the most accomplished
public servant I have known.”

Winston Hickox

Sacramento County Bar Association - Lawyer Magazine, Sep/Oct
Sacramento County Bar Association – Lawyer Magazine, Sep/Oct VIEW ONLINE MAGAZINE

Judge Robert Hight, Sacramento’s low-key presiding judge, is known as a master of the deal. But his ability to help parties find common ground and workable solutions predates his time on the bench.

Appointed by Governor Gray Davis in 2003, Judge Hight comes from an impressive background in state government. He was Director of the Department of Fish and Game from 1999, until his appointment to the bench. Before his tenure at the Department of Fish and Game, he served 22 years as Chief Counsel of the State Lands Commission and then five years as its Executive Officer. In both positions, he brokered historic agreements preserving California’s environment and benefitting the taxpayers, including:

  • The $500 million acquisition of 10,000 acres of endangered old-growth redwoods (some over 2000 years old) in Humboldt County commonly called “Headwaters,” the habitat for several endangered species;
  • Restoration of 500 acres of Bolsa Chica wetlands near Huntington Beach;
  • Resolution of California’s 21-year litigation against the seven major oil companies, obtaining over $300 million for the taxpayers and 10,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land for the State of California; and
  • Settlement of the state’s claims against the estate of Howard Hughes, acquiring 250 acres of fragile wetlands at Playa Vista for the citizens of California, one of the last remaining wetlands area in the Los Angeles Basin.

“I believe agreement between the parties is more important than winning an argument,” Hight explained. “Both sides must feel they achieved a fair deal. That is the way to build consensus.”

Winston Hickox, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, who worked with Judge Hight on many environmental projects, said “I have known Judge Hight since the mid-1980’s. He is extremely bright, a creative problem solver, laser focused, someone who excels at getting things done, and always balanced in his approach.”  Hickox observed, “He is the most accomplished public servant I have known.”

Judge Hight’s friendly manner reflects his small town background.  He grew up in Alturas in Northern California where his family owned a restaurant. “It was like a big family,” Hight recalled. “You knew everyone.”  With Hight’s Café just a block from the courthouse, attorneys and the one judge for Modoc County ate there often, discussing the law and their cases.  “I learned the law at a personal level,” Hight explained. “These were disputes involving people in our town who would see each other the rest of their lives, attending the same church and sending their children to the same school. The law was not a battle to be won at all costs, but a tool to help neighbors resolve their problems.”

Judge Hight obtained his undergraduate degree from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, and graduated from Pacific McGeorge School of Law. Upon his appointment to the bench Judge Hight handled criminal trials and served two years in family law before moving to a civil assignment. “I requested civil trials because I enjoy the challenge of civil litigation, while having the ability to find resolutions the parties could accept,” he said. “I have settled far more cases than I have tried.”

Roger Dreyer, of Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, LLP, describes Judge Hight as a “classy gentleman” but “wicked smart.” “He is always friendly, polite and honest to a fault. You know you are getting the truth. He is firm and fair-minded in his rulings, but I have never seen him when he is not smiling. It is fun to appear in his department. When the judge is civil, the parties have to be.”

Elected presiding judge in 2014, Hight most recently focused his talents on planning Sacramento County’s new courthouse, expected to break ground in 2017. Drawing on his experience with state government, Judge Hight persuaded the State Architect to revise outdated requirements that would have imposed needless costs and reduced the useable space of every courtroom. “Everyone said we had to accept the old rules, even though no one had asked about changing them,” Judge Hight recalled.  “When we explained our position and the problems posed, the State Architect was most helpful in coming up with new designs meeting both of our needs.” Future courthouses around the state will now benefit from Judge Hight’s negotiating skills.

Kevin R. Culhane, Assistant Presiding Judge for the Sacramento County Superior Court, said of Presiding Judge Hight “We are good friends and have an extremely close working relationship. We approach issues as a team. He knows how important it is for those who follow him to understand the reasons why decisions were made today.”

Presiding Judge Hight has made assigning civil trials a priority. “I appreciate the difficulty attorneys face in preparing their cases for trial, particularly scheduling their experts’ costly, limited time,” Hight explained.  “It is important to give them a date certain. This is also a tremendous help in encouraging settlements.” Under his tenure as presiding judge, 95 percent of civil cases have been sent to a courtroom for trial on the date assigned. Dreyer observed, “Judge Hight has been a tremendous presiding judge, working tirelessly to keep the civil courts open in the face of budget cuts. Sacramento is unique in the state in being able to keep civil cases going because Judge Hight recognizes that administering justice is more than just putting people in jail.”

Judge Hight also brought his executive experience to bear on improving the court’s administrative procedures. For example, in November 2014, the Family Law Court had a backlog of 2,200 judgments, resulting in a six-month wait for processing. He reduced this backlog by revamping the processing system. Today judgments are entered within one month of filing. Similarly, when Judge Hight took office as presiding judge, motions for summary judgment and demurrers were being set for hearing nine months to one year from filing. These calendars are now current.

Judge Hight has also promoted the Expedited Jury Trial Program, offering “one-day” jury trials. He presided over some of the first trials, providing young attorneys experience with every step of a jury trial in one day. “These one-day trials allow new attorneys to gain valuable experience with cases that would otherwise never get their day in court,” Judge Hight explained.

Robert Zimmerman, of Schuering Zimmerman & Doyle, LLP, observed, “The Civil Division of the Sacramento County Superior Court has never run more smoothly. With a true sense of judicial fairness and an easy smile, Judge Hight has brought civility and efficiency to an overworked and underfunded system. During his tenure nearly all civil cases have found a courtroom waiting as scheduled. This has removed the rancor, cost, and friction of a congested civil trial system where courtrooms are often not available. This allows justice to be a proper means to an end.” Zimmerman concluded, “Whether a trial judge or a presiding judge overseeing a civil system that handles 8,000 filings per year, Judge Hight has earned the respect and admiration of all who appear before him. With a reputation as a ‘deal maker’ he is always available for last minute attempts at resolution and has been successful in any number of thought to be impossible settlements.”

Judge Hight has also overseen innovation in Sacramento’s criminal courts, presiding over implementation or expansion of several collaborative courts, such as Mental Health, Reentry, Veterans Treatment, Commercially Sexually Exploited Children and Reducing Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking. These courts provide intense counseling and supervision tailored to the needs of each defendant as a cost-effective, promising alternative to traditional incarceration or probation. Today over 200 individuals participate in these collaborative courts.

Judge Hight’s joy, laughter, and guidance comes from his wife Mary who inspires him daily; his son Nate, wife Julie and daughter Zoey; and his daughter Kori, husband Nels, and children, Loren and Cooper. Busy as he is as presiding judge, he always finds time to babysit a grandchild or wear a goofy hat at a family birthday party.

The SCBA has named a worthy recipient of its 2015 Judge of the Year Award.

Sacramento Lawyer Magazine –  September/October 2015

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