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COURT:Northern District of California APPOINTED:1994, by the judges of the Northern District. LAW SCHOOL:University of San Francisco AGE:49 Previous Judicial Experience: San Francisco Superior Court commissioner Maria-Elena James has 69 first cousins, so it comes as no surprise that her first stop as a judge was in family court. Seeking a greater variety of cases, she moved on from there to become a U.S. magistrate on the federal bench in San Francisco. But with her duties focused on discovery and settlement conferences, she can still see some pretty childish behavior. Nevertheless, performing the trick of getting adversaries to shake hands and walk out of court after a settlement conference is something she enjoys. “Because you get to talk to people and figure out what the problem is,” James said. “On a personal level I think people feel it’s the only time they get listened to.” James is well liked by those who work in federal court here. That she recently had her contract renewed (magistrates serve eight-year terms and are hired by the court) is a testament to that. “She does a great job of making everyone feel comfortable in the courtroom,” said defense attorney Edward Swanson of Swanson & McNamara. “She’s very personable with the defendants, which isn’t to say she can’t give a good lecture to a defendant — and she has.” The human touch is evident when James talks about dealing with cases. Her favorite part of the job is being able to talk to parties outside the formal courtroom setting, in settlement talks. There the parties open up and the heart of the case is revealed. “Any time you get something really personal to people, it’s the same,” she said. “It’s really about feeling some injustice was done to them.” Once people get a chance to make their case on a more personal level, resolving it gets easier. “You just have to figure out what’s really motivating them, because it’s rarely what’s in the papers,” James said. James learned a lot from family court, and it’s an education she’s carried to the federal bench. She said her desire to settle cases, for instance, is driven by her experience trying to fix broken families. “Once something went to trial in a family law case, there’s almost no way to repair it,” James said. Prior to coming to the federal bench, James — who is married to San Francisco Superior Court Judge Newton Lam — spent six years as a court commissioner. One of the things she sees happening among the bar is the erosion of civility. As she tells her students at Golden Gate University School of Law, where she teaches evidence, “It’s important to always maintain your reputation and integrity.” She has seen lawyers lose sight of that. “It get so personal. It gets personal and kind of ugly,” she said. Her demeanor is praised by those who have appeared before her, and James says she’s never totally lost her patience. “In five years of family law I never held anybody in contempt. I never had to.” This was despite having pushed the “panic button” several times when fistfights broke out, she said. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne Bouliane, a friend, pointed out that James is the eldest girl out of 10 siblings. “I just don’t think you can ever go in there thinking you’re going to put something over on her,” Bouliane said. “She’s heard everything.” James worked as a public defender and later prosecuted child abuse cases, so she’s been on both sides of the aisle in criminal law. Consequently, she is familiar with what defendants making their initial appearance in her courtroom are going through. But her first concern is about public safety. If the government is opposing a release, she wants to find out whether the defendant is likely to harm someone, and then she’ll assess the likelihood the defendant will flee. But she shows a softer touch than some judges. “Not knowing what’s going to happen next can be really frightening to them,” James said. “People should be treated with dignity.” You can order past judicial profiles of more than 100 Bay Area judges at www.therecorder.com/profiles.htmlor by calling 415-749-5523.

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