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SACRAMENTO — Handing out bench seats has so far been a low priority for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nearly five months after taking office, he has yet to name his judicial appointments secretary. One rumored candidate has apparently said no thanks. Eric George, a 35-year-old partner at Browne & Woods in Beverly Hills and the son of Chief Justice Ronald George, won’t comment publicly on reports he was under consideration. But sources close to George say he is resolute about remaining in private practice. Now, a new candidate’s name has surfaced — Joseph Russoniello, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District from 1982-1990. Russoniello, who was appointed to that post by President Reagan, is the current dean of San Francisco Law School and senior counsel for the San Francisco office of Cooley Godward. Vetting judges would be nothing new for him. Since 2001, he has headed up a six-member committee charged with filling federal judicial vacancies in the Northern District. “He is a superb candidate,” said a lawyer familiar with Russoniello’s judicial selection work. “I can’t imagine anyone better.” Russoniello declined to say if he’s been interviewed for the job, saying it would be “premature” and adding that he’s never even met Schwarzenegger. Russoniello also said it was “premature” to speculate on how the job might dovetail with his responsibilities screening federal judicial appointments in Northern California. But he said that doesn’t take too much time, as there have only been a few key posts to fill thus far. Two years ago, he gave up his senior partnership at Cooley Godward — a move that allowed him to take on the law school deanship and work just three days a week for the firm. As senior counsel, Russoniello said he has an agreement with the firm that would allow him to “step away any time I want.” “If an opportunity presents itself to me I consider to be challenging, there is nothing that holds me back from taking it,” Russoniello said. As U.S. attorney, he prosecuted several high-profile cases, including People’s Temple defendant Larry Layton for his part in the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan in Jonestown, Guyana. He also served as a member of the attorney general’s advisory committee and chaired its white-collar crime subcommittee. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law in 1966 and worked as a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and as an assistant district attorney for the city and county of San Francisco before joining Cooley Godward in 1975. Once the governor does select a judicial appointments secretary, that person will be charged with recommending candidates for most trial and appeal court vacancies. Former Gov. Gray Davis filled most existing vacancies before leaving office, but some slots have opened up since his departure in November, including seats at the San Francisco Superior Court and the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento. Republican lawyer Steven Merksamer, a former chief of staff for Gov. George Deukmejian, said Schwarzenegger had a short transition and has had his hands full with pressing problems. But he predicted the governor’s eventual pick would be a strong one. “I think there are a lot of good names that are circulating,” said Merksamer, a partner at Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, “and I’m not going to comment on any one of them.”

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