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COURT: San Francisco Superior ELECTED: June 5, 1990 DATE OF BIRTH: Nov. 10, 1947 LAW SCHOOL: Boalt Hall School of Law, 1977 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None About two months before San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens took the reins for a two-year stint as presiding judge, she predicted one of her biggest challenges: finding ways to make the court more efficient while dealing with budget constraints. Now, many lawyers and judges say the state budget’s trickle-down effect on local courts has tested — and proved — her administrative acumen. And she can’t slow down now. As Hitchens heads into her second year as PJ, she faces a budget forecast at least as gloomy as 2003′s. She will need to muster all of her skills to keep the court not only moving forward, but afloat. Since assuming the PJ’s post in January, Hitchens has “done an incredibly effective job negotiating the shoals of budget cuts,” said Keker & Van Nest partner Jon Streeter, the new president of the Bar Association of San Francisco. And she hasn’t stuck with the status quo. Hitchens has gained a reputation as a visionary and diplomat, with more than a little political aplomb. When Hitchens assumed the PJ job, California was in the midst of the worst budget crisis in state history. In San Francisco, the resulting hiring freeze has left the court down roughly 30 employees from a staff of about 550. “She stepped in at a time when the budget crisis in Sacramento crashed down,” said civil attorney Jeffrey Bleich, immediate past president of BASF and a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson. Even in the thick of the crisis, he notes, Hitchens opened the ACCESS center, a multilingual resource center for pro per litigants. Hitchens gets the most praise, though, for what she hasn’t done. While Los Angeles County courts resorted to layoffs, San Francisco’s superior court, like those in some other counties, has been able to cope by trimming hours at civil filing windows and civil courtrooms, and offering voluntary furloughs. “She’s certainly been tested in ways that other PJs have not been,” said Judge Kevin McCarthy. Since taking the bench in 1991 — she unseated Judge Jerome Benson in an election in June 1990; he later was reappointed to the bench by Gov. Pete Wilson — the former civil litigator has rotated through the court’s civil and criminal courtrooms. But she’s widely identified with her work in the juvenile and family divisions. The year she graduated from law school, Hitchens, openly a lesbian, founded the Lesbian Rights Project, a public interest firm that later became the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She also worked part time at Equal Rights Advocates, a firm specializing in gender-based discrimination cases. In the 1980s she became a staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, then co-founded a private plaintiffs practice focused on civil rights and constitutional law. While assigned to family court, she led the charge to unify the juvenile and family divisions to create the Unified Family Court, in part, she said, because the two divisions handled overlapping cases but didn’t communicate well. “There would be a kid in juvenile court being released to a parent who had a stay-away order, because nobody knew.” When the UFC was created, Hitchens became its supervising judge. In that position, she spearheaded the creation of a juvenile domestic violence court. In her role as PJ, Hitchens’ decisions touch each court division. Michael Kelly, of personal injury firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, Wecht & Schoenberger, says many civil attorneys were anxious when they heard the court planned to cut back the hours of most civil courtrooms and filing windows on Wednesday afternoons. “Everybody thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what is this going to do?’” Kelly said. “Now that word has spread to all the local counsel, I haven’t heard a peep of concern or criticism.” Though grappling with surgical budget cuts, Hitchens has pushed for other changes, often with an eye toward increased efficiency. In July, she split up and expanded the city’s adult domestic violence and drug courts, assigning each its own department and jurist so they could take on more cases. The expanded drug treatment court absorbed Proposition 36 cases, which were previously assigned to any available misdemeanor department. The expanded drug court can keep better track of Prop 36 cases and get relapsed defendants back on track quickly, said Judge Susan Breall, who presides there. Breall also praises Hitchens for widening the lines of communication with “coffee klatches.” Hitchens began visiting the city’s court facilities in the spring to update staff members on budget developments. When her visits were well received by employees, she said, she decided to make them on a regular basis so that court employees could ask questions or raise complaints. Now she brings doughnuts once a month to either the civil, criminal or juvenile court facilities for “Breakfast with the PJ.” Lawyers on both sides of the criminal bar praised Hitchens’ collaborative style when she had to handle an unexpected problem with Pitchess motions, which criminal defense lawyers routinely file to obtain