“We make a living by what we earn. We make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill
After speaking with Judge Steven K. Austin recently in his chambers, it became clear that he exemplifies this statement.
Many readers know Judge Austin as one of the most respected judges in our county. He is often described as ‘practical’, ‘friendly’, ‘approachable’ and ‘frank’. Those who know him better would also be likely to use terms such as ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘compassionate’. Judge Austin leads a life literally full of giving.
Recently, Judge Austin may be best-known for his leadership and ongoing commitment to Homeless Court, a prime example of collaborative justice. Judge Austin called his involvement “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.” Judge Austin heard about homeless courts, a new concept in helping the needy, while attending a conference. Homeless courts were first created after the veterans group Stand Down had discovered that some of the most pressing issues among homeless veterans were unresolved criminal and civil cases.
[In Homeless Court] I see people who have already made a lot of effort which has resulted in serious changes in their lives. I can look at the hours and hours of time spent in community service and in job training or drug and alcohol treatment programs – and I can give them credit against their fines – for the work they have done.
Homeless courts recognize that many times, fines and tickets (like fines for public nuisance violations for sleeping in public) frequently stem from not having an established residence. More often than not, the original fines and citations cannot be paid, leading to an escalation in the amount of the fines and penalties, then warrants, and thereafter, jail.
Judge Austin didn’t just hear about homeless courts. He returned to Contra Costa and approached the County’s Health Services Homeless Program Director, Cynthia Belon, and advocated the idea of starting one here. “It was actually easy to get started, because everyone wanted it,” recalled Judge Austin. “This isn’t a program that gives out gifts,” he quickly added. “These are people who have been specifically referred to the homeless court by a case manager of a referring social service agency. I see people who have already made a lot of effort which has resulted in serious changes in their lives. I can look at the hours and hours of time spent in community service and in job training or drug and alcohol treatment programs – and I can give them credit against their fines – for the work they have done.” Also, he said, “these unpaid tickets and fines just escalate and usually are never going to get paid anyway.” According to Judge Barry Goode, conducting homeless court helps “dispose of infractions that too often keep people from being able to get a driver’s license, a place to live or a job. Homeless Court can give someone a fresh start – at least to the extent the Court is able to do so.”1
Judge Austin can offer many examples of how the homeless court helps treat the causes of homelessness while also helping to remove barriers to moving out of homelessness. There is, for instance, the bus driver, barely making a living, who got a ticket he could not afford to pay. When the fines built up, he lost his license. Because he lost his license, he lost his job, which then caused him to lose his home. While in a shelter, among other things, he assisted in a reading program for children. At the homeless court, the credit he received for working in the reading program decreased his fines. He was able to have his license reinstated and then got his job back.
Another example was a couple “who were about 10¢ shy of their BART fare. They must have exited without paying and each got a $25 ticket. When even the minimum penalties, fines and mandatory assessments were added, they were facing about $1,200.00 total – for not having 10¢ for their full BART fare!” “I was able to acknowledge and give them credit for the hours spent in job training and clear the fines,” Judge Austin continued, “It is really encouraging to be able to give that credit and see the faces of people who couldn’t really imagine getting their fine behind them, so they are allowed to continue to piece their life back together again.”
Judge Austin’s commitment to finding practical solutions to real problems goes far beyond homeless court and reaches back to the beginning of his career. The following are just some of the different areas, committees and places where Judge Austin has been involved – and given of his time, talents, energy and enthusiasm.
Prior to being appointed to the Bench in 1998 by Governor Wilson, he was on the Board of Directors of Protection Advocacy [the predecessor to Disability Rights Advocates], a state-wide federally and IOLTA funded non-profit organization providing legal services to persons with disabilities. He was appointed by Ronald M. George, Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court to – and chairs – the Interpreters’ Advisory Panel. This work relates to not only the testing and access of interpreters – It also addresses the Department of Justice’s admonishment that interpreters might also be required in Family Law proceedings, where they are not currently required.
