Dennis M. Cota, Class of 1986
Judge Dennis M. Cota ’86 was appointed as a magistrate judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California in September 2018. Previously, he was a founding partner in Cota Cole & Huber LLP, specializing in public law. Before founding his firm, Judge Cota was managing partner first for Best Best & Krieger LLP’s Ontario office, and then for its Sacramento office.
For several years, Judge Cota has taught Trial Practice and Advanced Trial Practice at King Hall and has coached nationally recognized Trial Practice Competition teams. He is King Hall’s Cota Competition’s namesake and helped found the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Competition.
Are you enjoying being a judge? What do you like most about it?
I very much enjoy it. It came at the conclusion of over thirty years of practice. What I enjoy most is the dedication to finding a just result. In practice, the focus is on the result desired by the client. On the bench, the focus is no longer on one side of the issue. Instead, it’s on how it should turn out, considering the law, policy, and overarching justice. That’s why I went to King Hall in the first place. Now that focus is my day-to-day activity. I love that. I’m unconstrained by billable hours and the client’s objectives. The right result, consistent with law, policy, and justice, is what’s obtained.
What have some of the challenges been?
It’s been a learning curve. I spent my entire career practicing on the civil side. I never did criminal cases. The court has wonderful resources training me up, but it’s been an intense learning curve. I’ve had to remember what I learned at King Hall in Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure. Fortunately, I have a tremendous chamber staff, including the clerks and courtroom deputies.
Why did you first come to King Hall?
It was one of those mysteries of life. I was an undergrad at UCLA, applying to law schools in spring semester of my last year. My wife and I just celebrated 41 years of marriage, but then we were newlyweds, living in a little apartment in West L.A.
One rainy, cold night in February, we heard someone knocking on our door. We found a rain-soaked UPS man with an application for King Hall. Some wonderful person had sent me an application. I never found out who it was. I filled it out and sent it in. My wife had grown up in Northern California, so she was excited about the possibility of moving to Davis.
When I was admitted, I received a notice that I had to accept or reject within two weeks. This was on the eve of finals at UCLA. I had no opportunity to visit Davis before the deadline. I had never seen the campus and didn’t know anyone who had attended. As it all turned out, it was a wonderful alignment of the stars, truly the best “fork in the road” event in my life.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that King Hall was high-ranked and had prestigious alumni. I didn’t know any of this because I had focused on schools in Southern California and on the East Coast. The fit was perfect. I fell in love with the town, the King Hall community, everything about it.
After we had spent the last of our money getting an apartment in Davis, the acceptance from Georgetown arrived. My wife and I looked at each other and said, “We’re going to Davis.” I never regretted it.
Why did you come back?
In my third year of law school, a new contracts and trial practice professor from Washington University in Missouri joined the King Hall faculty. Professor Edward Imwinkelried inspired me in his trial practice class, and he encouraged me to compete. That changed my course. I had planned to go into politics, using my law degree as background. After that, I wanted to litigate.
In 2001, my firm opened a Sacramento office and made me managing partner. I visited Professor Imwinkelried, just to catch up with him. He invited me to join King Hall as an adjunct coaching the Trial Practice 1 students. Later, about four years ago when he retired, he asked me to take over the Trial Practice class. So then I was both lecturing and coaching the team.
Do you have any good stories from coaching trial practice?
It was such a delight watching the students dedicate their time, talent and energy to learning this craft. Some of the great moments include the first year I took a group to Alabama. The Mockingbird Challenge was new then. It was based in Montgomery at Faulkner University and took its name from To Kill a Mockingbird. I took four very talented second-year students I had started working with when they were first-years in the Carr Competition.
I remember pulling into the parking lot with the radio cranked up. They jumped out of the rental car, dancing and singing along to “Play that Funky Music.” They went on to win the entire competition.
They were so elated. Now that they were victorious in their first national championship, they wanted to celebrate. The competition ended at 8:00 or 9:00 at night. Montgomery is a beautiful, historic town, but at 9:00 p.m. everything was closed. We walked past the original church where Martin Luther King Jr. had his ministry. We walked past Rosa Parks’ park bench.
They ended up jumping in the fountain in Montgomery’s square at 10:00 at night. They were stomping and splashing like little kids. We laughed and took pictures. It was a victory not only of the competition, but of the program itself. They had achieved something that set the path for their careers. It felt like something special had happened. It was a wild moment. The trophy we brought home is still in the case outside of 1301.
That group was so enthused about Trial Practice that it was a turning point in the program. They came to me with the idea of creating a first-year competition. It would introduce new students with an abbreviated program. They volunteered to put on a training. At first, the administration was reluctant. Understandably, they try to limit what first-year students are doing outside of class. They agreed, on the condition that it would only take one week of practice, with the competition on the weekend. The competition is now in its fourth year. When we started the competition, I was in private practice and had the resources to present each of the winners of the competition with a small scholarship prize as an incentive to participate. Now the competition includes more than 40 student advocates, and while a cash incentive is no longer needed, we still present awards to the winners, including the Edward Imwinkelried Award for Best Advocate.
The very first year we did it, I saw fliers for the “Cota Competition.” That was a surprise! I heard students say, “Are you going to compete in the Cota Comp?” It’s an awesome honor.
I also had the tremendous honor of watching students put together our own national competition. Our students travel all over the country in competitions. Two years ago, I offhandedly suggested to the students that King Hall should sponsor a civil rights competition and call it the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Competition. I was very, very pleasantly surprised when the students ran with it.
