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Court: Contra Costa Superior Court Elected: June 7, 1994 Date of Birth: October 20, 1945 Previous Judicial Experience: Appointed to Walnut Creek-Danville Municipal Court by Gov. Deukmejian in 1985 Law Degree: LL.B., Golden Gate University School of Law, 1976 Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga is not rigid, attorneys say. In fact, they add, she likes humor and is very pleasant to lawyers and their clients. That said, lawyers almost universally gave the same advice to colleagues who find themselves in Department 2: “Don’t take her casually,” said Frank Stevens, a name partner at Walnut Creek’s Stevens, Drummond & Gifford who represents government agencies. “She’s a lady,” he explained. “Be respectful.” Zuniga declined to be interviewed for this story. Her decorum may come from her early days on the bench as a civil judge where attorneys and judges deal with one another from arm’s length. Or it may be a habit from her tenure at the more formal Walnut Creek courthouse. The soft-spoken jurist uses a microphone when she is on the bench, which also adds an official air, said Assistant Public Defender John Funk. “It’s quiet [in the courtroom] until she starts speaking,” he said. Attorneys also said Zuniga thoroughly weighs legal issues when she presides over a case. “She is not a shoot-from-the-hip person,” said Funk. “She is a deliberate lady; she wants to be prepared,” said Stevens, adding that Zuniga isn’t afraid to make a tough ruling. In one case before Zuniga, Stevens represented a school district that was sued by parents because it sent home two high school students for drinking alcoholic Irish coffee on a school trip to Germany. The students said they had ordered an alcohol-free drink but got one with liquor instead. Zuniga dismissed the case and ordered the parents to pay $60,000 in sanctions. Zuniga was a deputy DA for seven years before she became a judge, but defense attorneys will get a fair shot with her, Funk said. “She will thoroughly go through the legal issues and allow [attorneys] to do that orally if they have to,” he said. “She’s not looking at the clock.” That approach includes jury selection. Zuniga will prod jurors with questions to ensure that she and the lawyers are aware of any potential for bias. “Some would say that she is too ponderous or slow,” said Funk. However, “If you are a victim or a defendant, the deliberate approach is the one that people feel more satisfied about.” During the fall murder trial of a San Ramon woman who killed her husband after years of alleged abuse, the judge held several hearings to determine whether a jury should hear testimony about how long the woman’s attorneys were at the murder scene before police got there. Mary Ross, the defendant, called attorneys Harold Rosenthal and Theresa Gibbons before she called the police. The prosecutor alleged that the lawyers may have tampered with the murder scene. During the hearings, Zuniga expressed several times that she wanted to carefully examine the law on the issue and once pulled up a few legal reference tomes to the bench as she heard arguments. “The people have a due process right that has to be balanced against Mrs. Ross’ attorney-client privilege,” Zuniga said during one of the hearings. She eventually decided that the jury would not hear testimony about the attorneys’ actions. The defense won a victory on that issue, but as Ross tearfully testified about her stormy marriage, Zuniga gave Rosenthal several brusque warnings when she felt his questions pushed the envelope. Rosenthal asked if he could approach the bench to explain. “No,” she said without looking up from her computer. “Go on to another area.” Later, when Rosenthal asked his client about her husband’s legal woes, Zuniga was stern again. “You have been the subject of litigation,” Zuniga said, wagging her finger at the attorney. “Don’t open that door. I’m warning you.” The jury later convicted Ross of voluntary manslaughter. Although the judge treads carefully in the court, she made a shrewd gamble when she ran for a superior court seat after spending nearly 10 years on the municipal court bench. “Barbara would have been appointed over the years,” predicted Zuniga’s former election opponent, Michael Menesini, a San Francisco assistant DA. But getting a judicial appointment is a highly political process, he said. Before trial court unification, well-qualified people – including First District Court of Appeal Justice Mark Simons, who was a muni judge for 15 years – often waited a long time before a governor elevated them to superior court, Menesini, said. Menesini, Zuniga and then-Muni Judge Douglas Cunningham ran for retiring Judge Richard Arnason’s seat in 1994. Zuniga snared a little more than 50 percent of the vote and avoided a run-off. Other judges in Zuniga’s position would have waited rather than endure a potentially bruising three-way judicial race. Candidates “get out and meet the public and listen to voters’ concerns,” said Menesini, who is now running for district attorney in Contra Costa County. “It takes certain types of people” to do that. Now, Zuniga is a member of the California Judicial Council and often presides over Contra Costa’s high-profile criminal cases. “She is one of the better judges we have over here,” Funk said.

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