County of Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Mize (MSW '71) has made numerous, weighty decisions affecting the lives of children, parents and families during his service on the bench over the past decade. He defers, however, to rendering judgment when it comes to himself. When told that his wide array of interests and skills — ranging from the physical sciences to law to teaching acoustic guitar — make him a modern-day Renaissance Man, he answers modestly, "I think that's a decision for someone else, and not me, to make!"
Representative of Mize's curious nature are his college years. He began his formal education at UC Berkeley with the intention of “smashing atoms with Cal’s cyclotron” through his engineering major. Ultimately, his strong fascination with the human dynamic and interactions led him to pursue an undergraduate degree in psychology, followed by graduate work at the School of Social Welfare, where he received his MSW in 1971. He decided to continue on to law school and received his JD from the University of San Francisco. “Every course I took at Berkeley made me a better lawyer and, as a result, a better judge,” says Mize. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to back up on my engineering skills and my social welfare/psychology skills to make my job work.”
Among the tools that have proven so valuable to Mize in the field of law are the basic tenets of empathy and open communication, which he credits as having developed through his social work education. “I feel as a lawyer of 26 years that of course I was a social worker,” he explains. “During my initial interviews with clients, I knew within the first five minutes what I was going to do in a case, and the next hour and 25 minutes was about developing his or her understanding that I knew what I was doing and I was going to be able to help them.” He adds, “I realized I was using techniques I learned in Social Welfare — communicating with the other side, understanding who they are and where they’re coming from.”
To understand who Mize is, it helps to see where he himself is coming from. A product of late 1960s-era Berkeley, Mize says he decided to continue his studies at the School of Social Welfare because he “wanted to change the world.” “Kennedy said that any person can make a difference, and I really believed that and took that to heart,” says Mize. Among his initial forays into making the world a better place was a concentration in Community Organizing; he describes the fieldwork component of his training as “going into legislature.” “I was helping a bunch of tenants organize to demand that their place be repaired,” he recalls.
The lessons learned from those times carry over into Mize’s last assignment, presiding over the Sacramento Superior Court. “This is really directly from Social Welfare – teaching people, who do not like each other, ways to get along for a greater good that they both theoretically want,” he says.
Mize’s sense of community service and social justice extends beyond the courtroom. He is the co-founder of Sharing God’s Bounty at St. Philomene Parish in Sacramento, where the homeless are fed hot meals. Mize also established the Sacramento County Bar Association’s Voluntary Legal Services Committee, a program providing pro bono legal services to indigent clients. His civic efforts have garnered him several honors, including the Center for Youth Citizenship’s Education and Community Outreach Award, the California Judge Association’s Alba Witkin Humanitarian Award and last year’s Sacramento County Bar Association’s Judge of the Year Award.
And while his roots are firmly planted in Sacramento, Mize maintains strong ties with Berkeley. His wife Rita is also a Cal graduate, having earned her PhD from the School of Education (“All of our friends call us Dr. and Mr. Mize,” he notes proudly). Additionally, Mize has the opportunity to return to the community for two weeks each year, serving as a seminar leader to newly appointed California court judges attending judicial college, held annually at Clark Kerr campus.
“My activity is just to stroll the Berkeley campus, sit in the halls,” describes Mize of his return visits. “The last time I was there, I went to Haviland Hall and chatted with some of the students. I told them to be incredibly grateful for where they are and the opportunity to be at Berkeley. To be in any course at Berkeley, particularly the School of Social Welfare, is incredible.
“I have always thought of UC Berkeley as the universal catalyst,” says Mize. “It is the place where you can become whatever you want to be and whatever you want to do you can make it happen.”