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COURT: Santa Clara County Superior DATE OF BIRTH: May 5, 1942 LAW SCHOOL: University of San Francisco School of Law APPOINTED: Elevated via court consolidation, 1998 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Santa Clara County Municipal Court, 1997 Judge Neal Cabrinha is the cowboy of Santa Clara County Superior Court. He’s spent two years herding thousands of limited liability civil cases — disputes worth less than $25,000. Each month, the county sees about 1,200 of the filings, which used to be called municipal court cases. Nearly 80 percent of them are collection matters. “These cases cry out for efficiency,” Cabrinha said. Lawyers say Cabrinha has answered that cry. Cases used to stack up because, as Cabrinha sees it, lawyers had too much control of the docket. “It was really the attorneys that were driving a case to trial,” he explains. Cases that weren’t destined for trial didn’t go anywhere. “Attorneys don’t have that luxury to run the cases now,” says the judge, who credits his predecessor, Kevin McKenney, with pushing Santa Clara’s lawyers out of the driver’s seat. Cabrinha’s formula: � Set trial dates early. “If I get both sides there at the first case management conference, I try to set a trial date for six months out,” Cabrinha said. � Push lawyers and cases into an early settlement program, where parties get three hours with a volunteer neutral for $150. “I think it’s part of the psychology of lawyers that it’s a sign of weakness to initiate settlement,” Cabrinha said. � Keep the lid on discovery — one deposition and 35 interrogatories per party, as per court rules. The result: “His efforts really unclog the trial calendar,” said San Jose solo practitioner Thomas Caudill. Attorneys tip their hats to Cabrinha, saying he enforces his rules in a reasonable way. He takes seriously attorney feedback, and his mellow personality works on an assignment that has left others gnashing their teeth. “He’s gentlemanly,” said San Jose attorney Christopher Rudy, a partner with Stenberg, Sunseri, Roe, Pickard & Rudy. “He’s got a very good judicial temperament.” “The nature of the job is that you get very cranky,” said Amy Carlson of San Jose’s Pedersen, Siehl & Brodies, but “he has not been like that.” Carlson said she and other insurance defense lawyers often have been pulled into a case late, just before trial. Cabrinha was sympathetic. “He has a very rigid schedule for how they set trials,” she said. But “he is now giving us six months after we answer the complaint.” Cabrinha said he altered his policy in an effort to be fair. Also, Cabrinha understands that lawyers are parents and spouses. “When I went on maternity leave, he was very gracious about setting trials out so I wouldn’t be bombarded when I came back,” Carlson said. On Carlson’s birthday, Cabrinha’s clerk handed out cupcakes. Another time, he let her toddler tour his chambers. Cabrinha’s job isn’t all administrative. He also handles law and motion for the limited civil docket, as well as parking ticket challenges one day a week. He used to handle the court’s civil discovery calendar, where lawyers say he was willing to award sanctions. But mostly, he pushes parties to work disputes out amicably. Attorneys say Cabrinha isn’t one to read between the lines. “He is a literal interpreter of the law,” Carlson said. “If you spell it out for him, he’ll take that.” “If there’s an absolute clear summary judgment motion, you’ll get it,” Caudill said. “If there’s any question of fact, you probably won’t. Some plaintiffs lawyers say he leans a bit toward the defense. But Cabrinha said he brings the same critical eye that jurors bring to limited personal injury cases without significant property damage or injury. “Juries just don’t like these cases. They treat them very conservatively,” Cabrinha said. “I probably do have a conservative approach to cases. I probably think some of those cases don’t warrant high awards because I’ve been exposed to cases that merit high rewards.” But Rudy points out that before joining the bench in 1997, Cabrinha oversaw binding arbitrations and had a solid reputation in the plaintiffs bar. “Many plaintiffs attorneys I know were willing to have him hear cases as a trier of fact.” Attorneys say Cabrinha has been successful at bringing parties into chambers and settling cases himself. But Cabrinha says he’s doing that less these days. “We really prefer the best offers to be made in front of the pro tems. We don’t want the pro tems to be warm-ups,” Cabrinha said. Cabrinha starts a third year as limited liability case manager this week. He says he’s keeping the assignment because he enjoys seeing a lot of attorneys and “it makes me feel productive.” As for the autographed 8-by-10 photo of state Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin in his chambers, Cabrinha says he and Chin were roommates at the University of San Francisco Law School.

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