APPOINTED: Feb. 23, 2005, by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
LAW SCHOOL: Hastings College of the Law, 1984
PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None
Presiding over a preliminary hearing in a murder case at the Hayward Hall of Justice one morning last month, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Michael Gaffey did more than just sit back passively. He interjected often, but gently.
When a young male witness grunted an answer to a prosecutor’s query, Gaffey said, “‘Uh huh’? Does that mean yes?” and then told the guy to give a clearer answer. “The court reporter,” he said, “has a hard enough time.”
Similarly, when the prosecutor posed a confusingly worded question, Gaffey intervened once more. “I don’t understand that,” he said. “You’ve lost me. Try again.”
For Gaffey, a thorough and well-liked criminal court judge appointed to the bench in 2005, getting to the point and making sure things get done right is critical.
“As a judge,” he said, “you are trying to seek the best outcome justice would [warrant].”
Gaffey, 53, was born in San Francisco and his path to the law — especially as a prosecutor in Alameda County for 10 years and in Santa Clara County for 11 — might have been preordained. One of his grandfathers, Michael Gaffey , was the police chief in San Francisco from 1951-55.
“So I had an affinity for the law,” he said. “It made me realize that if I went into the law, I’d be a prosecutor.”
He was good at it, too, acquaintances say, especially considering he handled the tough task of gang-related prosecutions.
“He was kind of one of the people [former Alameda County District Attorney] Tom Orloff [tapped] to create that unit in the DA’s office,” Alameda County Chief Assistant DA Kevin Dunleavy said. “He had to be a real self-starter to get that thing off the ground.”
But Gaffey came close to going into an entirely different career. He was a substitute teacher in Southern California for a short time right out of college, but didn’t like the pay.
“I was making $10,000 a year,” he said, “and that probably wasn’t that much even at that time.”
The law looked attractive to him and he felt that teachers and attorneys had something in common — the ability to instruct. “Lawyers use advocacy skills to educate,” he said.
Alameda County Deputy DA Jerry Herman, who has appeared before Gaffey several times, recalled seeing the judge walk a fine line once while trying to explain to the family of a vehicular manslaughter victim why the defendant didn’t face a harsher charge.
“He expressed sympathy for the victim’s family and tried to make clear how the system works,” Herman said. “And judges don’t have to do that.”
Gaffey’s young life was adventure filled. When he was about age 8, his father, who worked for the American President Lines shipping company, moved the family to Hong Kong. He lived there for four years at the height of the repressive and chaotic Cultural Revolution in neighboring China.
He regrets not picking up the language. “I couldn’t see into the future that I should be diligent about learning Chinese,” he said.
As a judge, Gaffey maintains a pleasant atmosphere in the courtroom. He wants people to feel comfortable and approaches things “on a more human, everyday-people kind of way.”
If a particular case seems to have the potential for rancor, Gaffey said, he tries not “to get sucked up into” it, and especially doesn’t let any irritation ruin the rest of the day.
“You don’t want to overreact on the case before you,” he said. “But you certainly don’t want to overreact in the next case up” because of pent-up emotions.
Gaffey appears popular. In a 2007 survey of attorneys by the Alameda County Bar Association, he was one of five judges to get high marks.
But that doesn’t mean Gaffey’s never irked anyone. Also in 2007, he recused the entire Alameda County DA’s office — his former buddies — from a sexual battery case involving an ex-San Leandro police officer.
San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal reversed Gaffey in an unpublished ruling handed down three months ago, saying he had abused his discretion.
Apparently, no prosecutors are holding grudges.
“Oh man, there’s no ill will with Judge Gaffey,” G. Richard Klemmer, a Hayward-based prosecutor, said. “He’s a good judge. He works hard.”
“If you’re a football player, you don’t get all the calls,” he added. “It’s the same thing here. You’re happy if the judges are making the best calls they can.”
Gaffey took the reversal in stride.
“It’s always instructional for the court of appeal to remand one of your cases,” he said, “and give you insight into [its] thinking.”
As with many judges, Gaffey wants attorneys coming to his courtroom to be on time and prepared to present their cases — especially when a jury is present.
“Everybody wants to make sure jurors are not inconvenienced,” he said. “You want to have the proceedings move in a really expeditious fashion.”
Along that line, on that morning of the murder prelim, an attorney in an earlier case showed up more than a half-hour late. He threw a temper tantrum with the bailiff, who calmly relayed the attorney’s request to have his case go ahead as planned.
Not about to interrupt the prelim for a tardy lawyer, Gaffey simply reset the man’s case for two weeks later.
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