Dolores Carr '80

District Attorney, Santa Clara County

Dolores Carr '80

Alumni Q&A

Q: What was it about Southwestern that appealed to you when choosing a law school?

A: I was born and raised in San Francisco and commuted during my four years at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate. I thought if I didn't leave San Francisco for law school, I would probably never live anywhere else. The husband of a bank colleague of mine lived in Southern California, mentioned Southwestern to me and recommended it. It looked like a good school, and not too far from home, so I applied there.

Q: What activities were you involved in during law school?

A: I participated in Moot Court which I enjoyed very much. During my second year, I interned at the Los Angeles Municipal Court Planning and Research Unit, and during my third year, I interned at the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office. I was able to try two misdemeanor jury trials and decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer.

Q: What was your favorite law school memory?

A: Law school was tough, but Southwestern turned out to be a good fit. The seeds of my professional development were planted and I found my niche as a trial lawyer.

There are two things I always tell people: I didn't intend to be a lawyer until I was a year out of college - with an undergraduate degree in Spanish - yet it turned out to be a terrific choice for me. And when you're in law school, you've got to hang in there.

Q: Where did you work during your four years in private practice?

A: I worked in Los Angeles for a sole practitioner who had a general civil practice, and did some civil litigation. In San Jose, I worked for a small firm that practiced criminal defense and civil litigation. At this firm, two of the three partners had been deputy DAs early in their careers, and they were fond of telling stories about their days at the DA's Office.

Q: During your 15-year tenure as a deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County, what were some of your most memorable cases?

A: I handled a number of sexual assault trials, and to this day, I remember all of my victims. For example, I successfully prosecuted and sent to prison a man who had raped a young woman he had met in a bar, a so-called "acquaintance rape." Several years later, she invited me to her wedding. When I suggested to her that I understood if she might not want to see me as she walked down the aisle (painful memories), she told me that she didn't think she could have ever gotten married if it were not for the work I had done on her case. Of course I attended the wedding.

I was the first deputy DA in California to specialize in prosecuting sex offenders who failed to register their address with local law enforcement. This was in 1994, after the three strikes law passed, and the failure to register became a felony. Almost my entire caseload was made up of child molesters and rapists facing 25 years-to-life for not updating their address. 

Q: Why did you volunteer to preside over the family division of the Santa Clara County Superior Court after you became a judge in 2000? What was it that made that court so controversial (according to the Daily Journal Profile written about you in 2001)?

A: About 3 or 4 years before I became a judge, there was a group of people who had lost custody of their children to the other parent, and believed they had not been treated fairly by certain judges and mental health professionals who had evaluated their ability to parent. These people formed a loosely knit coalition and picketed the courthouse. They caused such an uproar that the presiding judge conducted an investigation which revealed a severe understaffing in both the number of judges and mental health professionals assigned to make decisions in these very important cases. Positive changes were made, although it was not a place that judges were anxious to go, mainly because it had been a hotbed of controversy as well as the still staggering workload. 

I was low on the seniority list of judges, which meant that it was likely I would be assigned to a less desirable assignment, but I was also interested in handling cases outside of criminal law, which I had practiced for most of my career. So I volunteered to go to family court, and a year later was asked to supervise the division. It was a terrific assignment - never boring, complex legal issues, interesting human problems, and fast-paced.

Q: You've run several successful campaigns, including the race for an open judicial seat in 2000 as a newcomer, triumphing over a local veteran prosecutor to become the first woman District Attorney in Santa Clara County. Based on your successes, what do you believe to be the most important thing needed to run successful campaigns?

A: To run for office countywide is truly challenging. I attribute my success in my two elections to having earned a reputation over my career for being hard-working, ethical and fair. It is also helpful to have a good campaign consultant, and most of all, I am fortunate to have the best "campaign spouse" ever.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of being the DA of Santa Clara County?

A: Maintaining a great office in the face of seven straight years of budget reductions.

Q: Talk about your work on the Board of Reappraisers for the Committee of Bar Examiners. What was your process for developing questions for the California Bar Exam?

A: We solicited questions from law professors, and then edited them many times. We then pretested them using bar graders to get feedback - such as whether they were the right length, if the call of the question was focused enough, were there enough or too many issues, and the like. By the time we were done, sometimes they looked nothing like the original submittal.

Q: What do you think is the most important thing for law graduates to study (or perhaps an effective way to prepare) for the California Bar Exam?

A: My advice is to write as many sample answers as you can, using the IRAQ approach: identify the issue, state the rule of law, apply the facts to the law, and come to a conclusion.

Q: Of your vast professional accomplishments, which makes you most proud?

A: One of the most frustrating issues in family court to me was the lack of resources for parents and children. Even parents who saw the need for counseling, drug/alcohol treatment, parenting classes or counseling for their children were often so overwhelmed that they simply could not follow through. In 2002, I had the good fortune to meet some wonderful people at the First 5 Commission, which funds programs for at-risk children from ages 0-5. They immediately understood that children in the middle of their family's divorce or breakup are inherently at risk, and agreed to provide $3 million over a 3 year period to our family court. Through our partnership, we trained a number of bilingual resource specialists whose job it was to connect these at-risk families to services in the community. The unique partnership between family court and First 5 continues to this day, and the program was recently recognized by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

Q: What advice would you give to Southwestern students who would like to become prosecutors?

A: Try to work in a prosecutor's office as a law student to obtain some exposure to the practice.

Q: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of the legal profession?

A: I am devoted to exercising as close to daily as possible. I enjoy the ballet and theatre, especially musical theatre, and love to dance.

Q: If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?

A: I cannot imagine achievement without some risk of failure. It would take away the satisfaction of having overcome the challenges one faced.