“I also teach a lot,” he said in his characteristically understated manner. Judge Austin is a frequent faculty member in trainings throughout the state. He is often asked to train court staff on issues of procedural fairness and other issues affecting self-represented parties. He has been faculty for the Statewide Conference for Court ADA Coordinators; and, he has served as faculty at the Courtroom Clerk Institute held annually at Stanford University.
Quoting Judge Barry Goode again from his article, “Judge Austin was responsible for creating a program in which he “tries” a driving under the influence case in a high school, using the students as jurors. It brings the courts to the students in a way that drives home, as it were, an important message.” 2
The list goes on. Judge Austin is a strong proponent of attorneys providing Pro Bono work. He mentioned that as part of his work with the Access & Fairness Advisory Committee. He spoke to the State Bar Board of Governors and was part of a team that successfully lobbied for an addition to the State Bar’s Rules of Conduct that created an aspirational goal of 50 hours per year of Pro Bono work for all attorneys.
Many attorneys don’t realize that they are looked-up to – and how valuable and helpful they can be. Many non-profit boards would love to have an attorney join their board – and they will hope the first attorney will be able to bring more attorneys onto their board. I encourage attorneys to go out and do this [type of work] now – and doors will open.
When asked why he does so much volunteer work, Judge Austin first responded, “because it’s fun.” But he also added, “It’s a way I can give back to the community. But I find it builds on itself. For example, as a young attorney I got on the Public Defender’s Conflict Panel and assisted in LPS Conservatorships. [Conservatorships, under the Lanterman- Petris-Short Act (LPS) pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) sections 5350, et seq., to provide help for persons who suffer from a mental disorder or chronic alcoholism and may be a danger to themselves or others.] From that experience, I got to know some people who asked me to do some work in the area of Patients Rights. After that I became involved in some policy-level work and that led to my being asked to be on the California State Mental Health Planning Council – a program of the California State Department of Mental Health. All of that work had nothing to do with my area of practice at the time which was insurance defense and insurance coverage work. But, after I applied to be a judge, the Director of the Department of Public Health, whom I had gotten to know, sent a letter of recommendation to the Governor – and I suppose that may have helped my being appointed.”
[Volunteer work] helps keep you sane. Attorneys and Judges work in an often stressful profession – and we’re not always thought of too kindly. Volunteer work helps keep you balanced in terms of your self-worth.
When asked why others should do volunteer work, it was obvious Judge Austin had already given that some thought: “First off, because it helps keep you sane. Attorneys and Judges work in an often stressful profession – and we’re not always thought of too kindly. Volunteer work helps keep you balanced in terms of your selfworth.” When asked to expand, he added: “Many attorneys don’t realize that they are looked-up to – and how valuable and helpful they can be. Many non-profit boards would love to have an attorney join their board—and they will hope the first attorney will be able to bring more attorneys onto their board. I encourage attorneys to go out and do this [type of work] now – and doors will open.”
At that, Judge Austin stood up and put on his robe. We had barely scratched the surface of his many different committees and task forces. However, he had to call in the jury and recommence a trial. “Judge Austin, do you by chance have a list of all your volunteer work?” I asked. “Actually, no I don’t – maybe someday I will,” Judge Austin responded, adding, “But when you’ve put your notes together, just let me know if there are any areas where you need any more information, and I’ll be glad to help.” Of course, I already knew how accurate and how true those last five words were. Thank you, Judge Austin, for all the many ways you give back.
– For almost 25 years and after having developed practical experience in the field, Craig Nevin has provided litigation and transactional counsel to Owners, Developers, Financial Institutions, Contractors, Subcontractors and Material and Equipment Suppliers and Real Estate Agents and Brokers in complex Business, Real estate, Construction and Property Development related matters. He is currently on the Board of Directors of Senior Legal Services of Contra Costa County, on the Advisory Board of Directors of The Law Center and Vice-President of the Real Estate Section of the Contra Costa County Bar Association.
1 Hon. Barry Goode (2011, September). “Will Outreach Be Out of Reach”. Contra Costa Lawyer.
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