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John Sugiyama

Hon. John H. Sugiyama (Ret.)


Case Manager
Heather Muirhead
T: 925-975-5795
F: 925-938-6732
1255 Treat Blvd., Suite 700, Walnut Creek, CA 94597

Biography

The Honorable John H. Sugiyama (Ret.) has experience in myriad legal fields and disciplines adjudicating complex matters through trial and resolving them through alternative dispute resolution processes. Judge Sugiyama presided for 18 years on the Contra Costa County Superior Court. During the last nine years of his judicial career, he served as the supervising judge for the Probate Division. Before his appointment as a judicial officer, he served as a senior assistant attorney general in both the criminal and the civil divisions of the California Department of Justice and as a deputy director and chief counsel for the California Department of Corrections. 

Between 2014 and 2019, Judge Sugiyama served as the chair of the Judicial Council of California’s Probate and Mental Health Advisory Committee. During his tenure, he helped inform the judicial branch’s position on all proposed state legislation in the field of probate law affecting the administration and operations of the courts. He also guided the amendment of existing Rules of Court and Official Judicial Council Forms, as well as the formulation of new rules and forms that were responsive to legislative enactments, judicial decisions and changed circumstances in the legal environment.

When he served as a bench officer, Judge Sugiyama was highly respected as a thoughtful, compassionate jurist who decisively issued well-reasoned decisions and orders. His written rulings were regarded for their clarity and rigor. At appropriate moments in proceedings in which litigants took seemingly intractable, irreconcilable positions, he often drew on a wealth of historical, literary and film references and allusions that enabled counsel to develop new perspectives that led to equitable case resolutions on their own.

ADR Experience and Qualifications

  • A decade of experience as a probate judge presiding over complex estate and trust matters
  • A decade of judicial experience resolving all facets of emotionally charged conservatorships and limited conservatorships
  • A decade of judicial experience resolving all facets of sensitive, contested adoptions and guardianships
  • Managed statewide civil rights cases at the trial and appellate levels that affected the work of state governmental officers and governmental agencies
  • As an attorney, personally briefed and argued hundreds of cases at all levels of the state appellate courts and before the federal courts, with over 40 of those cases resulting in opinions published in the official reports of the respective courts 

Representative Matters

Estates and Trusts

  • Presided over the trial and wrote the decision for a proceeding involving the inheritance rights of the issue of a prominent physician in which principal factual and legal issues concerned the testator’s domicile at the time of his death
  • Authored numerous orders in other proceedings pertaining to the domicile and residence of decedents
  • Presided over the trial and wrote the decision for a proceeding involving the validity of a trust and related instruments executed by a wealthy real estate developer in which principal factual and legal issues centered on dueling expert witnesses who offered conflicting views about the effect of Alzheimer’s disease, as diagnosed through an autopsy, on the settlor’s capacity to execute the instruments in question and the possible effect of undue influence at the time of execution of the instruments
  • Authored numerous orders in other proceedings involving claims of lack of capacity and undue influence
  • Presided over the trial and wrote the decision for a proceeding in which the principal factual and legal issues involved a determination of whether the trust in question was terminated or revoked
  • Authored an order interpreting a holographic will for an estate valued at over $10 million in which the ultimate issue centered on the construction of a single letter in a word and the meaning then to be given to that single word
  • Presided over the trial and wrote the decision for a proceeding seeking the reformation of a purportedly ambiguous trust instrument
  • Authored numerous orders in other proceedings involving claims of ambiguity in estate and trust instruments
  • Presided over the trial and wrote the decision for a proceeding in which the validity of a sale of real property held in trust was challenged on the ground that the sale violated requirements of the Subdivision Map Act
  • Authored the order in a proceeding challenging, decades after the fact, the validity of a settlement agreement entered between the personal representative of the estate and the beneficiaries under the will when residual, contingent remainder beneficiaries under the will were not given notice of the settlement
  • Authored orders in numerous other proceedings addressing standing and notice issues affecting disinherited beneficiaries under subsequently amended and restated trust instruments
  • Authored an order construing the effect of a no-contest clause in a will when the clause itself appeared, through drafting inadvertence or neglect, to lack a sentence about the effect of a violation of the clause
  • Authored orders in numerous other proceedings interpreting the effect of no-contest clauses in estate and trust instruments
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving the valuation of estate and trust assets
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving determinations of whether assets were held in trust or passed by way of deeds such as joint tenancy
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving contested estate and trust accountings
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving contests between two or more persons seeking appointment as personal representatives and successor trustees
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings seeking the removal of personal estate representatives and trustees
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions in proceedings involving claims for the return of trust assets and the assessment of damages under Probate Code Sections 850 and 859
  • Presided over hearings addressing the disposition of assets such as jewelry and photographs that were not specifically identified in estate and trust instruments
  • Presided over hearings and wrote orders in proceedings involving the status of lost wills
  • Presided over hearings and wrote orders in proceedings (commonly called Heggstad petitions) involving the determination of whether assets were held in trust of were assets of estates
  • Presided over hearings and wrote orders on motions for the disqualification of counsel
  • Conducted countless successful mediations for matters that were to be tried by other judges

