DA Summer Stephan Opens Up About Her Career
This story was updated Thursday, April 19, at 2:22 p.m.
Almost three decades into a career that has taken San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan down varied paths, she candidly shares that her story is one based on resilience.
“I think rejections are really good for us because they help us (become) more resilient, more persistent,” Stephan said. “Nothing worthwhile is really easy.”
Stephan leads the second largest district attorney’s office in the State of California and on Monday, April 16, she shared her journey with La Prensa San Diego.
“As a little girl growing up, I just wanted to do something that made society more fair, that evened the playing field,” Stephan said.
The oldest of four daughters, Stephan grew up in San Bruno, California, in a loving yet strict home. She hoped to pursue a career tracking down criminals as an FBI profiler, however, her father worried that work could put her at risk in dangerous environments, she said.
Stephan graduated high school early at the age of 16 and, by the age of 20, she had earned a degree in Psychology from the University of California, Davis.
Taking into account her father’s concerns, she instead decided to enroll in law school to become a prosecutor.
Although it was a career switch, Stephan said it was based on the same goal of bringing fairness, justice, and giving a voice to the community.
By the time she decided to switch career paths, the filing deadline to apply to most law schools had already passed. Stephan sat in the lobby of the Dean of McGeorge Law School in Sacramento until she was able to explain her situation to the Dean.
Stephan was admitted to McGeorge and dedicated her time to finding ways to help the community and, eventually, secured an internship with the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office.
During that time as an intern, Stephan found her passion after being assigned to the domestic and sex crimes division.
“There was no turning back,” Stephan said. “I was so in the zone, I couldn’t wait to leave class and go to work.”
After graduating from law school, where she met her future husband, Stephan moved back to San Diego to be closer to her family. Stephan applied for a position within the San Diego District Attorney’s office, but was not hired. Undeterred, she became a research attorney with the Superior Court, but always kept in mind that she would re-apply for her dream job.
“Just because you get a rejection doesn’t mean that you’re not on the right track and that you don’t know what it is that you’re meant to do in life,” Stephan said.
Stephan applied again to the DA’s office the following year and became a entry level prosecutor in 1990 under then-District Attorney Ed Miller. As she moved up within the prosecutor’s office, Stephan tried more than 100 cases before juries.
While working a wide range of cases, Stephan found that the office needed a dedicated sex crimes division, and although the idea was rejected several times, she was eventually able to form the division under District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Stephan argues that sex crimes require specific expertise because they are the hardest cases to try due to stereotypes related to the victims themselves, as opposed to victims of other crimes.
“Victims have trauma if they are robbed or burglarized but it’s not the same, it’s very personal and really for (sexual assault) victims it feels like you took something that’s more like ripping a part of their soul out a lot more than just taking their pocketbook or something like that,” she said.
Stephan became the chief of that new division and then was picked by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be one of only two prosecutors in the State to serve on a high risk and sexually violent predator task force that developed safety plans for the release of those individuals.
She recalls working day and night running her unit and taking part in the State’s efforts.
“My life has been a pattern of taking the next challenge and really excelling at it, trying to do it to the best of my ability, trying to grow and listen and create something new,” Stephan said.
Stephan rose to become the Chief Deputy District Attorney, the highest administrator in the office, but her biggest challenge came when then-District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis decided not to seek re-election in 2018.
After careful consideration, Stephan announced in early 2017 that she would run for the elected position of District Attorney, but just a few months later, Dumanis announced she would resign her position before the end of her term.
It was then that Stephan stepped forward and sought the appointment as Interim DA. Stephan was selected by the County Board of Supervisors on a unanimous vote in June 2017, and is now running for a full term in the June primary election.
And although she was hesitant because of the politics behind running, she said her hesitations were not about the job.
Since becoming the Interim District Attorney, Stephan has also worked on “opening doors” by allowing the community to get an inside look at the work of the District Attorney’s Office.
She was recently named Southern California District Attorney of the Year by Crime Victims United, a foundation that advocates to strengthen the rights of crime victims, for her work.
“I can’t tell you how much I love my job,” she said. “What I dreamed about as a little girl it’s what I get to do all the time.”