New Judges
Kenny Brings Wide Expertise to Superior Court Bench
By Jeffrey Joseph

Michael Kenny has been a prosecutor, a civil litigator, a government attorney overseeing elections practices and the head of a state agency with a $250 million annual budget. Many attorneys might dream of having just one of these jobs, and Kenny acknowledges that his career has been one with few disappointments.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve had some absolutely great jobs. ”But perhaps none of those will compare to Kenny’s latest challenge: serving on the bench of the Sacramento County Superior Court. Judge Kenny was sworn in on January 23, 2003, following an appointment by Gov. Gray Davis last December.

Before taking the bench, Judge Kenny was most recently the executive officer of the California Air Resources Board, the state agency charged with monitoring and combating pollution. But the judge is no stranger to the courtroom, having started his career as a litigator at the Sacramento firm of James & Kilpatrick and worked for five years as a deputy district attorney in San Joaquin Country. Judge Kenny went on to work for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, where helped enforce campaign rules and conflict of interest laws. The judge served as general counsel to the Air Resources Board from 1990 through 1996, when the board selected him to become its executive officer.

Working at the environmental agency was a sort of dream come true for Judge Kenny, who became an attorney with plans to practice environmental law but found the market for environmental lawyers to be disappointingly limited when he graduated from the University of San Diego Law School in 1980. Kenny oversaw an agency with a staff of more than 1,000 and a budget that rose from $120 million to $250 million during his tenure. Much of Kenny’s time was occupied with giving speeches and attending meetings in other states and countries, sharing the California Air Resources Board expertise on environmental issues with its counterpart agencies elsewhere. Even the federal Environmental Protection Agency often follows California lead on air quality issues, reflecting the advanced nature of the state programs. Those who worked with Judge Kenny during his tenure at the Air Resources Board have tremendous praise for his leadership.

“I cannot speak highly enough of Mike in both his professional and personal capacities,” said Alan Lloyd, the chairman of the California Air Resources Board. “I think he will be a wonderful judge.” Lloyd calls Judge Kenny departure “a tremendous loss for us at the Air Resources Board,” describing the judge’s tenure at the agency as a period of continued push for improved air quality. He said Judge Kenny was an administrator with keen strategic insights, adding that one of the judge most notable qualities as a leader is the generosity he displays with his time.

Though Judge Kenny appeared in court infrequently during his time at the Air Resources Board, his career has now come fullcircle with his return to the courtroom. “I shifted from a heavy lit- igation effort early in my career to a policy effort later in my career,” the judge noted. “I’ve been very lucky in the sense that I’ve had the opportunity to a wide variety of things. That varied background as a litigator and administrator helps immensely now that Judge Kenny is on the bench in Sacramento.

After serving on the Superior Court for nearly a year, Judge Kenny is enjoying his new role. “It’s a great job in the sense that you get a different slice of life on a regular basis,” Kenny said. “You are always doing something new. There always a new issue that comes up. I think that what makes the job challenging and fun. ”Presiding over Department 30, a general trial court, Judge Kenny is primarily handling misdemeanor and felony cases, with only a small number of civil cases on his docket.

However, in only a short time on the bench, the judge has already gotten to see his fair share of excitement in the courtroom. In one trial the prosecutor asked a witness on the stand to identify the perpetrator of a crime, only to watch as the witness confidently pointed to a juror instead of the defendant. In a pretrial hearing for another case, the judge had what he described as a true Perry Mason moment, when a witness changed her story under questioning from a defense attorney, agreeing that the defendant was not the man who snatched her purse after all, when she was shown a photo of another individual.

In less dramatic proceedings before him, though, Judge Kenny has been impressed with the quality of lawyering he has seen from the bench. Like most judges, he says, he dislikes attorneys who show up in court unprepared to argue the law or who are discourteous to opposing counsel. However, the judge says that he has encountered few lawyers with either of those qualities in his time on the court so far.

Of all the jobs he has had in the law, Judge Kenny’s work as a prosecutor clearly holds a special place in his mind. He advises law students to get litigation practice early in their careers by working as a prosecutor or public defender for at least a few years, even if they don’t plan to be litigators. “You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about people, the judge said. “My experience as a [deputy district attorney] has helped me in every other job I’ve ever had.”

The judge still recalls his first day as a prosecutor: An hour after arriving at the DA’s office, someone handed him a file and said, “You’ve got on OSC in Department 3.” The judge’s first thought was, “What’s an OSC?” “It was harrowing that way,” he said of the learning curve of a prosecutor, “but boy, do you learn in a hurry.”

As a young prosecutor, Michael Kenny certainly did learn in a hurry. But now those appearing before him in Superior Court get the benefit of Judge Kenny’s extensive knowledge gathered hurriedly and otherwise in more than two decades of varied legal practice.

November / December 2003