The Red Mass: 2014

2014 Recipient: Justice Peter J. Siggins

Justice Peter J. Siggins has a long record of public service to the legal, judicial, and Catholic communities. Justice Siggins was appointed to the California Court of Appeal by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in December 2005, and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments on January 6, 2006. He serves as an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District- Division Three. Prior to his appointment, he served as the Governor’s Legal Affairs Secretary (2003-2005) and Interim Chief of Staff (September to November 2005). Before going to work for Governor Schwarzenegger, Justice Siggins was employed in the Attorney General’s Office of the California Department of Justice from 1988 until 2003, and was a civil and maritime lawyer in private practice in San Francisco from 1980 to 1988.

Justice Siggins began his career in the Attorney General’s Office as a deputy attorney general in the Correctional Law Section where he defended correctional officials and agencies in trials and appeals challenging state correctional policies, practices, and conditions of confinement. In 1995, he became the Senior Deputy Attorney General in charge of the Correctional Law Section statewide. In 1999, Justice Siggins was named Chief Deputy Attorney General for Legal Affairs by Attorney General Bill Lockyer. As Chief Deputy Attorney General, he was responsible for the oversight and operation of the California Attorney General’s Office. He remained Chief Deputy until he left the Department of Justice to join the Governor’s Office in 2003.

Justice Siggins is a thought leader on the issue of improving and strengthening California courts. He serves on several committees and work groups sponsored by the Administrative Office of the Courts dealing with coordination of issues faced by federal and state courts, judicial compensation, judicial education and the electronic filing of legal documents. He is currently serving on the Executive Committee of the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System.

A native San Franciscan, Justice Siggins is a graduate of St. Ignatius College Preparatory, Loyola Marymount University, and Hastings College of the Law. He is active in a number of religious and non-religious organizations, was a trustee of Jesuit High School of Sacramento from 2002 to 2012, and currently serves as a trustee for the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University and St. Ignatius College Preparatory. Justice Siggins and his wife, Veronique Laband Siggins, live in Marin County and have two sons and two daughters.

As a judge, lawyer, volunteer, and parent, Justice Siggins has followed in the footsteps of St. Thomas More. For serving the legal and Catholic communities with wisdom, compassion, and dedication, the St. Thomas More Society of San Francisco recognizes Justice Peter J. Siggins with the 2014 St. Thomas More Award.

Remarks of Justice Peter J. Siggins, October 23, 2014

Archbishop Cordileone, Msgr. Vaghi , Members of the Clergy, STMS, My Judicial Colleagues, Friends and Family:

Before I begin the substance of my remarks, let me express my thanks to God for making this a world series travel day, so I could be with you tonight. You, on the other hand, may not be so grateful because you will have to sit through my remarks, or not as you see fit.

But I do thank you for all being here tonight and honoring me with this recognition as the St. Thomas More Award winner for 2014. I have joked with many of you in the last few weeks that it must have been a slow year, but I know that cannot be true when I think of the Society and its members and the strong Catholic Bar here in the bay area.

It is truly an honor to receive this award, and humbling indeed when I look at the caliber and character of past winners. I can only hope to emulate their examples as lawyers and judges who live out the values of this organization in their daily lives.

When I think collectively of the past winners of this award, I am reminded of the ideals of St. Thomas More and this society to advocate ably, accurately and honestly – never risking the loss of his soul for the winning of his point. I only hope that I have and will continue to live that creed in my professional life.

I know that this honor tonight is not mine alone. I owe tremendous gratitude to the people who forged my character and conscience and taught me how to think. My parents and my extended Italian and Irish families to be sure, I learned great lessons in life from them. The value of hard work and the sustaining energy and reinforcement of family connections. The meaning of your word, and how to face life’s challenges. But I also owe a great debt to the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent de Paul who were responsible for my earliest Catholic formation. Drilling us in the memorization required of the Baltimore Catechism, preparing us for sacraments, taking us to mass on first Fridays, and instilling a code of conduct in us, sometimes by force or fear, that laid the groundwork for a more sophisticated pattern of beliefs.

I look back on my years of parochial grammar school with a sense of amazement that I got through them at all. I didn’t work very hard as a student, and was far more interested in the playground or what was on television than the classroom or homework. One of my cousins tells a story that she saw a little girl on the bus one day in an SVDP uniform, and she asked her if she knew Peter Siggins. The little girl said, “Oh, yes. I know him, but he’s not very smart.” My cousin teases me about that to this day.