Conservatorships and Limited Conservatorships

  • Presided over the trial and wrote the decision for a proceeding involving a dispute between highly qualified daughters and sons over which of them should serve as their mother’s conservator
  • Authored an order about the right of legal representation of a mother subject to a conservatorship proceeding and the standing of a non-family member to challenge facets of the conservatorship
  • Resolved disputes among family members about the nature and extent of their opportunity to visit with their conserved parents
  • Resolved disputes among family members about the appropriate level of care for their conserved parents
  • Authored orders approving, and in some instances declining to approve, petitions for substituted judgment affecting the disposition of assets of conservatees
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving contested conservatorship accountings
  • Conducted countless successful mediations for matters involving all facets of contested conservatorships
  • Resolved disputes between parents over which of them should serve as the limited conservator for their developmentally delayed children
  • Resolved disputes over petitions for the removal of duly-appointed limited conservators
  • Resolved disputes between parents over their respective visitation rights with their developmentally delayed children
  • Resolved disputes between parents over the appropriate kind of care and therapy that should be provided for the benefit of their developmentally delayed children
  • Conducted countless successful mediations for matters involving all facets of contested limited conservatorships

Adoptions and Guardianships

  • Presided over the trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving the termination of the rights of biological parents brought by adopting parents; proceedings involved numerous variations of petitioners, including step-parents, presumed parents, relatives, guardians and adoption agencies on behalf of adopting parents
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving disputed probate guardianships
  • Presided over trials and wrote decisions for proceedings involving the termination of guardianships

Selected Awards and Honors

  • California Attorney General’s Award for Excellence (Legal Representation)
  • California Attorney General’s Award for Excellence (Affirmative Action)
  • AV Rating, Martindale-Hubbell
Memberships and Affiliations
  • Advisory Member, Civil Subcommittee of the Chief Justice of the State of California’s Commission on the Future of the California Court System
  • Member, Judicial Council of California’s Tribal Law Court, State Court Forum
  • President, Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area, 1988
  • Member, Alumni Council (now Board of Directors), The Alumni Association for the University of California at Berkeley, 1976–1979
  • Member, Chapter Board, Japanese American Citizens League, 1990–1992
  • Member, Board of Trustees, Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, 1987–1989
  • Judge of the Superior Court, County of Contra Costa
    • Supervising Judge, Probate Division, 2011–2020
    • Supervising Judge, Richmond Courthouse, 2007
    • Criminal Division, 2002–2005, 2007–2010
    • Civil Division, 2005–2006
  • California Department of Corrections (now California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)
    • Deputy Director and Chief Counsel, 2000–2002
  • California Department of Justice
    • Senior Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division, 1992–2000
    • Senior Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, 1986–2002
    • Senior Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Criminal Division, 1985–1986
    • Special Counsel, Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, 1985–1986
    • Deputy Attorney General, Criminal Division, 1975–1985
  • J.D., University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, 1975
    • Second Place, James Patterson McBaine Honors Moot Court Competition
  • B.A., University of California, Berkeley, 1972
    • Honors Program in Political Science (Completed With Great Distinction)
    • Kenneth Priestly Award (Outstanding Graduating Senior)
    • Forrest E. Tregea Award (Outstanding Leadership)

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