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COURT: Santa Clara Superior ELECTED: Nov. 7, 2000 LAW SCHOOL: Santa Clara University School of Law, 1985 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: none Carrie Lee Bird is back in court. Bird has been caught with drugs — a relapse, and she’s now in custody. Bird explains to Judge Susan Bernardini that because of her ongoing cancer treatment, she can’t get enrolled in a drug rehabilitation program. “It’s been hard. I’ve really been trying,” Bird says. Bernardini listens. “OK, we are going to try and help you,” she says, explaining that the court will make some phone calls. “I think you need to be successful at something. I want you to get into that program and work hard and show you and show me.” As a longtime public defender who has worked in drug court, Bernardini has heard all the stories before. Her work with the drug court — including her knowledge of the law, local treatment programs and her ability to parse out the true struggles from the bull — is what lawyers say give her a leg up. “She takes her job very seriously,” said Deputy Public Defender Nicole Isger. “She feels responsible for knowing the [drug treatment] programs, knowing the system and knowing the law and making sure things are getting done in the courtroom.” Bernardini, who is in her mid-50s, was elected to the bench in 2000 in a runoff race. She’s one of a handful of defense attorneys that have become judges in Santa Clara in recent years, and her former colleagues in the defense bar say she adds balance to the bench. In May, Bernardini started taking felony drug court cases. Before that, she was assigned the misdemeanor drug court calendar. She spent her first year on the bench handling misdemeanors at the Hall of Justice. Bernardini is poised, decisive and smart, defense attorneys and prosecutors agree. “Susan Bernardini is one of the bright lights,” said San Jose defense attorney Allen Schwartz. But prosecutors grumble that she goes light on sentencing, although few are willing to discuss her on the record. San Jose defense attorney Gregory Alonzo said Bernardini is just fair. “It’s just refreshing she has made every attempt to be balanced but fair,” Alonzo said. Alonzo represented a defendant on trial for vehicular manslaughter in Bernardini’s courtroom. When it came time for sentencing, Alonzo said, the judge researched restitution and had lawyers brief the issue before making a decision. “She thought about it long and hard before she made a decision,” Alonzo said. “[The DA] was asking for anything they could get. Ultimately her sentence was about as much as the DA wanted, but I think she arrived at the decision fairly. Because there was ambiguity, it was a reasonable decision.” Bernardini also did some extra research before sentencing in an animal abuse case and spelled out her reasoning, said Schwartz. In that case a middle-aged woman convicted of abusing a dog was ordered to psychological counseling rather than jail. “Every time she gave you a ruling on something she gave you a reason why she ruled that way,” Schwartz said. “Judge Bernardini went out of her way to suit this particular defendant’s needs.” Deputy DA Carolyn Powell, who prosecuted the animal abuse case, declined to comment, but Deputy DA Lynn Knapp said Bernardini “hit the ground running” on Knapp’s pretrial calendar assignment. “She did a terrific job while she was on the bench. That isn’t to say we agreed on all issues. We have some things we disagree on,” Knapp said. “She’s fair. She’s a good judge. She’s a good listener. She’s not afraid to make a decision.” Since moving to drug court in November, Bernardini has developed a good rapport with the defendants whom she coaches through recovery. “She knows how to connect with my clients,” Deputy Public Defender Isger said. “For the most part, they really like her. They care what she thinks. They don’t want to disappoint her.” The judge poses for a Polaroid with defendants who have completed treatment and hangs the photos behind the bailiff’s desk. Dozens of success stories are on display there. “It’s amazing how it works,” Bernardini said. “They’ll say, ‘I will get my picture up there, judge.’ It’s motivating.” While Bernardini is empathic and knows drug recovery is not an “overnight success,” Isger says she’s no pushover. “If someone doesn’t want recovery, she is the judge and is there to sentence them.” — Shannon Lafferty

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