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COURT: Santa Clara County Superior APPOINTED: 1999 DATE OF BIRTH: Dec. 25, 1952 LAW SCHOOL: Santa Clara University School of Law, 1977 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: none LOS GATOS — Commissioner Deborah Ryan serves out justice on the run. As Santa Clara County Superior Court’s roving commissioner, one morning she’ll be filling in for a vacationing judge handling misdemeanor pretrials at the Hall of Justice. By mid-afternoon, she’s popped over to Los Gatos for her regular small claims calendar. The next day finds her in traffic court. “It’s a little different,” Ryan said. “I have a little bag in my car with an extra name sign and my robe.” She also totes around a “binder of life” — bail tables, her arraignment speech and tip sheets that guide her through a variety of calendars. Ryan, 51, started as a deputy public defender in 1977, right out of law school. She moved to the county counsel’s office and worked for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority before being hired as one of 10 court commissioners in 1999. She and Commissioner Gregory Saldivar each take year-long turns serving as the traveling commissioner, but she does have the regular small claims calendar and a once-a-week stint in traffic court. “Deborah slips right in like she’s been doing it her whole life,” said Deputy DA John Schon, who handles misdemeanor pretrials. “There’s no drop-off when Deborah comes to court. She’s solid.” Schon said it’s hard to rattle Ryan. “She’s not very excitable,” Schon said. “She’s even-keeled.” That, lawyers say, is what make her effective as a substitute and as a small claims judge, where litigants represent themselves. “She is better than some of the judges I won’t bother to name,” said Santa Clara Deputy Public Defender Benjamin Reese. “She moves the calendar right along. She knows what she is doing.” On a recent Wednesday morning, Ryan was in San Jose filling in for assigned Judge Robert Ahern on a misdemeanor pretrial calendar, taking pleas and handing down sentences to guilty pleaders. A defendant who had missed his hearing to reschedule his weekend work for drunken driving, straggled in just before lunch. A bench warrant had already been issued, but after hearing the man explain he’s had problems with San Jose’s unreliable bus service, Ryan agreed to rescind the warrant and hear him out. “I’ll give you another chance,” Ryan said. Attorneys said one of Ryan’s strengths is that she isn’t easily irritated and doesn’t let her own personal leanings color her decisions. “Some judges have offenses that are their pet peeves. She treats everyone the same across the board,” said Reese. Reese said Ryan is also savvy enough to double-check when attorneys push for deals or agreements that they say were approved on the regular judge’s watch. “There are some people who try to do that,” Reese said. “I don’t think anyone could get away with it with her.” An hour later, Ryan is in Los Gatos to hear her regular small claims calendar. Attorneys aren’t allowed in small claims, which often means Ryan is the only person in the courtroom who knows anything about the law. Damages are limited to $5,000, but litigants come in with a host of legal questions and scores to settle. Ryan said she sees everything from employment suits for a hostile work environment to suits under the Telecommunications Act for junk faxes. But most of the cases center around auto accidents or collections. Ryan explained to one plaintiff that he incorrectly sued the salesperson when he needed to sue the business. “If you are dealing with the corporation, you have to sue the corporation,” Ryan explained. She directs him to contact the secretary of state to determine whom to serve. Ryan said that because she’s dealing with nonlawyers, she tries to explain the law and figures out ways to say everything in triplicate. After a plaintiff agreed to dismiss one defendant from a fender-bender case, Ryan said, “It’s dismissed with prejudice. That means you can’t file it against him again.” She looked up from her paperwork: “He’s out of the picture.” She explained to another plaintiff that he couldn’t ask for lost wages after an auto accident if he wasn’t working in the first place. Ryan said the key is to “never let it get out of control.” “The worst is when they start interrupting people,” she said. She credits her bailiff, who travels with her, for keeping an orderly court. And while Ryan is the epitome of courtesy — all litigants are “sir” or “ma’am” — her bailiff leans against the witness stand at the front of the court with what looks like an extra-long night stick attached at his belt. Ryan said she’s content being a commissioner and has no plans to seek appointment to the bench. “I don’t want to be a judge,” she said. “I enjoy what I am doing.”

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