The Sisters Alksne

Sisters Lorna and Cynthia Alksne are both alumni of USD's School of Law

A TALE OF TWO WOMEN WHO IMAGINED ONE FUTURE, BUT LIFE HAD OTHER PLANS

Childhood dreams are by turns predictable, fantastic andon occasionprophetic. As we imagine ourselves in the faraway world of being a grown-up, with all the delicious freedom that goes along with it, we may not know exactly how life will unfold but think if we just follow the path, it will get us where we want to be.

Unless, of course, it doesn’t.

“As an undergraduate, I wanted to be a TV journalist,” says Lorna Alksne ‘92 (JD). “And my sister, Cynthia, wanted to be a trial attorney. But she ended up being the TV talking head, and I ended up in the courts.”

These days, legal analyst Cynthia Alksne ‘85 (JD) appears frequently on MSNBC weighing in on the issues of the day, while little sister Lorna is the presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court. Those one-time imagined life paths? The old switcheroo.

From her home in Florida, Cynthia recalls an idyllic, if nomadic, childhood. “We grew up in different places. At first, my dad bounced around as a professor. We were in Virginia, we were in Norway, we were in Los Angeles, we were in Seattle, until he settled at UCSD and became the chair of neurosurgery there. I think of myself as a bit of a gypsy until we moved to San Diego when I was in seventh grade.”

The sisters are close now, but their age gap meant it took a while to be on equal footing. “We had a wonderful childhood,” says Lorna. “My sister is five or six years older than I am, so by the time I got into junior high, she was already gone. We always did family trips and things like that, but we really became close after I graduated from college.”

Lorna earned her undergraduate degree from Mills College in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since leaving home, she’s never lived in the same city as Cynthia.

“When she was at USD law, I was in college, but we talk every day, often more than once a day,” she says with a laugh. “When there’s not a pandemic, we go back and forth; I see her at least twice a year. And our kids, all of the cousins, are incredibly close.”

ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL

Cynthia studied for two years at UCLA before serving with the 1980 Ted Kennedy campaign and subsequently finishing her undergraduate studies at Georgetown. “Then I came home to USD for law school,” she says.

She looks back fondly at her time on campus. “My favorite class was Allen Snyder’s clinic by far. There’s no comparison; my favorite thing to do was go to clinic. I think that’s what got me interested in trying cases in the courtroom. The clinic program was outstanding and it was certainly my favorite.”

All these years later, Snyder remembers her as a student. “Cynthia was a student in my early years at USD. I remember her enthusiasm and how she called everyone Sparky — better than trying to remember all those names,” he says. “After she graduated, I also worked with her at programs held by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. She’s a person who always found some way to do meaningful work and enjoy it.” 

Her subsequent legal career post-graduation has certainly been impressive. A career federal prosecutor and expert on criminal law, grand jury and police investigations and confrontational interviewing techniques, Cynthia has tried more than 50 cases to verdict and analyzed thousands more.

When asked whether knowing confrontational interviewing techniques has come in handy in her career, she laughs. “Let me tell you, it was very helpful with teenagers,” says this mother of four girls. “Interrogation techniques and waitressing turned out to be the two things that were my most valuable skills during those years.”

MSNBC alumni Cynthia Alksne is a frequent MSNBC legal analyst.

MSNBC alumni Cynthia Alksne is a frequent MSNBC legal analyst.

Lorna, who was a School of Law Distinguished Alumni Award recipient in 2013, was described in a video celebrating that accomplishment as having an “anything but typical” time as a law student. She was married during her first year, became a mom at the end of her second year and was mother of two by graduation.

“USD gave her the flexibility and education to still succeed,” said Supervising Judge, Family Law of San Diego Superior Court Maureen Hallahan in that video. She went on to note that the education Lorna received at the School of Law “gave her the confidence to accomplish everything that’s she’s been able to accomplish today.”

“USD was the only law school I applied to,” Lorna says, matter-of-fact. Like her sister, she also speaks highly of School of Law Professor of Clinical Law Allen Snyder. “He was one of my favorite professors and I stayed in contact with him.”

Snyder says he remembers her most from a negotiations class. “She was always self-assured and sharp at finding angles others did not — and challenging the teacher,” he recalls. “I also worked with Lorna years later when she was the presiding judge of the family law courts in the city. I was leased and impressed with her willingness to modify practices for the benefit of the litigants who appeared without counsel. She had great ideas.”

While Lorna has many professional accomplishments, she says her involvement with implementing a case management system for San Diego’s family court system is a career highlight. “San
Diego had such good success that there was a task force created by the State of California by the judicial branch in San Francisco,” she explains. “They put me on that task force and we ended up writing the rules and getting them adopted. I am very proud to have been a part of that. Case management is now mandatory in family law, and I helped write the rules of court and got it passed.”

Lorna is  pragmatic when asked what advice she’d give to those considering a legal career.

“I had a very busy home life when I was a law student. I was really more focused on getting the degree and passing the bar. I’ve talked quite openly that it wasn’t my goal to be on law review or to be number one in the class. My goal was to get through it, and I’ve talked to students about it. I tell them, ‘If you can’t be number one it’s okay. You can still be the presiding judge. What you need is
the reputation and the work ethic when you get out of law school.’”

Cynthia too, has some advice for those considering law school. “I can be pretty conservative on crime, but I’m a liberal on social issues. And when I went into being a prosecutor, there weren’t a lot of liberals who did that. Basically, liberals gave up that space and were all defense attorneys clawing to try to get something done. We gave away all that power, which was ridiculous.”

She tells those who want to change the world for the better through the legal system to consider becoming a prosecutor. “I say to kids, ‘If you’re liberal on constitutional issues, if you think the police need to be reined in, if you think a no-knock warrant means no-knock or dismiss, you should be a prosecutor.”

