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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 Gail Dekreon, who is running against Susan Lew and Sean Connolly for seat No. 10, which is being vacated by Judge Douglas Munson. Recorder: Why should the voters choose you in this race? Gail Dekreon: I have been a practicing attorney for over 20 years. I’ve worked in both civil and criminal defense. I tried to do general practice when I started practicing. I did domestic relations and bankruptcy, immigration, contract disputes, personal injury. And I did criminal defense then, too. Then about eight, nine years ago I shifted my focus to strictly criminal defense, because it’s easier to practice in one area than many areas in a city this big, and I really enjoy going to court. I’ve also worked as a judge pro tem for 12 years, in San Mateo County and Alameda County … hearing small claims cases and traffic cases. Here in San Francisco I’ve worked as a pro tem for settlement conferences, cases that are set for jury trial the following week. And they’re usually cases from limited jurisdiction [court], and they’re usually unlawful detainer cases. And I’m happy to report I was able to settle all but maybe two. … So I have a lot of experience, not only as an attorney – I know the law – I have experience running a courtroom. I know what that’s like. I’ve always worked for myself. I’ve always been my own businesswoman, running my own practice, with employees, and the ups and downs of the economy, and hiring and firing employees. I know that aspect of life. And that is also part of running a courtroom, the administration of a courtroom. I’m the woman for the job. Recorder: Can you tell us about a San Francisco judge, either past or present, that you would like to emulate if you’re elected to the bench? Dekreon: I’d almost like to make a hybrid of judges. Probably if you’re going to hone it down to one certain judge it would be Herbert Donaldson, who retired a couple of years ago, but he is still pretty active as a retired judge. … First of all just because he has such a wonderful judicial temperament … demeanor. He just has a way about him when he’s running his courtroom, everybody gets relaxed. Even the most hot-headed attorneys or litigants, and he can get his courtroom running smoothly. … He was a municipal court judge, and retired just around the time of the consolidation. And so he got to train a lot of new attorneys, the new district attorneys, the new public defenders. And he really helped them a lot. There were people who had temperament issues, in my opinion, that came out of working in Judge Donaldson’s court with just a much better perspective. … And I admire him very much for that. Recorder: Can you talk about your civil experience, some of the large civil cases you’ve worked on. Dekreon: My practice is, I’m a neighborhood attorney. I’ve always been working for myself. My clients are regular people that are mostly working class, middle class kinds of people. Because I was a solo practitioner with a small practice, if I got one of those really big cases, in all fairness, I developed quite a network – do you hate that word? – of friends that would specialize in that particular area, like a products liability case or something, and would prefer to refer the case – or a tax case or something – than take on something that was bigger than I could chew. And sometimes I wouldn’t discover that until I’d actually worked into a case. I did do a third-party liability case – learned a lot about that – in Alameda County, and got defensed. But three people voted for me [laughs]. … Recorder: You’ve indicated that you’ve tried maybe 20 cases to a jury. Given how long you’ve been in practice, I’m surprised you haven’t had more. I’m wondering if you’ve had enough jury trial experience to step into a judicial role. Dekreon: I definitely have had enough jury trial experience. Being a litigator, a trial attorney, it’s not just actually going through the trial. That’s the part I like the best. It’s preparing the case – the client comes in the office, evaluating what this case is about, how far it can go, how far it can’t go – preparing the client, doing the discovery, bringing in experts, developing the testimony, bringing in witnesses. And whether it’s civil or criminal, all steps along the way, settlements are being thrown at you, negotiations are being thrown at you to try to resolve the case and not go through the time and expense of a jury trial. And I have notebooks of cases that I knew I was going to go trial on, and probably I think it’s a testament to my skills, that I got excellent deals that my clients didn’t want to turn down. Some of them were deals that my clients just didn’t have the time and money, they didn’t want to go on. I am a retained attorney. I don’t have the luxury of being a prosecutor or public defender or even a city attorney, I suppose, where they’re paying the freight and I’m a hired gun. My clients have to pay the whole thing. … That explains why I don’t have as many jury trials as a public defender, for instance. But I do have extensive jury trial experience compared to the majority of civil attorneys. Recorder: What was the most serious criminal trial that you’ve tried? Dekreon: I’ve had two murder trials. One, fortunately, the verdict was voluntary manslaughter. It was in juvenile court, and the child turned 17 shortly after the homicide occurred. We successfully kept it from going to adult court, and I associated a friend of mine that had more experience in murder trials. … And then with the same attorney I second-chaired a multiple defendant murder trial. Recorder: How about on your own? Dekreon: On my own I had a robbery, assault-with-a-deadly-weapon felony case. I had another, that one I knew was going to go to trial but he backed out at the last minute [laughs]. I had like seven trial notebooks ready for that one, which was like a drug dealer robbing drug dealers, a mask-on-the-face and that stuff. Recorder: Can you tell us about your management experience? Dekreon: The major complaint of most clients is that they can’t get hold of their attorney, communicate with their attorney. So I always thought it was important to have staff people. And staff people get paid first. And so I’ve always had one if not two … depending on how good the economy is and how good my