information about an arresting officer’s prior misconduct. When an estimated 3,500 Pitchess motions filed between 1997 and 2002 were called into question early in 2003 — the police department acknowledged it hadn’t included certain personnel files for review — Hitchens convened a committee with representatives from the public defender and district attorney’s offices, as well as the police department, criminal courts and private defense bar. “She’s the type of judge who likes to convene everybody, roll up your sleeves and get to a solution quickly,” said Paul Cummins, head of the DA’s criminal division. The PJ ultimately hired a special master to investigate the old motions and is sending all future ones through one commissioner so that they will be handled consistently, she said. While building consensus, the PJ displays a grasp of courthouse politics, said Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “She knows how to accomplish her agenda without making people feel that their input isn’t incorporated,” he said. “She’s very politically astute.” As one example, he describes how Hitchens built consensus before changing the way misdemeanor arraignments are assigned. Under the previous PJ, Judge Ronald Quidachay, all misdemeanor arraignments were assigned to one department. Hitchens returned to divvying the arraignments up among trial departments. When she met with stakeholders to discuss that change, Adachi said, Hitchens also broached the subject of creating the expanded drug treatment court. “Most people would just focus on one [issue],” Adachi said. “When you focus on two things like that, you’re able to engender more cooperation.” Hitchens didn’t think of it that way at the time, she said. “But if it worked, I’m delighted.” Hitchens also stepped into court with a bogged down criminal calendar. The Recorder reported in January that about 760 felonies and 1,700 misdemeanors were awaiting trial. Though Hitchens has taken steps to put a dent in the backlog, the issue is likely to dog her second year as well. Cummins of the DA’s office says it’s “extremely helpful” that the PJ has offered Judge Kay Tsenin, who supervises the criminal division, the opportunity to use civil judges for criminal assignments when they’re available. When ex-Gov. Gray Davis filled the bench’s remaining vacancies this fall, he met San Francisco’s need for more judges — but exacerbated its courtroom shortage, Hitchens said. The struggle to find a courtroom for every judge now, she said, is like “nailing Jell-O to a tree.” She hopes the court can eventually open two more criminal hearing courtrooms if it moves the traffic division to the auxiliary facility on Polk Street, though she still needs to secure permission to use money from a courthouse construction fund for the project. In the meantime, court officials hope a new criminal jury trial courtroom will be built by mid-year in a former clerk’s office in the Hall of Justice. Hitchens also hopes to expand the behavioral health court developed by Judge Tsenin earlier this year to assign defendants with severe mental health issues to treatment programs. It uses incentives such as reduced charges and sanctions to encourage progress. The state’s tight purse strings pose a challenge, Hitchens acknowledges, but she says the court may be able to pull in grants or donations. “I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility.” In an effort to grease the cogs over at the civil courthouse, Hitchens says she hopes to increase the number of single-assignment cases. Master calendar cases there go to different judges for discovery motions, pretrial motions and trial. Hitchens plans to partner with the local bar to let civil litigators know they can move to have one judge hear their case all the way through. A single judge, with more control, may be able to decrease the number of motions and manage discovery disputes, Hitchens contends. And, the PJ said, she’d like to get a better handle on asbestos cases, of which there are “just enormous numbers.” Because asbestos trials typically last three months, the court may have to call hundreds of jurors just to find the dozens needed for voir dire, said Judge Ernest Goldsmith, who has presided over several asbestos cases, and sometimes that effort’s wasted. “We frequently go through 300 jurors to get 60 for a jury pool, and then the case settles.” And the city’s jury pool is so small, some jurors have told him they had been called in every year for three years, he added. Hitchens started sending asbestos cases headed for trial to an additional mandatory settlement conference about four months ago, to mixed reviews. Plaintiffs attorney Stephen Tigerman’s firm has taken part in four or five of those settlement conferences. Its lawyers have settled cases against “an occasional defendant,” he said, but there are typically several more defendants left. “Not every case settles in its entirety,” said Judge Goldsmith, but the additional judicial intervention has promoted more settlements. “And there’s also an assessment by the settlement judge as to trial readiness.” Hitchens is optimistic about making even more improvements to the San Francisco court in her second year, though she expects similar, or worse, budget constraints. “We don’t anticipate any improvement.”

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