Melissa Maria Holmes: County Lawyer, Courtroom Advocate, and Mentor
Melissa Maria Holmes is Senior Deputy Counsel for San Diego County. As counsel for the County, Ms. Holmes supervises a team of three attorneys and four support staff who primarily handle civil rights cases under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Those three attorneys could not have asked for a better and more experienced mentor. Over the past six years, Ms. Holmes has tried eight civil jury trials and one bench trial in the United States District Court, Southern District of California. The Southern District is Ms. Holmes’s second home and mentoring young attorneys is her second profession.
Melissa Holmes was born in Las Vegas, but she moved around a lot as a child. She ended up going to high school in Hemet, California, a town near Palm Springs. Following high school, Ms. Holmes ventured to Northern California for college, attending the University of California, Santa Cruz. At Santa Cruz, Ms. Holmes majored in politics, which is not to be confused with the ever popular political science major. Ms. Holmes credits her professors’ use of the Socratic method as one reason why she became interested in going to law school. The other was that she, like most of us, enjoyed a good argument.
Ms. Holmes attended the University of California, Hastings College of Law. She came to law school knowing that she loved advocacy and envisioned that she would one day become a criminal defense lawyer. During law school, she was heavily involved in moot court classes and teams. Additionally, she externed for the Honorable Charles A. Legge of the Northern District of California and was able to witness a handful of trials—further inflaming her passion for advocacy. Ms. Holmes also began to develop her love of teaching in law school, where she was a teaching assistant for appellate advocacy, moot court, and legal writing and research classes. Her experiences in law school led her to pursue a new path, civil litigation.
Following her graduation from Hastings College of Law, Ms. Holmes joined a medical malpractice and civil rights defense firm in San Mateo. After working there for five years, Ms. Holmes had an itch to return to the District Court. She applied for clerkships and ended up clerking for the Honorable Bernard Zimmerman, United States Magistrate Judge, at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Ms. Holmes was able to assist in handling a complete civil case docket as a clerk because of the Northern District of California’s use of Magistrate Judges. There, Magistrate Judges are assigned cases directly “off the wheel,” and parties more frequently consent to trying their entire case before a Magistrate Judge under General Order No. 44. Ms. Holmes was exposed to a variety of cases. She also observed excellent attorneys using various persuasive styles, allowing her to learn what worked and did not work. Ms. Holmes believes she is a more effective advocate after observing Judge Zimmerman conduct settlement conferences and assisting with discovery disputes. Ms. Holmes would highly recommend applying for a year-long clerkship for new attorneys who want to litigate in federal court and even for those who have been in practice for a few years.
Following her clerkship, Ms. Holmes found a firm in San Mateo where she could practice in federal court and even tried a case in the Northern District of California when she was eight months pregnant. She represented public entities in employment, civil rights, dangerous condition, nuisance, and Takings Clause suits. In 2015, wanting to live closer to her family in the San Diego area, she accepted a position in the Office of County Counsel for the County of San Diego.
The Office of County Counsel acts as a full service law office meeting the needs of the County. There are over 80 attorneys in the office who handle a wide variety of legal tasks, including litigation, advising department clients, and administrative law. Ms. Holmes supervises a litigation team that handles Section 1983 cases representing the County and County employees primarily from the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, and Probation Department. A Section 1983 lawsuit involves a claim alleging that a state or local official has violated an individual’s civil rights under the Constitution. Her cases range from an officer’s alleged use of excessive force to whether inmates are getting appropriate medical care. And, given the subject matter, almost all—around 95%—of Ms. Holmes cases are in federal court.
Ms. Holmes has become well-acquainted with the federal bench in San Diego. She has tried eight civil jury trials and one bench trial in the Southern District. She has also had the unique experience of trying one of her cases three times before the Honorable Judge John A. Houston. In 2006, while under the influence of methamphetamines, the plaintiff was resisting arrest when she and the deputy defendant fell to the ground during a struggle. After feeling the plaintiff’s hand on his gun, the deputy remotely deployed his canine partner. The canine came to his aid and bit the plaintiff on her scalp, causing significant head injuries.
The plaintiff sued the County and the Deputy under Section 1983 and the California Bane Act. In 2013, after the Ninth Circuit reversed a summary judgment, Defendants obtained a defense verdict in the first jury trial, and the Court granted a new trial motion. In 2016, Ms. Holmes inherited the case from an attorney who had retired. Ms. Holmes and an attorney from her office represented the defendants in jury trials in 2019 and 2020. Both times, the juries could not reach a unanimous verdict. In 2021, Ms. Holmes and her colleagues obtained a defense verdict—15 years after the underlying incident.
