Judicial Profile: Meet the Honorable Christopher R. Bowen

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Background

Judge Bowen has been part of the East Bay community for his entire life. He grew up in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High School, where he regularly appeared on stage as a singer and actor. Among his most memorable performances was his portrayal of the Admiral in H.M.S. Pinafore. His connection to Contra Costa dates back to one of his first jobs as a teenager, doing yard work for a woman who lived in Orinda.

After high school, Judge Bowen attended Santa Clara University where he double-majored in Anthropology and French, in which he is fluent. He planned to continue on to a graduate program in history or French literature and pursue a career in teaching or academia. But his French relatives and some of his professors encouraged him to become a lawyer, and he decided to apply to law school. It was also during Judge Bowen’s undergraduate years that he became interested in public service, and he volunteered at a homeless shelter in San José.

Judge Bowen attended law school at the University of Virginia, though his commitment to the Bay Area and to public service led him to spend the summer after his first year working for the San Francisco City Attorney’s office. The highlight of his summer was drafting and winning a motion for summary judgment that saved the city $50,000. He spent his second summer working at the predecessor to Bay Area Legal Aid in Richmond, which was the beginning of his longtime love for the City of Richmond. Judge Bowen has lived in Richmond since 2001, and served on the city’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee from 2005-10.

Career as a Lawyer

Right to left: Judge Christopher Bowen with CCCBA Ex-Officio President Ron Mullin and Board Secretary Jay Chafetz at Judge Bowen’s Induction on June 3, 2011

After graduating from law school in 1993, Judge Bowen returned home to take the California bar exam. He scored a phone interview with David Coleman from the Contra Costa Public Defender’s Office, but was told there was not enough work to hire him. A few weeks later, David called saying that another law clerk had bailed and they needed someone to start work the following Monday. Judge Bowen answered the call, and never looked back, spending the next seventeen years as a Contra Costa public defender.

Judge Bowen’s dedication to the Public Defender’s Office was evident even in his early years, when he commuted for hours each day from Berkeley to Martinez and back on public transportation. After spending a year as a law clerk and becoming a Deputy Public Defender in October 1994, he was assigned to dependency cases for the next two years. He then spent just seven months handling misdemeanors before being promoted to felonies. He spent the next thirteen years as a felony trial lawyer in Martinez, Richmond, and at the Alternate Defender Office.

In a fitting conclusion to a long and distinguished career as a public defender, Judge Bowen spent his last year representing juveniles in delinquency proceedings. He appreciated the change of perspective, with more focus on rehabilitation. Judge Bowen says, “Those kids made me laugh and smile every day, and I always had hope that I might make a difference in someone’s life and help them turn things around.”

Besides his work as a lawyer, Judge Bowen has been an active member of the Contra Costa County Bar Association for his entire career, and served for two years on its board of directors. He is also a member of Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, Sacramento Lawyers for the Equality of Gays and Lesbians, and the Robert G. McGrath American Inn of Court.

Judge Bowen was appointed to the Contra Costa County Superior Court by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and assumed his duties on December 6, 2010.

Judicial Career

Judge Bowen’s chambers (Dept. 40) are in Room 203 in the Richmond courthouse. He primarily presides over misdemeanor jury trials, which start on Monday or Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m., and felony preliminary hearings. He also hears all petitions for domestic violence restraining orders filed in the Richmond courthouse on Mondays at 8:30 a.m. He occasionally handles small claims trials and appeals, unlawful detainers, and traffic offenses.

Judge Bowen says that the transition to being a judge has not been particularly difficult, though it does require a different skillset. He feels a great responsibility to “get it right,” and to ensure that all proceedings in his courtroom are fair and follow the rules. For example, while he occasionally asks his own questions of witnesses in order to clarify their testimony, he is careful not to ask a question that might “tip the scales” in either side’s favor. When asked what aspects of the job he likes best, Judge Bowen said that he enjoys working with self-represented parties and ensuring that they have the opportunity to be heard. He also likes the jury selection process, because he gets to talk to members of the community and educate them about the importance of jury service. When asked what has most surprised him about being a judge, Judge Bowen said he has consistently been impressed by younger and/or new lawyers practicing in his courtroom.

What You Need to Know About Practicing in Judge Bowen ’s Courtroom

Bailiff: Willie Armstrong

Clerk: Jackie Espy

Reporter: Renée Smith

Judge Bowen greatly appreciates preparation. For example, if you intend to ask for a special jury instruction, you should draft and provide it to the Court and the other side in advance. Second, while Judge Bowen does not usually impose strict time limits on a party’s case or particular elements of a trial (e.g. opening statements or closing arguments), he encourages all counsel to be reasonable in their use of the Court’s and the jury’s time and to avoid unnecessary repetition. Third, Judge Bowen insists that the parties exchange and show to the Court all exhibits and demonstratives in advance, before showing anything to the jury.

Pictures from Judge Bowen’s Induction on June 3, 2011

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