Judge, Superior Court of Santa Clara County

Jean High WetenkampOn a spring day in 1972, Jean High received two invitations—one to join the class of ’76 at Santa Clara University School of Law and another to become a stewardess for World Airways.

It was the year that Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” was released. But the workplace was not yet roaring in glee over women. After Wetenkamp’s first year of law school, a lawyer visiting a firm where she was clerking asked her, “So why do you want to be a man?” At the same firm, her position was unclear – she was a law clerk doing legal research but she also was expected to do filing and keep the library in order. She floated between being considered one of the female staff, going to lunch with the secretaries, and one of the lawyers, going to lunch with the men.

Wetenkamp and the rest of the 20% of her class who were female were among the trailblazers who created a model of professionalism and competence that allows women today to enter the profession with the expectation that they will be treated equally.

Like many women who began law school in the 1970’s, Wetenkamp started in a different career. She had graduated with a B.S. in Education from Indiana University and was a middle school teacher for three years in Wisconsin before coming to the Bay Area. Her first job here, which she describes as exhilarating, was in downtown San Francisco. She was working as regional sales manager for a company selling … waterbeds (the 1972 equivalent of iPods— a must-have item for all hipsters). Wetenkamp applied to law school thinking it might open doors for her in the business world (and applied to be a stewardess as a backup, thinking it would be fun to see the world).

Upon graduation from the Law School, where she served as an associate editor of the Law Review, Wetenkamp applied to the Santa Clara County Superior Court for a position as a research attorney. There were two openings. She got one and a man got the other. She learned that a judge asked, “Weren’t there any more men who applied?”

Wetenkamp became immediately intrigued by criminal law. “It’s real life, real drama,” she says. “And it makes a difference.” She has concentrated on criminal law for her entire 32-year career: twelve as an assistant D.A. and twenty as a judge. “Perhaps I should have been exposed to other areas of the law,” she says, “but I would find it hard to deal with people in family court fighting over throw pillows, as they did in one divorce case.” Since her first day as a D.A., she loved the courtroom and the camaraderie among her colleagues in the criminal bar and the judiciary.

In 1989 Wetenkamp was appointed to the position of Judge of the Municipal Court of Santa Clara County. From 1992 to 1993 she served as its presiding judge. She joined the Superior Court in 1998 when the Municipal and Superior Courts merged. Throughout all of these years, Wetenkamp has made choices that permitted her to handle all criminal cases—while colleagues were begging to be put on civil.

Wetenkamp has found criminal work satisfying because she knows her work as a prosecutor and as a judge has made a difference in the community, including keeping child molesters and other violent criminals off the streets. Wetenkamp has great faith in the jury system and says that in all but one case she completely understood how the jury reached its decision. “It’s a wonderful system to have twelve people making those decisions,” she says.

The most difficult thing about being a judge, says Wetenkamp, are evidentiary rulings and sentencings. “With the child molestation cases, sentencing can be overwhelming,” she says. “They can receive 15 years to life for each of multiple counts and run consecutively to each other. It’s hard to hand down that many years, even if it’s the right thing to do.” The three strikes law has also made sentencing difficult. “Under the law, someone who has two qualifying prior felonies could go to jail for life for stealing a bicycle because he needs to get somewhere,” she says.

Difficult cases are made easier when she has competent counsel on both sides—competent meaning “very professional counsel who know the law and don’t stand up and made specious arguments.” If she could offer just one piece of advice to attorneys it is “Don’t misrepresent the law.” Beyond that, “act professionally, be civil, and respect the court staff. It’s a small community.”

Wetenkamp says that judges often feel very isolated since their behavior in and out of court is always under scrutiny. “It’s hard to be stonefaced on bench,” she says. “There have been times when, oh boy, I want to give somebody advice, if not scold them.” She keeps in mind the advice of another Santa Clara graduate, Justice Edward Panelli: “KYMS: Keep Your Mouth Shut”!

Since Wetenkamp retired in April, she has enjoyed having unstructured time at home in Los Altos, seeing friends, and hiking and traveling with her husband, Scott Wetenkamp, a Ph.D. who works in microwave electronics. She and Scott were set up by a friend in the D.A.’s office. Both had been married before and were determined to not marry again. But they hit if off and got engaged in five weeks and married in four months. That was 23 years ago.

The two have taken up ballroom dancing. “It’s great,” says Wetenkamp. “During lessons we have one hour of dancing, which is great exercise, and it’s in the arms of your loved one.” Wetenkamp is a past president of Shall We Dance, an organization in Silicon Valley that promotes dancing and hosts three formal ballroom dances each year. She has also served on the boards of the Children’s Discovery Museum and on the local chapter of the Alpha Chi Omega Sorority Alumnae Chapter.

Wetenkamp says that Santa Clara Law taught her not only the law, but, more importantly, how to think like a lawyer and determine what the issues are. It also gave her great colleagues, not only at the court (three classmates, Risa Jones Pichon, Derek Woodhouse, and Joyce Allegro are also judges) but in the community. She has served as president of the Santa Clara Law Alumni Association and as a member of the Law School’s Board of Visitors. “I’m glad I stayed in the community,” she says.