by Maureen C. Onyeagbako1
Jonathan Renner is giving me a headache.
It is not because the newest justice on California’s Third District Court of Appeal is a difficult person. On the contrary, he is a gentleman and a professional. The problem is that no single “angle” for this profile appropriately describes him. So, for those who like quick bits, Justice Renner is amiable, ethical, collaborative, funny, and astute. For those who prefer to look under the hood or read beyond the book flap, continue on for more on what makes this new judge tick.
Justice Renner reports that every day on the Court of Appeal is different and that the learning curve is long. Much of his first year has been spent staffing his chambers, delving into cases, and developing a system to manage assignments on one of the busiest appellate courts in the state. With each day, he feels humbled to have the responsibility to resolve matters that are frequently life changing for the litigants. Judging from the large stacks of briefing arranged neatly around his office, he has his work cut out for him, but there is no sign of nervousness or pressure.
Although the stream of cases is endless, Justice Renner enjoys having blocks of uninterrupted time to study cases carefully, conduct his own research, consult with staff attorneys, and process his thoughts through writing. Much of the discourse among the justices on the Court of Appeal takes place in writing by circulating draft opinions. Justice Renner points out that, unlike informal conversations, the writing process helps him thoroughly think through complex issues and evaluate whether he agrees with positions taken by his colleagues.
Justice Renner’s “attention to detail is unsurpassed.”
This quieter, more academic setting stands in contrast to Justice Renner’s previous job as Legal Affairs Secretary to Governor Jerry Brown. That environment was fast-paced, on-call 24/7, and included a high volume of emails and constant interruptions. It was intense, but current Legal Affairs Secretary, Peter Krause, says that Renner was “unflappable” and able to make principled decisions even when facing questions from the governor, urgent deadlines, or an emerging crisis. Able to quickly learn and apply new areas of law, Renner worked on important issues involving election law, education, and corrections, among others. His opinion was frequently sought out and valued. Renner also regularly handled appellate issues by analyzing pleadings to determine if arguments were adequate and well-written, and collaborating with staff attorneys to decide what more could be done. Unfailingly kind and courteous, approachable, and able to diffuse tension with humor and wit, according to Krause, Renner left a great legacy and is a tough act to follow at the Governor’s Office.
Renner also left his mark at the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) where he started as a deputy and left leading the Government Law Section statewide. He had a briefing-oriented practice handling writs and appeals, while also preparing himself and others for oral arguments in the very courtroom where he now sits on the bench. Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin reflects that his former supervisor has a gift of not only seeing the big picture, but also of taking complex subjects and making them understandable. In addition, Renner’s “attention to detail is unsurpassed.” According to Barankin, deputies knew they were in trouble when their briefs got the Renner-ruler treatment, meaning that Renner would review a brief line-by-line, using a ruler to block out the text below. The result was insightful and brilliant feedback. With such focus and attention, lawyers appearing before Justice Renner should be “very excited” because he is fair and can recognize quality legal arguments supported by the law.
Presiding Justice Jim Humes of the First District Court of Appeal also worked with Renner at the AGO and describes him as having great common sense and the ability to look at an issue from all sides. When Humes left the AGO to become the Governor’s Executive Secretary at the beginning of Governor Brown’s third term, Renner was at the top of his list to join the staff. Humes characterizes Renner as integral during the transition period for the new administration. No task was too large or small and included anything from setting up a core staff to reviewing reports on issues affecting the state, including the looming budget. Four and a half years later, Justice Humes is still amazed that Justice Renner made it through that period while also juggling a family, which consisted of a wife and two young children. And, most importantly, Justice Renner maintained a great sense of humor and can dish it as well as he can take it.
Justice Renner recognizes that being a lawyer is not easy and believes that being proactive can improve the experience. He approached his career as an attorney by choosing jobs that built on his strengths of writing and analysis, while simultaneously seeking opportunities that allowed him to serve the public. As an attorney, he took pride in applying himself fully and taking his obligations to his clients seriously. Maintaining good relationships with other lawyers also has had a significant impact on his career and helped avoid the enmity that often pervades the legal profession.
On that same note, Justice Humes points out that judges set the tone for the profession, and that poor judicial temperament can motivate lawyers to take the adversarial nature of the law to unfortunate extremes. He is confident that Justice Renner is not like that and that parties appearing before Justice Renner can take comfort that he will approach their issues with thoughtfulness and humanity.
1 The author thanks U.C. Davis law student Roya Bagheri for her assistance conducting research for this article.