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Born: May 17, 1947Appointed: November 1995 to superior court by Gov. Pete WilsonPrevious work of note: Alameda County Municipal Court, 1989-1995.Law degree: Boalt Hall School of LawJudge Vernon Nakahara may well be the most gregarious judge on the Alameda County bench.He gabs with attorneys in his chambers before his calendar, talking sports or reminiscing about his days as a trial lawyer.He doesn’t believe in juror questionnaires, preferring instead to get to know jurors one by one.“He even likes defendants in his own odd sort of way — like if he ran into my client in the grocery store, I really think he’d stop to talk to him,” said one criminal defense attorney impressed with Nakahara’s cordiality.Nakahara concedes there may be more efficient ways to run a courtroom, but he maintains that taking extra time to get to know the people who come in and out every day is his preference and his style. And he says it’s a necessary trade-off to keep his department’s proceedings human — especially during voir dire.“I like to talk to people in general, and jurors are a captive audience,” jokes Nakahara. “I have a responsibility to pick a fair and impartial jury. I think you need to take the time to ask questions and talk to them. I get to know them better and the attorneys get to know them better.”Nakahara, whose ethnic origin is Hawaiian and Japanese and whose family members lived in an American internment camp during World War II, was born, raised and educated in Berkeley through law school. He spent 14 years as a prosecutor in Alameda County.Nakahara, who is a registered Democrat, first slipped on a black robe when he was appointed to the municipal court in 1989 by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian — it so happens, to fill the seat left vacant by his father-in-law, retired Judge James Walsh Jr.. And in 1995, Nakahara again turned heads when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson elevated him to the superior court.In his tenure on the bench, he’s heard criminal and civil trials as well as handled a master criminal calendar. In early 1998 he was tapped to help organize a master criminal calendar in Hayward to hear South County cases, and he presided over that calendar until being pulled back to Oakland this year to hear criminal jury trials.Some defense attorneys complain that Nakahara tends to rule very conservatively on motions, often denying defense motions to dismiss cases or strike priors from a defendant’s record. Nakahara appears to prefer putting the entire record out there for the jury to see.But others praise Nakahara for putting his people skills to work for the court and running a fair courtroom.“He does excellent voir dires of the juries, so jury selection is very good in his court,” said Morris Jacobson, a deputy district attorney. “And he’s a very patient and calm man.”A defense attorney, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that while Nakahara has earned a reputation as a judge who will fairly easily excuse a juror for hardship — which often excludes low-income residents or single moms — he is also very conscientious about biases.The attorney recalled how, during jury selection recently, a potential juror revealed that an acquaintance had been the victim of a crime. Nakahara took the time to discern whether the juror’s experience would result in bias, and in the end dismissed the juror.Nakahara, who notes with a glint of pride that he’s never been disqualified from a trial, says he tries to get along with all the players in his courtroom — and, of course, he expects the same from them. He likes attorneys to show honesty and a sense of humor. He expects them to come prepared, and he likes to see them use their heads for themselves.“Lawyers need to be more creative in the presentation of the evidence, which is really unlimited,” he said. “But the main thing is to be yourself. When you’re not, it shows through that it’s just an act.”

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