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S.F. Presiding Judge to Retire When Term Leading the Court EndsAfter a dozen years on the bench, Katherine Feinstein is about to "walk into a bit of an abyss," as she hasn't yet lined up her next gig.
2012-12-20 03:25:33 PM
SAN FRANCISCO Surprising some of her fellow judges, outgoing Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein announced Thursday that she'll leave the bench altogether when she finishes her tenure at the head of the court early next year.
After a dozen years on the San Francisco Superior bench, Feinstein, 55, will retire effective Feb. 1.
"I think the whole building is pretty much in shock right now," said one S.F. Superior judge, who asked not to be named.
Feinstein may be best remembered for a multimonth budget fight with the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts, following a series of drastic cuts to trial court funding by the Legislature. That fight in 2011 with state court administrators culminated in the council loaning S.F. Superior $2.5 million to cover a budget shortfall.
Niall McCarthy, a Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy partner and the former president of Consumer Attorneys of California who was at the forefront of the local effort to lobby for the trial courts, commended Feinstein's leadership in challenging the Legislature's cuts.
"A lot of courts didn't have the political savvy or the know-how to take on the issue," McCarthy said. Feinstein "was one of the exceptions because of her deep understanding of the political process. She was leading from the front, which is to be commended."
During her tenure as PJ, Feinstein oversaw layoffs of scores of court staff, including clerks, court reporters and commissioners. But court finances turned around enough by 2012 that the court was able, earlier this month, to offer pay increases to labor groups on whom it had recently imposed wage cuts. The change came about 18 months after Feinstein announced she intended to lay off more than 200 court employees because of budget cuts a move made unnecessary by the Judicial Council loan. She said in an interview Thursday that the improved financial situation of the court contributed to her decision to leave now.
"I feel like I'm leaving things better off than they were two years ago," Feinstein said.
Several judges interviewed cited Feinstein's willingness to make unpopular decisions, like laying off commissioners, as a testament to her strong leadership. But those difficult choices, some said, may have contributed to her decision to leave the bench so soon after the completion of her term as PJ.
"I can understand, after taking on the hardest job of all" as PJ, said Judge Susan Breall, "that she would now want to embark on a new career or a new adventure."
Feinstein said she plans take some time off to assess her next step. She's interested in another public service job, or one with a nonprofit. And she hasn't ruled out a private-sector position.
But she has no interest in an appellate court appointment and won't be joining the assigned judges program or a mediation service, she said.
She's served in "pretty much every leadership capacity" at the superior court, leaving her few judicial options, she said.
"This is probably the first time of my career I could have had any [S.F. Superior Court] assignment I wanted, and I've instead chosen to walk into a bit of an abyss," she said.
Prior to serving as PJ, Feinstein was assistant presiding judge and sat in a civil trials assignment. Earlier, she presided over the Unified Family Court. Appointed to the bench by Governor Gray Davis in 2000, Feinstein, who says she was born a Democrat, is the daughter of Senator Dianne Feinstein. She graduated from UC-Hastings in 1984.
When then-district attorney Kamala Harris was elected attorney general in 2010, rumors circulated that Feinstein might be appointed DA. Those rumors never came to pass, and Feinstein, a former assistant DA and deputy city attorney, said she's not interested in running for the job now.
When asked what she'll remember most from her tenure on the bench, Feinstein said she's been particularly touched by litigants. One woman she ruled against in a child-custody dispute approached her at a Walgreen's recently to thank her for her decision, which the woman said she'd come to realize was the right one, Feinstein said.
Judge Patrick Mahoney, who served with Feinstein in the S.F. city attorney's office prior to their respective judicial appointments, said she's a principled individual with her priorities in the right place.
"She cares about poor people, she cares about kids," he said.
Feinstein's retirement will leave seven of 52 seats vacant, a court spokeswoman said.