Fall 2000 will be the third year of the competition. It’s held in the Federal Courthouse. The students had sixteen teams last year from all over the country, including Montgomery, Alabama. UCLA has won both years.
It has a full-scale, elaborate competition case file. The first year, I wrote it on a case I had actually tried. My opponent from that case put up a sponsorship and came to help judge. The students tried fact patterns we had tried in the courtroom. Last year, I wrote another case file, which Professor Imwinkelried is including in his new trial practice textbook.
The King Competition changed the landscape, adding something that was not there before. That was professionally satisfying. Trial Practice is a fun and amazing organization within the King Hall curriculum. It’s been an amazing journey over the last 35 years at King Hall.
Is there anything about you that you think would surprise your students?
I have ridden my bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles on four different occasions for the Arthritis Foundation’s annual fundraiser. We ride from the pier in San Francisco to the pier in Santa Monica, down Highway 1. Students who have seen me shuffling into 1301 with a load of books and lecture notes might be surprised by that. When I’m not in class, I love to be on my bike.
What is your favorite King Hall memory?
We were a precocious class. Before the remodel, the classrooms upstairs had stadium-style seating. I was sitting in the back and Professor Raven was teaching Property. A group of us had been throwing a football at lunch, and it was sitting on my backpack. When he called on me, I threw it and shouted, “I’ll pass!” He caught it, spiked it, and did a victory dance. Then he advised me there was no passing in his class. He called on me for the rest of the week.
One favorite King Hall memory was the first day I taught the lecture portion of Trial Practice. I had been an adjunct, critiquing the students’ performance. My very first day of teaching, I arrived super early. I was in my office, overpreparing, when I looked up to see Professor Imwinkelried and Professor Robert Hillman standing in the doorway. They had come to welcome me to teaching and to escort me to my first class. What a wonderful thing to come back to King Hall and be escorted by my mentors. Professor Imwinkelried assured me, “You’re prepared. You’ve been preparing since you left King Hall. Now go in and do it.”
Another favorite memory is the first time I taught Advanced Trial Practice. Because of funding cuts, the class had just faded off the curriculum. I petitioned the administration to let me resurrect it. Dean Johnson supported it, so I worked up a curriculum.
For Advanced Trial Practice, the students work on a complex case file. I wrote the case file using facts from a recent incident. A kid had fallen into the gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo. I created a fictitious lawsuit between the parents and the zoo.
On the first day of class, Mark Hoffman had a CNN report on the Cincinnati Zoo case playing on the screen as the students came in. I was behind the sliding doors in a gorilla suit. I came out carrying a protest placard saying, “Save the Gorilla.” The students roared with laughter. Unfortunately, I was overheating, so I had to take off the suit to teach the class.
What is the biggest change you saw in your time at King Hall?
The price of a law school education at King Hall and all law schools jumped tremendously in the years after I attended law school. I witnessed Dean Rex Perschbacher’s tremendous efforts to raise money by reaching out to alumni who had gone through when tuition was $1600 a semester. My daughter paid $45,000 a year to go to King Hall. The biggest change was the cost and the great sacrifice that it became to attend this great school. It’s worth every penny, but the shift from it being “public education” created whole new challenges with student loans, etc.
Of what accomplishment are you proudest?
That’s got to be my kids. I extend that to my students, who are a constant source of pride. I have three kids, who my wife and I have had the absolute joy of seeing grow up to be successful adults. That’s not just materially but as citizens: educated, good members of society. My oldest son went into corporate management. My daughter and my youngest son went into law. I never pushed them. I was very circumspect because law is very demanding. I just wanted them to be happy. My daughter is a swimmer, who has qualified for the Olympics twice, and a tax lawyer. My youngest son went to Fordham and practices in New York now. My kids are the product of my wife’s good efforts and my good fortune. I had my own firm, it is a huge honor to be appointed to the bench, and I love being a federal judge. In the last analysis, the kids make me the most proud.
That echoes into watching the success of my students. They are a tremendous source of pride. I just attended the Barristers Award Ceremony. Five Trial Practice students received it. What a thrill. Some arrived at King Hall with no prior Trial Practice experience. For them to excel to the point of national distinction is an enduring pride.
Do you have any advice for current law students?
Foremost of my advice would be to remember always that the law is a profession. As members of that profession, we have a responsibility to be honorable, ethical, and diligent in our efforts on behalf of our clients. It’s not just a career. We have a fiduciary duty to be professionals and to bring honor to the legal field and never compromise to get that life, to get that distinction, to be an advocate, to be an attorney, and to be a counselor-at-law.
That’s advice that my mentor, George Bullen, passed on to me as I graduated from King Hall. He died shortly after. He was a trial lawyer, famous for trying the case that established negligent infliction of emotional distress in the 1960s. He was a brilliant renaissance man and a great courtroom advocate. He was very well-read and very involved in the community. He pioneered Sacramento’s sister city relationship with a city in China. He made it possible for me to conduct depositions in Taiwan. He helped train me up. I clerked for him while I was at King Hall and afterward. He still influences my perspectives and ambitions.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
King Hall has been a treasure. King Hall has provided me opportunities, training, and resources that have truly shaped my life. It’s given me the opportunity to impart skills and training to Trial Practice students and hosts of others. I will always be grateful for the opportunities that came from my quite unexpected connection with the Law School at UC Davis.