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Court: San Francisco SuperiorAppointed: 1990 by Gov. George DeukmejianDate of Birth: May 2, 1943Law School: University of Michigan (1974)Previous Judicial Experience: S.F. Municipal Court, 1989-90.San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donald Mitchell can’t shake a reputation for being a plaintiff’s judge.But while every litigator in town has heard the rumor, most attorneys — including the defense — say that Mitchell is fairer than he is given credit for.“A lot of defense attorneys think Donald Mitchell is a plaintiff’s judge because he is accommodating to all the parties,” says Allison Davis, special counsel at Thelen Reid & Priest. “I have had non-suits from him. He’s helped my clients position against plaintiffs.”“The chatter around the courtroom is that he is pro-plaintiff,” agrees asbestos plaintiffs attorney Charles Kelly II with Hersh & Hersh. “I haven’t found him accommodating to one side.”Mitchell denies doing anything in his courtroom to help one side or the other. Still, in an interview in his chambers, Mitchell does reveal a sympathetic disposition towards one class of plaintiffs: those with good cases and bad lawyers.“Some people might say it’s too bad and the defense should benefit from that,” he said. “It seems to me that if there’s a meritorious claim that is being defeated by inefficient counsel, that’s troubling. It is difficult to deal with that.”A Democrat appointed to the bench by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1990, Mitchell says he thinks some attorneys conclude he is pro-plaintiff because he comes from a modest background and served as a government attorney for most of his pre-judicial legal career. Among other things, Mitchell did a stint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the mid-’70s.Mitchell said that a few years ago, two defense attorneys in an EEOC case came to court, found out his background, and marched right down stairs to disqualify him.“They didn’t know why I left the EEOC,” he says. “They made an assumption. That experience was so long ago, and it didn’t taint me as those defense attorneys suggested.”But Mitchell’s fans suggest it is his easy-going style, not his rulings or background, that create the perception of a plaintiffs bias.“Most plaintiffs attorneys like Judge Mitchell because they have the burden in a civil trial, so it’s helpful [for the judge] to be accommodating,” says Kelly, the asbestos attorney.In fact, Mitchell is renown for his mellowness in matters of scheduling and trial management. Attorneys who have appeared before him say Mitchell stands in sharp contrast to the more authoritarian style of some of his colleagues. Mitchell, they say, frequently turns to the attorneys in his courtroom and asks for their input on how the trial should be run. Lawyers say he tries hard to accommodate both jurors and lawyers, rarely loses his temper, and brings a human touch to courtroom proceedings.According to Ansel Kinney, a San Francisco solo practitioner, Mitchell called off a trial for a day to allow a defense attorney in a case to celebrate his 75th birthday.And when it was time to set a date in the construction defect case Michael Verna defended earlier this year, for example, Mitchell turned to the lawyers in the court — not his wall calendar.“He said, ‘You work it out, call my clerk and we’ll set a date,’” Verna, a Walnut Creek litigator, recalled.“It’s refreshing to have a judge who says, ‘OK, we’re done for the day,’ if a witness finishes earlier than expected,” Verna added. “He’s very informal.”Not surprisingly, not every attorney loves Mitchell’s looser style. One defense attorney, who requested anonymity, said Mitchell’s style left him with the impression that the judge was disorganized.While the defense lawyer’s point of view doesn’t seem to be broadly shared, even attorneys who say they appreciate Mitchell’s approach say they can see why it leaves others cold.“It was a matter of being taken aback at first by his casual demeanor, then once I got used to it, being very impressed,” says Constance McNeil, an associate with Lewis, D’Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard.Mitchell says his management style is deliberate.“I don’t think of myself as the boss,” he adds. “I think of myself as a bandleader. An important part of my job is to coordinate things and follow the rules. It’s not important for me to be in command the way a general is in command.”Attorneys on both sides of the bar do agree on one thing: that you’ll have to wait a little while for a ruling from Judge Mitchell.“If there is a negative,” agrees Verna, “it is that he is contemplative in his rulings. He takes his time to make a ruling.”“But it’s good,” Verna hastens to add, “because he’s weighing all sides.”

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