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COURT: San Francisco Superior APPOINTED: Elevated Aug. 25, 1993, by Gov. Pete Wilson DATE OF BIRTH: Oct. 9, 1945 LAW SCHOOL: Boalt Hall School of Law, 1970 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: San Francisco Municipal Court, 1992-1993 Driven and thorough, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Robert Dondero expects no less from the lawyers who appear before him. “You better be prepared, because he’s on top of everything,” says plaintiffs lawyer David Baum of San Francisco’s Baum & Blake. When a legal point arose in a medical negligence trial and there was no California authority, Baum said, lawyers brought up other case law. Dondero “read every case including the dissent, which is almost unheard of with other judges.” In the last dozen years, Dondero has served stints in criminal, civil and juvenile courtrooms. He supervised the criminal courts for about a year before arriving in his current civil trial department. As current assistant presiding judge, he is in line to be PJ next year. When the former prosecutor joined the bench, some defense lawyers wondered if he’d come down hard on them. But many lawyers on both sides of the bar say they’ve been pleasantly surprised, emphasizing Dondero’s fairness, sharp mind, and ability to get his arms around the law in criminal and civil cases. “His conduct and his talents as a trial attorney carried over to being a judge,” said Deputy Public Defender Daro Inouye, who remembers watching Dondero and Robert Podesta prosecute one of the city’s more high-profile murder cases. They won convictions in 1976 against four black men accused of killing several white people in the racially charged “Zebra” trial. But despite Dondero’s long history as a prosecutor, he hasn’t shown bias on the bench, Inouye said. Civil and criminal attorneys alike describe Dondero as an intellectual, known for looking beyond the arguments he’s given. “He knows the law inside out and will often have a motion or particular issue briefed better than the lawyers,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi. He’s been known to read the results of his research from the night before into the record, and “go on for five to 10 minutes,” said Paul Cummins, head of the DA’s criminal division. And if a lawyer hasn’t read a case thoroughly, they may hear Dondero inform them of another one that reversed or distinguished it, said Paul Smoot of San Mateo’s Anderlini, Finkelstein, Emerick & Smoot. Dondero said he doesn’t enjoy catching attorneys on a point they’ve missed, but “it pays to know what you’re talking about.” San Francisco solo Michael Burt, a former deputy public defender who successfully argued against prosecutors’ use of a certain DNA testing kit in a 1999 hearing before Dondero, says the judge’s writing is top-notch. He calls Dondero’s 17-page order in that case “one of the most scholarly pieces I’ve seen on DNA evidence.” Many lawyers say Dondero can come across as imposing on the bench, and sometimes stern, but some say the judge can be mellow and bare a sense of humor. “I think people are just intimidated by my size more than anything else,” says Dondero, who is 6 feet 7 inches tall. “He’s a man of few words compared to a lot of judges and a lot of lawyers,” said Paul Wolf, a criminal defense lawyer at Oakland’s Wolf & Babcock. “When he speaks, it’s concise.” In jury selection for a trial last week, one potential juror answered Dondero’s questions about a potential bias, then tried to offer a second reason he shouldn’t serve. “Let’s take it one at a time,” Dondero interjected. “I’m going to impose the agenda in this courtroom, not you.” But the judge also brought a moment of levity to the humdrum proceedings. While asking potential jurors rote questions, the judge asked one man what kind of law he practices. The potential juror answered, “I’m currently staff counsel with the Commission on Judicial Performance.” “Oh,” Dondero deadpanned, pausing for a beat before bursting into laughter along with the other lawyers in the courtroom. Though a majority of lawyers interviewed about Dondero give him high marks, he doesn’t escape criticism. Waukeen McCoy, of the Law Offices of Waukeen McCoy in San Francisco, thinks the judge favored his opponent in a highly publicized dispute with former co-counsel Angela Alioto, a civil rights attorney. The case is on appeal, McCoy said. Dondero declined to comment on that, noting that some issues in the case such as attorneys fees are pending before him. And Deputy Public Defender William Maas Jr. says he’s found Dondero unnecessarily rude at times, recalling one time he arrived late and the judge commented, “You better bring your checkbook next time.” But Maas stresses that, on balance, Dondero’s fairness and integrity far outweigh any shortcomings. “I would not hesitate to have a trial in front of him.” In response, Dondero said he has to be concerned with the operation of the court. Since his days at the Hall of Justice, he’s been known for getting an early start on the day and expecting lawyers to do the same. If a civil trial is at least two weeks long, Dondero said, he starts proceedings at 8:30 a.m. and goes straight to 1:30 p.m., so he can fit in substantial testimony, then let jurors go and give attorneys the afternoons to prepare. Dondero joined the San Francisco district attorney’s office out of law school in 1971, where he at one point led the sexual assault unit. In 1978, he moved on to the U.S. attorney’s office, where he prosecuted mainly white-collar crimes. “When you’ve tried cases so much in your career, becoming a judge is something you’re always interested in,” Dondero said.

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