Hard won achievements and determination paved way for Aruna Rodrigo to have the prestigious honour of being the first Sri Lankan American to be appointed by the Governor of California to the San Bernardino County Superior Court. Born in Kesbewa, Piliyandala, Aruna moved to the United States with his family when he was 9 years old with the help of the United States Embassy sponsored lottery visa programme. “As with many migrant families, we had difficulty adjusting and making ends meet. As I always share with my friends and colleagues, my parents sacrificed everything so that my brothers and I can live the ‘American Dream.’ After attending high school in Southern California, I obtained my undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice at San Diego State University, Juris Doctor of Law and Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of La Verne”. In an interview with Life Online, he shared his thoughts on the significance of his appointment to Judgeship as a person of colour, his journey, achievements and advice to others hoping to make a success of their careers.
Q Did you always want to be a lawyer or did you have different aspirations as a child?
I always wanted to have a career in helping people and making a difference. At an early age, I had aspirations of becoming a doctor or a police officer. Coincidentally, my older brother, Damith, is a police officer and my younger brother, Yasas is a medical doctor. During my last year of high school, my younger brother and I volunteered at a local hospital for the summer. It was then that I realized that medicine was not the right field for me. My parents were instrumental in allowing us to explore different fields and helping us navigate career choices. It was not until my freshman year of college that I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in Law.
Q Tell us a little bit about your career in law before being appointed as a judge.
I was admitted to practice law in the State of California in 2008 and subsequently admitted to practice in Federal Court (Central, Southern and Northern Districts). During Law School, I was interested in practising Criminal Law and Family Law. I worked as an associate attorney at a Family Law Firm from 2008 to 2010. In 2010, I became a managing attorney for Macey & Aleman, a Chicago, Illinois based Law Firm. I was responsible for managing and training associates at their Southern California office. In 2011, my wife and I formed and founded Rodrigo Law Firm, PC. While managing our own firm, I also worked as a volunteer Deputy District Attorney for San Bernardino County. As a Deputy District Attorney, I prosecuted criminal cases in San Bernardino County. In 2018, I became a subject matter expert in Family Law when I obtained my certification as a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. This was a significant accomplishment as only 5-7% of California lawyers are certified specialists. I was also an adjunct Law professor at the University of La Verne College of Law. But I always made time to help and give back to the community, I donated a significant amount of time as a volunteer attorney helping and representing indigent and low-income families in Southern California.
Q What made you decide it was time to start your own law firm? What was the process like?
My wife and I decided to start our own law practice so that we can start a family and have flexibility in selecting our own caseload. At the time we were only married for two years and trying to establish ourselves as attorneys and newlyweds. We have always strived to have a healthy work, career and family balance. Though it was financially difficult at the time, we chose to have a family above all and we were fortunate that everything else followed. We are now proud parents of four children: ages 12, 10, 8 and 4 months. This life-changing and risky decision was made easier by knowing the sacrifices my parents made themselves for myself and my brothers back in 1991. My parents were in their early 40s then and they sold their possessions and left their families and careers behind to come to the United States. Their sole purpose was educating us and for us to live the “American Dream.”
Starting our own Law practice was difficult and slow. In the beginning, we had very few clients and cases. But over the years, my wife and I both established ourselves and gained a very good reputation in the legal community as talented and caring lawyers.
Q What would you say is your biggest achievement in your career thus far?
The biggest achievement of my career thus far is being appointed as a Judge by the Governor of California to the San Bernardino County Superior Court. The process of becoming a Judge in California is difficult and daunting, to say the least. The process took me nearly two years. To qualify for a judgeship in California, a candidate must complete 4 years of undergraduate school, 2 years of Law School and have a minimum of 10 years of experience as a practising attorney.
Once you have met the basic requirements, an extensive application with a list of prior cases and referrals are submitted to the Governor’s office for consideration. They then review each application and if they believe the applicant is qualified will pass the application on to the state’s regional Judicial Selection Advisory Committees (JSACs); the JSAC committee evaluates each candidate and accesses a score to the Governor’s office. Based on JSAC’s evaluation and score, the Governor’s office will then forward the application to the State Bar of California Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE). JNE commission evaluates the candidate’s education, reputation and interviews local attorneys and judges about the candidate. If the applicant receives high scores, their application will then be passed on to the Governor for consideration for an interview with the Governor or his judicial appointment secretary.
Q What was the biggest challenge you faced in your career?
Dealing with biases and doubts. Being a young minority lawyer of colour in an older white-American dominated field was not always easy. Fortunately, I have not faced any overt racism as a lawyer, but I have received indirect comments and questionable glares from other lawyers and people in court. But I have used it as a motivator to work hard and to prove myself. It became a personal challenge for me to prove people wrong. I enjoyed walking into a crowded courtroom with people glaring with scepticism as to my abilities and my skills as a lawyer and to only have the same people walk up to me after my court hearing asking for my name and phone number.
Q For every lawyer, there is usually a case that never fades from memory. What was yours?
The most memorable case that I handled was a multi-million dollar family law case that I handled in San Bernardino Superior Court. Prior to my being retained, no other attorney in the local community was willing to accept the case due to its complexity and difficulty. The case dealt with the division of multiple-million dollar businesses and properties. After being on the case for less than 6 months and after four days of trial, I was able to successfully litigate the case in favour of my client. I took pride in handling complex and difficult cases.
Q You are the first Sri Lankan-American to be appointed a judge in the San Bernadino County Superior Court, and the first Sri Lankan-American in the State of California. This is a significant milestone for judicial diversity as it is crucial that the public sees a judiciary reflective of the diversity of its community. How do you plan to effect change in your role as judge?
I take pride in becoming the first Sri Lankan-American Judge. This is a huge honour for me and my family. I agree this is a significant milestone for judicial diversity not only for our County but our State. As a judge, I intend to apply my humble upbringing and unique cultural experiences in my application of the law and uphold the Constitution with empathy and fairness. I also understand that being the first Sri Lankan-American Judge carries significant responsibility in representing my Sri Lankan heritage and culture in a favourable light. I don’t take this responsibility lightly; preserving my Sri Lankan heritage and culture is a very important goal. As importantly, I want to be a role model to the Sri Lankan-American youth and to encourage others to pursue a career in public service.
Q Do you have any role models in the field that you wanted to emulate?
As you can imagine, I did not have any Sri Lankan lawyers as role models growing up. This was primarily because the law profession is a relatively new career path to Sri Lankan-Americans. To this date, I believe we only have a handful of Sri Lankan-American lawyers in California. But my role models were very close to home. My parents are my role models- they have taught me to live a life of service to others and to make sacrifices for my children’s futures.
Q What is one piece of advice you have received that you still hold important?
The best advice I have received in my career was to “be yourself.” As a young lawyer, I struggled to find my identity. Many people told me to emulate other aggressive and forceful lawyers in court, but I knew that was not my personality nor character. It was not until a few years into my law practice that I was advised by a senior attorney to just be myself. This was very important, it allowed me to be comfortable in my own skin and to develop my own style and litigation skill in court.
Q What advice would you give people who are trying to achieve success in their careers?
Work hard and never give up on yourself. I recall back in high school, a guidance counsellor once told me that I should look into going to trade school and that I should give up going to college. I was hurt and saddened but I never gave up on myself. To this day, I still recall this moment from 23 years ago and use it to motivate me.
Q What plans do you have for the future?
I believe in living in the moment, for now, my plans are to be the best Judge that I can be and enjoy watching my children grow up. After years of hard work, I am enjoying watching my parents and my family glow with pride and joy in their own sacrifices and my accomplishment as a Judge.