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A group of tenant lawyers and activists say they’ve had it with Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Richman. Today, a group that includes the Oakland Tenants Union, the Eviction Defense Center and the Campaign for Renters Rights plans to hand Superior Court Presiding Judge Harry Sheppard a petition with 2,500 signatures asking to have Richman reassigned. They argue that Richman is biased in favor of landlords and makes it easier for them to evict tenants. Richman is the only judge who regularly hears north county law and motion, so tenants have few other options, lawyers argue. “Our clients don’t have the resources to appeal if they get screwed,” said Anne Omura, an attorney who is the director of the Eviction Defense Center and who coordinates the East Bay Tenants Bar Association. In an interview, Richman seemed caught off guard by the complaints. “I don’t know what the facts are, so I can’t comment,” the judge said, later adding that it’s “flatly false” that he frequently sides with landlords in eviction cases. Tenant attorneys have a list of grievances, but many complaints center on evictions. Many tenants are unaware that they have five days to respond to unlawful detainer suits. If they don’t, landlords can request a default, which clears the way for them to evict the tenant within days. Previously, other judges often allowed tenants with a good excuse to miss the deadline and would set aside the default. But Richman does not, the petition group says. “If you don’t get that [default] set aside, you’re finished,” said John Murcko, an Oakland tenant attorney who supports the petition. “You don’t get your day in court.” After Judge Richman was assigned to law and motion, Omura said, she noticed that Richman’s tentative rulings included tips to landlords on how they could strengthen their legal briefs. “It’s basically free legal advice,” she said. Richman is getting a bad rap, landlord attorneys say. Tenant attorneys are longing for the municipal court days when harried judges frequently set aside defaults, they say. “In my opinion, he calls them the way that he [sees] them,” said Alameda landlord attorney Don Kirby, who said he has handled 15,000 evictions in the past 30 years. “The fact of the matter is that defaults are usually set aside on the tenant’s say-so.” Another Alameda landlord attorney, Bruce Reeves, says he has lost default motions before Richman. It’s all a matter of perception, he said. “When you work one side of the fence over and over again you always feel that your side is not getting a break.” One landlord attorney, who wished to remain anonymous, speculated that the petition could be pure strategy. The reassignment flap may allow the tenant attorneys to claim that they can’t appear before Richman anymore because they were part of the petition drive. Omura said it was unlikely that the tenant bar would use the petition to disqualify Richman in future cases. An attorney who signed the petition would be one of 2,500 signatures, so unless Richman showed that he had memorized the entire list, it would be hard to claim that he was strongly biased against one of them in particular. Richman was appointed to the bench by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996 after litigating insurance, probate, in-house and appellate issues at Cooley Godward for 30 years. He has served as a temporary judge for the state appellate courts and has applied for a First District Court of Appeal position. Tenant lawyers said it would be impractical to remove Richman from their cases by using a peremptory challenge. A pro per may not be sophisticated enough to challenge the judge. And an experienced attorney wouldn’t want to waste his or her only challenge on a law-and-motion issue and not have it available for the trial judge. But if there were a truly egregious legal error, there are plenty of tenant attorneys who could do a pro bono appeal, said Emeryville landlord attorney Susan Luten. “I have been doing this for 20 years, and Judge Richman is the best,” Luten said. One tenant attorney said she sympathized with the petition group, but says she has no problems with the judge. “In my opinion, Judge Richman may believe landlords more than tenants when there is a credibility issue,” said Laura Lane, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center. But, she added, “He applies the law fairly.” Part of the issue may lie in Richman’s bedside manner. During oral arguments, Richman is known to fire questions at attorneys and come down hard on weak arguments. That may make defeat more painful for pro per tenants or for renters’ attorneys, some speculated. Luten, a landlord attorney who said she had been on the receiving end of some of Richman’s bluntness, put it this way: “Judge Richman doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and I would say that he doesn’t suffer fools at all.” That said, dealing with brusque judges is part of a lawyer’s job, landlord attorney Kirby argued. “The judge is under no obligation to butter them up or let them go easy,” he said.

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