‘If Not You, Then Who?' Judge Shares Journey from Southeast San Diego to Superior Court

Rohanee Zapanta is only the second Filipina American woman to serve on the San Diego Superior Court

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NBC 7 is celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Superior Court Judge Rohanee Zapanta, only the second Filipina American woman to serve on the San Diego Superior Court, is a graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law.

This week, Zapanta reflected on anti-Asian hate in San Diego and across the country.

"In my experience, professionally -- and even personally -- if there is hate and action on hate, it's usually a reflection of how a person treats others," Zapanta said. "Oftentimes, it's a reflection of how that person sees themselves and how they feel about themselves."

Zapanta said those feelings are manifesting themselves in society.

"The climate is there's unrest and there is social injustice that exists," Zapanta said. "There is systemic racism that exists. That is not a question, that's a reality."

Zapanta, who presides over dependency cases in juvenile court involving severely abused and neglected children, was born in Hawaii. She moved to San Diego as a child and went to USD as an undergrad as well.

"I grew up here, and so I like to kind of say my stomping ground is what was formerly known as Southeast San Diego, so I'm talking about the communities of Paradise Hills, Skyline Hills, National City, old Chula Vista," Zapanta said.

As the child of immigrant parents, Zapanta said, she faced many barriers.

"I didn't have, you know, a support network that, you know, were college graduates or were attorneys, even judges for that matter," Zapanta said. "These were all new things for me."

Zapanta was a public defender for 13 years and a trial attorney before serving on the bench. Her specialty and certifications are in mental health and cognitive behavior therapy.

Zapanta said her friends encouraged her to apply to be a judge numerous times, but it wasn't until one of her friends asked her an important question that she really considered it.

"You know, the encouragement really came down to a question that was posed to me by one of my good friends and colleague, and she said, you know, 'If not you, then who?'" Zapanta recalled. "That kind of gnawed on my conscience."

Zapanta said that the "law involves understanding real-life situations, understanding how best to approach conflict, understanding how to work with people in times of crises and being able to communicate and articulate."

Those thoughts put her in the position to think about what is happening in the AAPI community.

"There is a force that's united the AAPI community, not just in strength but also for the group to be able to celebrate what they bring to the community," Zapanta said. "It's in diversity that we can acknowledge and celebrate difference, but also it's in diversity that we are more empowered."

Other Filipinas paved the way for Judge Zapanta, including Lillian Lim and Linda Cabulong. In 1986, Lillian Lim was appointed to the bench as San Diego's first Filipina Superior Court Judge, serving until her retirement in 2007. Linda Cabulong, served as a judicial officer as a Referee Pro Tem, according to Emily Cox with the Superior Court's Public Affairs Office.

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