By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
When a local mother came before a judge seeking a divorce, representing herself because she couldn’t afford an attorney, she never envisioned she’d one day be on the other side of the bench.
Today, Myrlys Stockdale Coleman is a commissioner and presides over cases in Sacramento County’s Superior Court. She does so in the same courtroom where she fought for her two children and the ability to support them.
“It’s profound, to be in the same courtroom that I was in. When I come into work every day, and look down that same hallway that I sat in, as a terrified self-represented litigant, it just kind of grounds me,” Stockdale Coleman shared.
“It reminds me of the importance of the job, the power of the job, and the impact that I can make. I carry that with me into the courtroom every single day.”
Stockdale Coleman, a former news reporter and public affairs director, is running for Superior Court Judge in the June 7 primary.
“I went to Howard with the goal of becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. That didn’t happen,” said Stockdale Coleman, who shifted to law some 30 years ago. It was a “life-changing experience” that filled her with terror at times. There were a lot of 18-hour days as she worked a full-time job, raised her children by herself and attended Lincoln Law School at night. After passing the bar, she opened her own law firm.
“I had never been in a firm a day in my life,” she said.
“I quit my job. People thought that was a brave move. That’s the word that they use, ‘brave.’ I use ‘courageous’, but I know they were thinking something else,” she joked.
Stockdale Coleman started her practice in her kitchen and grew it into a multi-attorney firm before selling it in 2014. She went back to work for the state. She also started applying to be a commissioner, which she describes as “great experience for being a judge.”
There were a number of positions she didn’t get. She made a habit, however, of going back to the hiring committee and asking how she could make herself a better candidate.
“I would listen to the advice and a lot of the advice was, ‘Get more experience.’” So I sold my firm and I went and learned about correctional law and employment law,” she said.
Stockdale Coleman worked in the California prison system as the special assistant inspector general at the Office of the Inspector General. She later was appointed as assistant chief counsel at the Department of Consumer Affairs.
“I supervised a number of attorneys who gave advice to the various boards and commissions like the nursing board, the medical board, etc., and all during this time I was still volunteering at the courts as a temporary judge in small claims and in family law, and I was offered a position as a commissioner in Napa Superior Court,” Stockdale Coleman said.
Serving in Napa Superior Court meant living there during the week and coming home to Sacramento only on weekends. She applied for a job in Sacramento and was turned down twice before her persistence paid off.
“I am so grateful to be back in my community and to be sitting in the assignment that I’m sitting in,” she said.
Stockdale Coleman counts helping young people solidify forever families as a highlight of her work.
“Any adoption is something that I often look forward to…the idea that I can give somebody a forever home, where parents love that child, want that child to be there and promise to give them a life of love and support, that’s a win,” she said.
It’s also gratifying, she adds, to see parents learn to communicate better and take advantage of available resources to be better for their children.
“Just having somebody who, in their mind, has not had a chance to be heard previously, to give them that chance to be heard and make a decision that is fair in light of the facts and the law, and have that litigant say thank you, that’s a good day.”
Stockdale Coleman takes the “honorable” part of her title to heart.
“The title comes with a great deal of responsibility. I have a responsibility to be fair, to be neutral, to give everybody the opportunity to be heard, to leave my personal biases outside of the courtroom and to recognize that with that title comes power, and to use that power in a beneficial way,” she shared.
The job also comes with a sense of humility, she said.
“As an attorney, and as a judicial officer, I go into the courtroom humble because the minute that I think that I know everything is the minute that I begin to do a disservice. I go into that courtroom knowing that I could learn something today and I need to be open to that.”
Being honorable also means she has to give back to her community, she said, and she participates in groups for legal professionals and mentors and teaches others. Representation matters.
“I didn’t have the benefit when I was a litigant to have any judges that looked like me. I think that there is some benefit of having a diversity of the bench, be it gender or cultural. That helps give a little bit more credibility to the judiciary because it’s representative of the community at large,” Stockdale Coleman said.
“I gave a talk not too long ago about the diversity of the bench in California and for example, women are 50% of the population, but only 38% of the judges in California are women. The gap is even wider when you look at the representation of Black women in the community versus on the bench. I don’t have those exact numbers, but I think we are doing much better than we were 30 years ago.”
There’s still work to be done, she said, but she’s happy to see women like judges Bunmi O. Awoniyi, Stacy Boulware Eurie and Allison Williams behind the bench. She also watched with millions of others across the nation as Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson became a household name.
“I am still celebrating the fact that there will be somebody on the Supreme Court who looks like me. This woman is the epitome of intellect, poise and grace after what she endured,” Stockdale Coleman said of the inquisition that led to Brown Jackson’s confirmation.
“I spoke to a lot of people about those hearings and a lot of us felt very emotional, about watching the inquiries of this highly qualified woman and what she had to endure in the process of becoming the 116th Supreme Court Justice, and the first Black female justice. She did so with dignity and with the grace that is expected of a judicial officer and I will be incredibly proud the day she is sworn in.”
Stockdale Coleman looks forward to having her own big day, but admits the road hasn’t been easy. She has battled campaigning during a pandemic and with the reality of historically lower voter turnout during primary elections. It’s a struggle, but one that’s worth it, she said.
“These are the people who are going to make decisions on your traffic tickets, your family law matters, your juvenile justice matters, and criminal matters. It’s an important election, but not many people know about it. It’s rare to have an open seat being contested in Sacramento County and the last time this happened was 10 years ago,” she continued.
The race lacks the visibility of some of the others this election season, but Stockdale Coleman hopes to emerge victorious.
“Every single vote matters,” she said. “Every vote for [a] judge makes a difference. You want to make sure that you have judges who are on the bench who are qualified, who bring a lifetime of experience into that courtroom as they make decisions that affect your life and the life of your children, your friends, your neighbors, and your colleagues. It’s important.”