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This week The Recorder is giving San Francisco’s judicial candidates an opportunity to speak to our readers in their own words. Today we present Sean Connolly, who is running against Gail Dekreon and Susan Lew for seat No. 10, which is being vacated by Judge Douglas Munson. Recorder: Why should the voters choose you in this race? Sean Connolly: The voters should choose me because they should want someone who has the depth and breadth of experience in a variety of matters to be good, impartial and fair, because of that experience. In this candidate you have someone that has practiced in the trenches of the criminal courts — as a public defender for almost seven years. [Someone who] has represented the interests of law enforcement, both as the [Police Officers Association] lawyer and when I first started my career prosecuting cases in Alameda County as a law clerk. And now in the trenches of the civil arena as a deputy city attorney. That experience is unique among all the candidates in all the races. It’s a background that has allowed me to handle the most serious types of criminal cases. When I left the public defender’s office I was a felony trial lawyer handling homicide cases, Three Strike cases, violent felonies, serious felonies. In my first year as a public defender, I tried almost 20 cases. By the time I left the office I’d tried almost 50 cases. I’ve tried over 50 cases, including civil and criminal cases. I’m the only candidate that’s tried cases … also in the federal courts. And that ought to mean something to the voters, because a trial court judge ultimately does just that: try cases. And that person has to know something about what is at stake for litigants who appear before that tribunal. … Recorder: Both your opponents have done some pro tem judging. They say that’s given them some experience for the judicial role. Have you done any of that? Connolly: When I was a law clerk in the district attorney’s office in Alameda County, I did some mediating — citation hearings. When I was at the POA I mediated a different variety of complaints against police officers and citizens in a form that was outside of any legal setting. Yeah, I’ve done that. Recorder: Have you done any for the court? Connolly: I am on the BASF list for — I can’t remember what they call it — I’m on the list of mediators or settlement judges. I think for people to go around calling themselves judge pro tem is slightly disingenuous. In legal circles most people know all that’s required to be a “judge pro tem” is five years of experience and you go sign up on a list somewhere. To go around touting yourself using that moniker to people outside the legal arena I think is misleading. Because the reality is, and most lawyers know this, you might get called once every three or six months to basically sit in a room on jury trial day and try to hammer out a minor dispute between two litigants whose lawyers couldn’t figure out how to do it for themselves. That is not what is important to this position. The court has lots of avenues set up to try to mediate disputes in an alternative way. The bottom line is those matters that end up in court need to be tried by people who understand really what’s at stake in the courtroom. Have a working knowledge of the Evidence Code, have a working knowledge of criminal procedure, of civil procedure, and a good understanding of what the substantive law is in those areas. And that’s what’s important, and that is what differentiates me from my opponents. Recorder: Could you give us a sense of the kinds of cases you work on at the city attorney’s offices? Connolly: I am a principal trial lawyer in the litigation unit on one of the trial teams. I handle the difficult cases that the city has to defend when the city gets sued. My primary area of practice is defending police officers charged with civil rights violations in federal court. Those tend to be the most serious cases, those tend to be the most politically sensitive cases, those tend to be the most emotionally sensitive cases. They also tend to have, because of the way the laws are set up, extremely high downside if you lose those case. I’ve handled wrongful death cases for the city. I’ve handled garden variety negligence cases. When you’re in the litigation unit of the city attorney’s office you handle basically everything that comes through the door. And there’s quite a variety of cases that come through the door, because lots of people sue the city. … Recorder: Is there a judge on the San Francisco bench, past or present, that you would like to emulate? Connolly: Yes. There are a lot of good judges in San Francisco. … There are some judges that I respect that come immediately to mind that I would like to emulate in many ways. I think Donna Hitchens is one of them. The thing about Donna Hitchens is her innate sense of fairness and what is right, which I’ve learned to respect appearing before her. Judge [James] McBride, for his common sense and pragmatic understanding of what needs to happen in a court and how to move cases through the courtroom. Judge [Robert] Dondero is a great judge, because he understands the law. He understands what is at stake for the litigants who appear before him. He’s not afraid to make the right decision. Judge [Richard] Kramer. He’s smart, hard working. Those are the types of attributes I admire and I would like to emulate if I’m elected. Recorder: What’s the single worst sin a judge can commit on the bench? Connolly: Being disingenuous. Recorder: For example … Connolly: Allowing an outcome that there’s little rationale to be at. Not doing what would really be the natural thing to do under the circumstances, which is simply understanding the facts and applying the law. … And up there and intertwined with that is a judge that won’t listen to one side or the other, or both. Because a judge has to be informed. A judge needs to educate herself or himself either through the lawyers or otherwise. … Recorder: One of your opponents in this race says she would bring more ethnic diversity to the bench. Another says she would bring more gender diversity and more sexual orientation diversity to the bench. Do you have any response to that? Connolly: My response is there’s a time and a place for politics, but compromising the bench — the bench cannot suffer mediocrity for the sake of politics. What’s important is that the person who brings the most qualifications to that role be the judge, whoever it is. Qualifications, I understand, take on different