Ms. Holmes’s experience before the district’s bench is irreplaceable and getting to practice in front of them is her favorite part of the job. Another is the opportunity she gets to mentor attorneys. Ms. Holmes is a teacher at heart, and she enjoys mentoring new attorneys and experienced attorneys who have limited trial experience. She loves helping guide her mentees through both pre-trial litigation and trial. Her clerkship and trial experience are helpful when providing input on how to address discovery issues, resolve cases, and draft pleadings.
One unique thing about the Office of County Counsel is that lawyers generally get to handle their own cases from start to finish—even brand new attorneys. If it is a new attorney’s first month on the job and he or she gets assigned a case that ends up going to trial, Ms. Holmes ensures that the new attorney will try the case with appropriate supervision and guidance. Ms. Holmes had a new attorney on her team whose case went up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Instead of stepping in, Ms. Holmes worked with the attorney on briefing and oral argument preparation, allowing the attorney to argue the appeal. Seeing attorneys she mentors succeed and improve is incredibly rewarding. An added bonus for Ms. Holmes is that she learns from her mentees, becoming a better trial lawyer.
Ms. Holmes has been a member of the Federal Bar Association for over five years. As a member, she has volunteered with events, including by helping coordinate the Evidence and Objections MCLE, the Maintaining Civility Throughout Litigation webinar, and the Remote Mediations: How to Effectively Negotiate and Settle Cases Remotely presentation, where she was also a panelist. In addition to being a member of the Federal Bar Association, Ms. Holmes has served as a volunteer judge and scorer for both San Diego Unified mock trial competitions and University of San Diego School of Law moot court competitions.
When Ms. Holmes was practicing in Northern California, she was very involved in the Northern District of California’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Program. She volunteered to represent pro per plaintiffs in employment cases during settlement conferences and early neutral evaluations. She was also trained by the Northern District of California to be a court appointed mediator for employment and civil rights cases. Both from her years of representing individual clients and her trial experience, Ms. Holmes is keenly aware of the emotional and economic toll that litigation can have on individuals and organizations. In the civil arena, Ms. Holmes believes that early resolution of cases through mediation and settlement promotes fairness through efficiency and removes the uncertainty of trial.
Outside of the Law
Ms. Holmes lives in San Diego with her son Lars, who is a fifth grader. In 2012, when Lars was six months old, Ms. Holmes’s husband was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In 2015, they relocated to San Diego so their nearby family could help. A year later, her husband passed away. Having the support of her colleagues at the Office of County Counsel and the gracious attorneys she litigated against was extremely helpful during her transition to being an only parent. One thing she appreciates about the Federal Bar Association is that events are often at lunch or during work hours, which allows working parents to participate. Moreover, in her experience, the Southern District’s bench is very cognizant of the needs of parents and concludes proceedings at a manageable hour, if requested.
Ms. Holmes volunteers at her son’s school, and during COVID she started a surf squad with other parents and children from the school. Every weekend, Ms. Holmes and the parents can be found catching waves closer in to shore, while the kids leave their parents behind and go out past the break in search of the perfect wave.
Ms. Holmes’s favorite outdoor activity is camping. Following her college graduation but prior to attending law school, Ms. Holmes worked as a server in a breakfast restaurant and backpacked around Western Europe. Her favorite places to camp were Ireland, England, France, Germany, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Now, Ms. Holmes uses her RV to visit as many national parks and camping spots with her son as she can. Some of their favorite places include Baja, Anza Borrego, Chiricahua National Monument, Whites Sands, Gilbert Ray in Tucson, and a little spot north of Tahoe on the Yuba River called Carlton Flats. She believes there is nothing better than a good outdoor adventure followed by roasting marshmallows under the stars.
Advice for New Attorneys
Trust yourself and be kind. Ms. Holmes cannot stress enough how important it is to trust yourself, your preparation, and your education. In observing depositions and reviewing deposition transcripts of the newer attorneys she supervises, Ms. Holmes has seen experienced litigators try to railroad or rattle younger attorneys by making improper objections or bullying the younger attorneys into not making appropriate objections. She encourages her mentees to listen to their gut when a dispute arises—reminding them that they have often taken Evidence more recently than their opponent has and, generally, law and procedure are directed at an ethical outcome. She wants all new attorneys to see their youth as an asset, not a weakness. And of course, new attorneys should remember to be kind and professional. There is a reason why our legal system utilizes attorneys to resolve conflicts. Attorneys are able to rise above the emotions of a dispute, which, usually, results in a more just outcome. Ms. Holmes credits the civility of the Southern District bench and bar in making the often serious subject matter of the cases she handles manageable as well as her transition to a working only parent pleasant.
* Josh Dutton is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and its Public Relations Committee. He practices labor and employment law at Jones Day and externed for the Hon. Cynthia Bashant in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.