SCBA’s 2017 Judge of the Year Kevin R. Culhane

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Presiding Justice Art Scotland (ret.) is Of Counsel, Nielsen Merksamer. He can be contacted at

Wealth of Knowledge, Integrity, and Problem-Solving Skills by Art Scotland

by Art Scotland

Superlatives flow when lawyers describe Presiding Judge Kevin Culhane. “In terms of sheer intellect, he is one of the sharpest legal minds you will ever encounter,” said Dan Kohls. “I have never worked with a more brilliant lawyer,” said Betsy Kimball. “Extremely smart, legally curious, well-prepared, patient, and understanding, Judge Culhane is driven equally by his love of the law and his desire to be fair to all who appear before him,” noted Bill Warne. “He is a deep thinker whose decisions are thoughtful and balanced,” Bill Kershaw observed. And in the words of Nancy Sheehan, “Judge Culhane works tirelessly to improve access to justice for all, and what impresses me most is his attitude toward attorneys who practice in the Superior Court. He values our role in the justice system,
solicits and appreciates input from us, applauds good advocacy no matter which side you are on, is forward thinking on issues of diversity and equality, and is one of the nicest people I have ever met.”

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Working at a Christmas tree farm, 1973

These are just some of the accolades expressed by the plaintiff and defense bars, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, and bench officers that illustrate why Kevin Culhane is the SCBA’s 2017 Judge of the Year.

Parental Influences and Transforming Tragedy 

One of seven siblings, Kevin Culhane grew up in what he characterizes as “Leave it to Beaver America” in the 1960’s. His mother was a professional figure skater who performed in the Ice Follies with Olympic champion Sonja Henie. Competitive by nature, his loving mom “operated at 110 volts” with high expectations of her children in terms of academic success, work ethic, good citizenship, and deportment. His father, a successful businessman with “hyperfocus” on work issues, was less vocal, had a “softness in his life approach,” and was a “good sounding board” for the children. Both told the kids they could “do anything in life” and urged them to “make a difference in life.”

“Judge Culhane has been an exceptional trial judge and Presiding Judge. Faced with many issues ranging from long-term court construction projects to daily trial court needs, he has demonstrated incredible leadership for our court and community.”

The family’s “idyllic” life changed, however, when Judge Culhane’s youngest sister was found motionless at the bottom of the backyard pool and 16-year-old Kevin unsuccessfully “tried to breathe life back into her.” The tragedy transformed the family. Grief led to tension that led to his parents’ divorce and a custody dispute that separated one of the kids from the rest. It was an emotionally harmful injustice, young Kevin felt, and he decided then he wanted to become a lawyer to right wrongs.

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With Jeanne Culhane at a California Bar Board of Governors event, 1989

Fast Track to Law and Love

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Singing to daughter Jen, 1979

Driven to achieve his goal as quickly as possible, Culhane enrolled in Pacific McGeorge School of Law after only three years of undergraduate study – but not before a fast-track romance with soon-to-be wife, Jeanne, who caught his eye not only by her beauty but because she was smart, well-read, had a social conscience, and was committed to standing up for positive changes in society.

A stand-out law student, Culhane tutored classmates, was Editor-in-Chief of the law review, and graduated “With Great Distinction” in 1976. Dean Gordon Schaber, a wise judge of talent and character, told Culhane he would be a good law professor and offered to pay for him to get a Master of Laws and then teach at McGeorge. With a job at a prestigious L.A. firm lined up, Culhane turned down the dean’s offer; but with Jeanne’s support, he later agreed and chose Stanford Law over Harvard to stay in California. With the Master’s degree in hand, he began what is now over 40 years as a Professor at McGeorge, while also practicing law.

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The Culhanes in front of the family car, a 1970 Datsun B210, after graduation from McGeorge, 1973

In his early years with the late Hartley Hansen and Bob Matsui, Culhane handled everything from business, torts, family law, and criminal cases. Two months into practice, he successfully tried a defamation case with now-Justice Ming Chin as opposing counsel. The large punitive damage award enhanced the reputation of the small firm, attracted major clients, and led to other big verdicts in Culhane’s cases. When Matsui was elected to Congress, the firm expanded, and Culhane began making a difference in the profession as a member of the State Bar Board of Governors and leader in revamping the attorney discipline system, creating the State Bar Court, and developing a legal malpractice insurance program. He also served on the Judicial Council of California, the policy-making body of the court system.