But something must have taken hold. Because once I got into the hands of the Jesuits at St. Ignatius and later at Loyola Marymount University, I gradually got smarter. My experience with Jesuit education, thankfully continues to this day through my service on Boards of Jesuit schools. The Jesuits taught me of our place as Catholics in the larger world, of serving others with a faith that does justice. Living in solidarity with the least of us, and all of us, and being about more than just ourselves and our individual wants and needs. If I’ve absorbed and live any of their lessons, I am very grateful.

I am also blessed to be married to Veronica who has taught me time and again in our lives together what it means to sacrifice for others. Her selfless devotion to not only our family, but to those less fortunate than we are through her volunteerism and acts of charity are inspiring. I owe a debt of gratitude to my children as well. For if anything can reinforce the difference between right and wrong and living up to one’s values, it is raising children. I can’t expect or ask anything of them, that I can’t expect of myself. Even if I occasionally fall short.

When I look back at my life as a lawyer I reflect upon some times when I’ve been challenged and hope that I’ve measured up. I’ve tried to live the ideals of this organization in my professional life -to be sure, but if Pope Francis describes himself as a sinner, then surely I’m a big one. Because as so many of you know, reconciling our Catholicism with the law isn’t always easy, particularly when we are thrown into the social and policy debates that surface in our pluralistic society where it often seems that church and state can only be mentioned together to emphasize their supposed exclusivity from one another.

In his autobiography Worthy Fights, the statesman Leon Panetta waits all the way until page three of the Prologue (2 and a half pages into his 470 page book) to inform his readers that he is a Catholic. And he does so in the context of discussing the tension between his belief that life is sacred and his duty to country on those occasions when he knew innocents would die in anti-terrorist action undertaken at his direction.

While we all don’t have our religious convictions conflict so starkly with our professional obligations, I believe it happens all the time in less obvious ways. Choices that we label as ethical, policy driven and duty bound are informed, and given context and weight, out of our life experience as Catholics.

The most religiously challenged episodes of my professional life began on Holy Thursday, 1992. I was working one of my cases at the attorney general’s office when I answered my office phone and one of my colleagues in the criminal division said he had just received a class action complaint filed in federal court challenging the use of lethal gas as a means of execution in CA as cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. He asked if I could come up to his office and take a look at the complaint.

As of that moment CA’s first execution under its reconstituted death penalty statute was scheduled to take place on the following Tuesday, April 21 at 12:01 a.m.

My trip upstairs set off my involvement in 96 hours of surreal litigation throughout Easter weekend 1992 that had the parties before the supreme court of the united states three times in 48 hours battling over stays issued by the lower federal courts until the high court issued a historic order stating that no further stays of execution could be issued by any court unless permission was first obtained from the supreme court. The execution of Robert Alton Harris took place shortly thereafter at 6:07 a.m. on April 21 and he was pronounced dead as dawn was breaking at 6:21.

Among the team working to implement CA’s death penalty law there was no jubilation in having won a tough fight. The only thing I remember was relief that those 4 days were over, that we had done our duty and we could all go home, get some rest and get on with our lives.

I’ve had official responsibilities for some facet of each of the 12 other executions that have been carried out in California since Harris was executed in 1992. For some of them I was supervising a team of prosecutors at the Attorney General’s Office, for others I had to advise the Governor on whether to grant clemency. For most I sat in my office with an open phone line to the prison at the time of execution in case any last minute exigencies arose that required a response.

I like to think that in each case I was true to and with myself. For I too, consider human life sacred. But ultimately whether I lived up to my creed is not for me to decide.

It has been a privilege for me to be a government lawyer. When I became a deputy attorney general, and in every public job I’ve had since, I swore to “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California . . .” and I always understood that obligation to include enforcing CA law to the best of my ability.

I tried my best to fulfill my responsibilities as I understood my duty and obligation as an officer of the court and lawyer for the people in each case assigned to me. I hope I did so in a way that can be reconciled with and is exemplary of my faith.

So, this award is very meaningful to me. It signifies for me that in some way, I’ve managed to navigate the challenges and dilemmas we face as Catholic lawyers in a way that remains true to our shared ideal of charitably working for justice.

Thank you for listening to me tonight, thank you for this wonderful honor. I hope I live up to it. Good evening.