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COURT: Contra Costa Superior APPOINTED: Appointed in 1987 by Gov. George Deukmejian. Elevated by trial court unification in 1998 DATE OF BIRTH: Feb. 28, 1940 LAW SCHOOL: San Francisco Law School PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Municipal court, Walnut Creek, Danville District. Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Merle Eaton has seen the law from all the angles. He’s walked the beat as a Berkeley cop, prosecuted Contra Costa cases for more than a decade, and has 17 years of bench experience under his belt. “I’ve had a chance to view the system from different perspectives,” the Walnut Creek supervising judge told a jury during a recent court break. “There are flaws in the system but it’s the best system that we’ve got.” Eaton declined to be interviewed for this story. Though he began his career in law enforcement, as a judge he’s extremely even-handed, said Douglas Warrick, a former alternate defender now in private practice. “He’s one of the most studiously fair judges as far as preliminary hearings and trials,” said the Byers, Bell & Warrick partner. “He’s right down the middle.” But defense attorneys offer a word of caution: Once a defendant is convicted, Eaton is a tough sentencer. In fact, he gave out one of the longest municipal court sentences ever meted out by a Contra Costa County judge. In 1998, Eaton sentenced Vernon Rhodes to 9 1/2 years in jail for stalking his ex-wife. Rhodes had been convicted of stalking in 1995 and 1996, but continued to call her sometimes, up to 50 times a night. Eaton sentenced Rhodes to 19 consecutive six-month sentences ��– six months for each jailhouse letter that he sent his ex-wife in 1995. Attorneys say that Eaton is also tough on defendants who violate probation. Recently, Eaton made that clear to a defendant who pleaded guilty to alcohol-related reckless driving mid-trial. The defendant faced a more severe drunk driving charge if the case had proceeded. “Let me tell you something,” Eaton said, peering at the defendant. “You got the break of the day for various reasons. Don’t come back to me with a violation of probation. You don’t want to see what happens to you.” Prosecutors don’t get special treatment– Eaton has put the DA’s office in the hot seat too. In early 2002, Eaton tossed out three cases on 1118.1 motions, meaning that he dismissed the case before the jury could decide because there wasn’t enough evidence to convict. The rulings were an embarrassment to the Contra Costa DA’s office �� usually judges issue one or two such rulings every few years. The rulings also turned up the heat on DA Robert Kochly, who then was the No. 2 in the office and was running for DA. While prosecutors disagree with the rulings, one deputy DA says Eaton’s opinions are well respected. “It was a swift kick in the pants for us,” said Deputy DA Charles Huang who was working at the Walnut Creek courthouse at the time. Many rookie DAs and PDs try thier first cases at the Walnut Creek courthouse. Eaton’s by-the-book courtroom style helps less experienced attorneys learn the ropes, said Deputy District Attorney Christopher Walpole, who has been with the DA’s office for a year and a half. “He runs a really tight ship, so you know exactly what to expect,” Walpole said, noting that Eaton is tough on attorneys when they don’t lay a foundation. “It makes you dot all of your i’s and cross your t’s,” he said. While Eaton comes across as stern and formal on the bench, the judge is willing to give helpful feedback to attorneys after the case is over, Walpole said. “I always walk away learning something,” added Huang. There are other signs that Eaton has a softer side. Although Eaton declined to be interviewed, the judge chatted warmly with a reporter and showed off the cheery collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia he keeps in his judge’s chambers. Even the clock at the back of the courtroom has two black paper plates behind it, transforming it into a silhouette of the famous mouse. And after that DUI trial ended with a plea agreement, Eaton went out of his way to explain to the jurors — who had sat through two days of testimony — what had happened. He explained that one of the jurors no longer lived in the county and shouldn’t have been empaneled. That and evidence problems prompted the DA to offer a deal on a lesser charge, he said. The judge chatted with the jurors for several minutes, answering questions about the case. “I’m not going to hide the ball from you,” the judge said, adding that the jury should not feel as if their time was wasted. “Believe me, you have been a very important part of this process,” he said. 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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