Lawyers who practiced with and against him say Culhane was an insightful, wise, creative, honest, and well-prepared attorney who, in the words of Roger Dreyer, “epitomized the concept of a lawyer’s lawyer and would lead without wanting credit or accolades.” He also was, as Nancy Sheehan recalled, “the go-to-source for ethical issues.”

Culhane’s positive imprint on the profession is reflected by the many lawyers who view him as a role model and mentor who, Christine Jacob explained, was “always supportive of young associates, taking significant time to teach them how to be great attorneys.” “He had a profound impact on the development of many lawyers who learned from one of the greatest legal minds in the law,” noted Jason Sommer.

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Young lawyer Culhane at the firm’s office on Capitol Mall, circa 1980

Instant Success as a Versatile Judge

Still enjoying the practice of law, but seeing the bench as a “logical next step to put [his] experience to good use” (and having been encouraged by colleagues and judges to do so), Culhane took his oath as a Superior Court Judge in January 2009.  Before that, the court appointed him a temporary judge and, indicating its confidence in his ability, immediately assigned him the trial of a defendant accused of attempting to murder a police officer. During ensuing weeks, he presided over a products liability case and a multiple defendant gang prosecution with three defense counsel and two juries.

Judge Culhane’s positive imprint on the profession is reflected by the many lawyers who view him as a role model and mentor.

Since then, Judge Culhane has presided over complex civil and criminal cases, was a civil law and motion judge and a family law judge, and was elected by colleagues as Assistant Presiding Judge in 2014-2015 and Presiding Judge in 2016-2017.

Judge Bunmi Awoniyi said that, when she practiced family law, Judge Culhane impressed the bar as a jurist with “an easy-going, unflappable disposition, who listened patiently to acrimonious arguments, was able to de-escalate tensions, and strived to achieve fairness with practical and commonsensical orders.” Similarly, the criminal law bar speaks highly of him. “Lawyers across the board agree he has great temperament. He is respectful, prepared, knowledgeable, does not have an agenda, is fair, and allows lawyers to present their cases,” said defense attorney Linda Parisi. In the words of D.A. Anne Marie Schubert, “Judge Culhane has been an exceptional trial judge and Presiding Judge. Faced with many issues ranging from long-term court construction projects to daily trial court needs, he has demonstrated incredible leadership for our court and community.”

These qualities led the American Board of Trial Advocates local chapter to name Culhane its Judge of the Year in 2012 for “epitomizing fairness, integrity, intellect, hard work, professionalism” and “respect for jurors, litigants, and counsel” and for “his unwavering commitment to making courts accessible” to all.

High Praise as a Problem Solver and Court Leader

One of Judge Culhane’s strengths is settling difficult civil cases. ABOTA President Carl Calnero praised him for “stepping in at the eleventh hour to guide parties toward settlements good for them and the system. He always has the right entree when everyone is at loggerheads.” Roger Dreyer also recounted how, on the day of trial, Judge Culhane’s “deft, creative, and skillful handling of a challenging case settled the matter for the betterment of all involved.”

Behind the scenes, he “takes great pride in mentoring new judges and helping them become future court leaders,” said Judge Bob Hight (ret.). Judge Culhane “is the consummate judicial officer who always keeps his chambers door open for other judges and is incredibly generous of his time and counsel,” noted Judge David Brown. Hight adds that “under [Culhane’s] leadership, there are no case backlogs court wide.” Indeed, the Capitol City Trial Lawyers Association named Judge Culhane its Judge of the Year in 2013 for his “tenacious efforts to maintain access to justice by ensuring courtrooms are available for civil cases” and his “evenhanded administration of justice.”

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Judge Culhane plays a set with the Res Ipsa Loquitur band at the SCBA’s golf tournament, 2015

SCBA Judge of the Year

The Sacramento County Bar Association is commended for selecting Kevin Culhane as Judge of the Year 2017 for his skills, objectivity, and temperament; his effective leadership as Presiding Judge; and his mentoring and community service. As Karen Jacobsen summed up, “He is respectful to everyone and always in search of justice for all. In the Presiding Judge’s Civil Advisory Committee, he listens to the bar and bench and implements procedures to make the Sacramento court experience fair and efficient for parties, attorneys, and judges. As a member and Past President of the Kennedy Inn of Court, he is a mentor who always has the most thoughtful comments on how to handle practical and ethical conundrums in the practice of law, and he has a long history of service to the legal community.” To that we add, “Thank you, Your Honor, for your continuing efforts to enhance the administration of justice.”

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