As a prosecutor, Cynthia says that she was the best defense attorney in the courtroom: “Because if I determined that the person didn’t do it, I dismissed it. If the search was bad, I got rid of it. If the police officer was a problem, I didn’t use him on any of my cases,” she explains. “If there was insufficient evidence, we went out and tried to find more. So you’re in a position to actually do the right thing as a prosecutor. We gave up that space. We need to reclaim it.”

THE OLD SWITCHEROO

As we all know, the best laid plans of any of us don’t always come true. That was the case with the sisters Alksne.

“When I was in high school, I looked at where Jessica Savitch went to college, since I thought I wanted to be a TV talking head,” recalls Lorna, referring to the then-weekend anchor of the NBC Nightly News. “I volunteered to go from La Jolla High School to San Diego High School through reverse busing,” she recalls. “That was so that I could be on the San Diego Unified TV network news. I did that for a semester.”

It wasn’t a fleeting idea. “When I was in college, I majored in international communication at Mills College,” a path that the school let her develop in her quest to be marketable as a hard news reporter.

“But as luck would have it, things intervened. When I graduated from school, I thought about going to graduate school in journalism, but after one trip to Europe, I decided to travel instead.” She did that for a few years before returning to San Diego.

USD alumna Lorna Alksne is the presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court.

USD alumna Lorna Alksne is the presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court.

“I took the LSAT and only applied to USD. I said, ‘That’s where my sister went so that’s good enough for me.’ I took three or four years in between graduation and law school. At that point, my priorities changed.”

Meanwhile, Cynthia was building her own legal career. After earning her law degree, she “went right to the New York District Attorney’s office, then to the Brooklyn DA’s office.”

Never one to shy away from tough topics, she’s stepped up time after time. “When I was a prosecutor, I tried very hard to take victim cases. I was not a drug crime prosecutor; that wasn’t what I was interested in. I did elder abuse, sex crimes, domestic violence, civil rights, I did cases with victims.”

But then her family life intervened. “I tried two cases after my first daughter was born,” she recalls. “And it was a lot.” So she stepped away from the courtroom for a time, in large part to care for her four daughters when they were young.

“I started at MSNBC during the Clinton impeachment, right when I first quit trying cases,” she recalls. “I did that on and off for a few years, and then I didn’t for some time. But right before [Supreme Court Justice] Brett Kavanaugh was nominated, the girls had gone off to college, and the producers were the same people who had been there when I was at MSNBC before. They called me, and pretty soon I had a contract again,” Cynthia says with a laugh. “And before long, I had a studio installed in my basement.”

That’s where, for the most part, she does her on-camera work for the network, which has been supremely convenient during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Lorna’s long-ago desire to become a TV talking head still pops up from time to time. “We did a San Diego Superior Court bench event with the media right before the pandemic hit,” she recalls. “And I started off by saying I have a very soft spot for the media because my sister is on TV, even though I’m the one that’s supposed to be on TV. She’s the one that’s supposed to be in the courtroom.”

EXACTLY WHERE I WANT TO BE

Of course, Lorna has much to be proud of, even though she doesn’t opine about legal issues on national television for an audience of millions. She was sworn in as court commissioner just days after giving birth to her third child. After a time, life intervened and the expert in family law spent a number of years at home taking care of her three children.

“Then I ran into a former presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court, James Milliken, who asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve retired. I’m staying home with my kids.’ He said, ‘How’s that working for you?’ I said, ‘I’m going crazy. They go to school and I’m dying to do something.’

He said, “Well, why don’t you come pro tem for me in juvenile court?’ I said, ‘But I don’t know anything about being a judge.’ He said, “I know your reputation, you’re a quick study, you worked at a great law firm, you went to USD. You can do it.’ So, I went to the courthouse and I watched and I read and I learned, and I listened and I watched all the different judges. And he said, “OK you’re ready.’”

She served as pro tem judge for the juvenile court of independency, dealing with cases in which the state or county has removed children from their homes.

Cynthia Alksne preparing to go on-air from her home studio.

Cynthia Alksne preparing to go on-air from her home studio.

“We had to figure out whether to get them reunified or to put them in foster care or have them adopted. At first, I would do it once a week. Then twice a week and after a year, I was doing it
almost every day, filling in for a judge that was on vacation or a judge that called in sick,” she says.

“I got the bug. This was exactly where I felt like I wanted to be. I wanted to be back on the bench. I love the interaction with the lawyers from that perspective compared to arguing the case.
I much preferred the judge side, and so I did everything I could to find a career in it.”

Elected by fellow judges to be presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court in 2020, Lorna is just the third woman to hold the two-year position in San Diego County’s history. In the position, she oversees more than 150 judicial officers, a nearly $200 million budget and hears cases as much as possible.

“I’ve sat in all the divisions in my career,” she says. “I have a civil settlement conference tomorrow. I’ve sat in criminal court when we first reopened after the pandemic. I did the first remote hearing so that I could test the technology. I’m comfortable in all the case types. I like to be a working judge so that I know what’s happening.”

Meanwhile, across the country, Cynthia continues to be called on to add her expert opinions on issues of the day on national television. That’s all fine and well, but what’s got her most excited on this day is receiving a coveted 10/10 score on Room Rater, a Twitter account that’s exploded in popularity in this time of ubiquitous remote video setups.

“How exciting was that?,” she exclaims with glee. “You never know what catches their eye. The funny thing is, that room is from our house up north. I took a picture of it and put it on the monitor. So it’s not even the actual room, which is the basement studio.”

As for the future? Lorna says with a bit of a twinkle: “We’ve talked about having our own TV show. We’ll call it Sister-to-Sister, Coast-to-Coast.” — Julene Snyder

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