business is going. I have had many interns or externs, law students or baby attorneys, new attorneys that wanted to get some experience. And I love mentoring and teaching. I’ve never tried teaching law school, but I’ve done plenty of that. … Recorder: Can you tell us one or two things you’ve learned about managing people? Dekreon: Listening to them, I think is a very big one. Some people are afraid to show their “ignorance,” and don’t want to ask a stupid question. I have found if I listen to them very carefully I can see … do they just need one direct answer or is the question they’re asking a roundabout way to get to something else. I’m a pretty accommodating person. I have a lot of patience and it takes a lot to push me over the edge, which I think is good for judicial temperament. And some people like to push that, especially with the woman boss. And I’ve gotten good at assessing that, looking out for that, and dealing with that. Recorder: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the San Francisco bench? Dekreon: I believe the biggest challenge for the San Francisco bench right now is this consolidation of the municipal and superior courts. It’s just a whole different way of running the court system. And probably the worst thing is that the municipal level clerks were non-union, and the superior court clerks were union, and now everybody has to be union. There’s resistance to that, there’s poor morale amongst some of them. People in the superior court have different training, skills and levels, and classifications, than the ones at the muni court level. That, I think, is the hardest thing the court is facing. Probably equally as hard is the fact that the consolidation did cause so many judges to retire rather than go on. We have a lot of open seats. We’ve brought in a lot of retired judges to cover things. But we’ve kind of got a backlog now. A lot of criminal cases are going to 400 McAllister for their trials, and that just pushes the civil cases further and further down the list. We’re up to 49 judges. Recorder: Can you talk a little about your experiences as a pro tem? How long have you been doing that? What are the most interesting things you’ve learned? Dekreon: I’ve worked as a pro tem for a little over 12 years on a volunteer basis. And I have accused the judges that have assigned me that they wait to get the worst cases [laughs] for me to come in. Because small claim cases and traffic cases, these are pro pers. Traffic court can have attorneys, small claims court cannot have attorneys. And people are pretty angry about their cases, and they take it very much to heart, and they don’t have an advocate who’s more calm to speak for them and present the case. It’s like a very bad relationship or marriage and it finally ends up in court, you’ve got both sides screaming and yelling. And I always start out saying, “No one’s going to talk out of turn. It’s your turn, then it’s your turn, everyone be quiet, let’s hear both sides. I used to make the decisions from the bench, because I thought they wanted the decisions right away. And after a few years, talking to other judges and other pro tems, decided it would be better to take more under submission. Because it is such a hot atmosphere. … Even a break just of 10 minutes to think about it before making a decision, because a judge is bombarded with the personalities and feelings of the litigants. … Recorder: Did you ever seek an appointment with Gray Davis? Dekreon: Yes, I filed an application for appointment when he first took the governor’s office. Recorder: Did you ever get any feedback about why he didn’t choose you? Dekreon: I got some feedback, some rumors. I know that he was filling other appointed positions and that judges positions were not a high priority for him. … And I know he’s basically a very conservative person. He wanted to make very careful appointments. He didn’t want to have any controversial appointments. Recorder: Why wouldn’t you fit that [criteria]? Dekreon: I’m not politically well connected. I’m not a major contributor. I’m a neighborhood, grass roots attorney. My community work has been with the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, with BALIF [Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom], with the Coalition on Homelessness, with various positions that might not be popular with someone of a more conservative viewpoint in life. Recorder: And what do you think about the process you’re going through now. What has it been like campaigning for judge, and do you think this is an appropriate way for the community to select judges? Dekreon: That question comes up a lot amongst the people in the community. … It’s such a unique opportunity. Because the appointment process can be long, and because we have a governor like who we do now who is not familiar with the Bay Area, he doesn’t know who the San Francisco attorneys are, for example, who’d be good candidates for a judicial seat. He needs to rely on his advisers, and his advisers are going to have agendas or biases. To have the opportunity to seek my election … the voters can see who these people are, ask those kinds of questions, “Why elect rather than appoint?” and “What makes you the good person?” … See them, shake their hand, talk to them, and get your own feel. … When you consider, of the 49 judges, only 14 are women. Most of the women, particularly of ethnic minority backgrounds, got there by election, not by appointment. With such a diverse city, it obviously is very important that this opportunity does come up every once in a while so that we aren’t top-heavy with straight white males. … Recorder: Looking back on your career, can you talk about a decision you regret, and how you learned from it? Dekreon: Just one? [laughter] I could talk in generalities. When I was first starting in practice and of course I wanted to survive and basically took any case that walked in the door, and then later on had regrets – this is not a very good case. And of course, every time it happened I learned from it. So that now, as a more mature practitioner, 48 years old and 20 years’ experience, I can tell when there’s a case that the client is going to cost more in time and emotions and money than a case is going to be worth. And so I have learned client control to a very great degree.

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