forms. But the judicial arena is the one arena that you do not want influenced by politics and special interests and single-issue politics. It compromises the integrity of the court. … Recorder: Did you seek an appointment from the governor, and if so do you have any inkling as to why you weren’t appointed? Connolly: Never sought it. Recorder: Why not? Connolly: Was I required to? Recorder: No, but you want to be a judge, and by far the most appointments get made through the governor. Connolly: I guess that’s a — I hadn’t thought about that too much. But I think, there is a — my understanding is — I will seek an appointment at some point if I’m not elected. But what is I think inviting about trying to be elected is that you know what your constituency is. You know that you’re relying on voters. And you know there’s a time and a place that you’ll find out whether you become a judge. There’s a definitive period of time between the time that you file and the date of the election. … The thing about the appointment process is that in its own way it’s just as political as this process, in a different way, albeit. There just didn’t seem any reason not to try to get elected as a way to the bench. Recorder: Do you have any management experience? Supervised people? Connolly: Yeah. As a public defender I was a supervisor of a courtroom. As you become more senior in a public defender’s office, you start to manage lawyers younger than you and newer than you in particular courtrooms. … As general counsel for the POA, I was in charge of all the outside litigation, managing the lawyers … managing the representatives on the board. There are roughly 28 that provide union representation to rank and file. I was in charge of coordinating them, training them, educating them on changes in the law that affect employment relations. … Recorder: Can you tell us what is the biggest or the most challenging case you’ve tried to a jury? Connolly: I think the biggest and most challenging case has always been one of two cases. One, where the person you believed [was] innocent. Or two, where the stakes if you lose are dramatic. I’ve tried several cases where there were strikes alleged, and I’ve handled many, many more where felonies were alleged with serious felony histories for that defendant. But you have to make some really, really, really hard decisions, either in the course of litigating the case or the course of trying the case, about what to do. It’s very hard to represent someone you think is innocent, because the effects of losing are devastating, emotionally for you, but more importantly to your client. Same with trying a case where the exposure is really high. It’s very hard on a simple dope case to go to trial where the offer might be one year in the county jail or 16 months [in] state prison, where if you lose, the minimum sentence is going to be 20 years. … The other cases that have been a challenge are representing police officers involved with civil rights violations, again because the stakes are so high for everyone involved. There’s usually a lot emotionally invested in those cases on both sides, and they just tend to be very sensitive cases. … Recorder: Given those types of tough cases, can you tell us about a decision you may have made that you now think was the wrong one, and what it might have taught you? Connolly: There aren’t many decisions I can think of that I have regret over. Being a public defender, or representing police officers or representing anyone, especially when their jobs or their livelihood or their freedom is at stake, and you do it on a regular basis, you learn to make very careful decisions about what you do. Because the worst thing you can in that situation is regret making a decision. Oftentimes that is the barometer, you say to yourself, “If I make this decision will I regret it?” … I imagine there are certain strategical things I may regret. Maybe I should have called this witness first, maybe I should have asked this question at trial, or maybe I should not have asked that question. … Those are more trivial, less significant. In many ways, the hard decisions your clients make. There’s nothing for you to regret. They make the hard decisions whether they want to plead guilty to something they think they didn’t do, whether they want to go forward and go to trial. … So yeah, there’s nothing that sticks out as a regrettable decision. Are you thinking of something in particular? Is there a certain hypothetical? Recorder: No. We’re wondering if you have a particular decision [that you regret]. Connolly: No, there’s no case that I feel like I should have tried and didn’t try, [or] tried but shouldn’t have tried. … I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been largely successful in all the cases I’ve tried. Recorder: You were largely successful in the public defender’s office, in terms of getting acquittals? Connolly: Yeah. Absolutely. Recorder: What kind of rate did you have? Connolly: Well, we don’t keep formal records on our win/losses. But I know that of all the cases I tried about two-thirds walked out of the courtroom. And I don’t mean convicted on lesser charges, I mean they were acquitted of everything. Or there was a hung jury – something short of a conviction on anything. I can tell you also as a public defender, especially if you try a lot of cases, you’re going to lose some cases. It’s just the nature of the system. … Recorder: Something your opponents have talked about a lot is their judicial temperament — the life experiences they bring with them that will make them compassionate, or insightful, or give them the depth that people would want on the bench. Can you talk about that as far as you’re concerned? Connolly: I think those things have bearing and are relevant. I mean, I have life experiences just like everyone in this room. Mine are different of course. I can tell you what my life experiences are. I grew up in Berkeley, the son of two hippies, one of whom became a socialist, the other became a Republican. I went away back east to college after being recruited to play ice hockey. I think growing up in Berkeley in the ’60s is unique that none of my opponents can claim. I think growing up in the kind of environment that I grew up in in Berkeley, which is a very multicultural, accepting, open, politically progressive environment that – you grow up in that environment, and you’re cultivated by that environment, and you learn to understand lots about people different from yourself.

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