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COURT: San Francisco Superior APPOINTED: Feb. 3, 1995, to municipal court; elevated through court consolidation Dec. 31, 1998 DATE OF BIRTH: Jan. 15, 1952 LAW SCHOOL: Golden Gate University School of Law, 1986 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None San Francisco Superior Court Commissioner Sue Kaplan has her eye on the details. Attorney Daniel Cortright, seeking the commissioner’s stamp of approval on a default judgment one morning this month, ran through the math to show why his client was due more than $4 million. Kaplan followed along closely, and found a problem. “One of us is off by 6 cents,” she said. The former research attorney is precise, intensely focused and patient with the pro pers who often appear in her civil courtroom, say some of the lawyers who have appeared before her. In addition to short trials, the menu in Department 218 includes hearings on default judgments, settlement conferences for eviction cases, requests for name changes or gender changes, and civil harassment cases. Kaplan sees a lot of drama. Many of the disputes pit ex-spouses, parents, landlords and tenants against each other. Sometimes their cases demand creativity — like when a plaintiff wants a judge’s order to keep his roommate at a distance. “I’ll do something like 50 yards off the property, and two yards on,” Kaplan said. Lawyers who know Kaplan say her eye for detail and her patience carry over from her previous job as a research attorney for the court and years presiding over small claims. Some self-represented litigants in small claims would come in with a bag full of papers to support their case, Kaplan recalled. “I would read them,” she said. With close calls, where both parties seem equally credible — or equally unbelievable, “You’re looking for something in the evidence � to tip the scales,” she said. “And if it means sorting through the papers in a shopping bag” — she shrugs — “then that’s what I do.” From lawyers, Kaplan says she likes to see papers a day or two prior to a hearing, rather than the day of. “I read everything in advance,” the commissioner said. Kaplan can catch people off guard, though she’s diplomatic about it, said solo Michael Rossoff, who represents landlords. “Expect that she’ll know as much about the case as you do.” University of San Francisco School of Law professor Robert Talbot, who ran a mediation program in Kaplan’s small claims courtroom for years, marvels at her ability to focus through a crammed calendar. “One thing you notice if you ever see her on the bench is her eyes,” he said. “The concentration in her eyes is amazing.” Though many attorneys note Kaplan’s patience, it’s not endless. In her courtroom last week, a woman seeking a stay-away order traded impassioned accusations with her boyfriend’s ex-wife. Kaplan listened silently while the plaintiff offered an emotional, long-winded account at the start. But when the same woman rambled on in her rebuttal, the commissioner interjected, “All right, we’re going to stop now.” Solo Brenda Cruz Keith, who has represented landlords and property owners before Kaplan, calls the commissioner “businesslike,” but approachable. Her courtroom is “compassionate, but there’s very little wasted time,” Rossoff said. Though it’s important to hear people out, Kaplan said in an interview, “If they’re talking about things that don’t have relevance to the things I have to decide, I will redirect them.” At first, said Thomas Drohan, a staff attorney at Legal Assistance to the Elderly, “she comes off maybe looking and seeming a little sterner than she is.” But her dry sense of humor eventually shows, he said. So does her admiration for the San Francisco Giants, according to solo Arnold Evje II. “That’s one way to get on her good side — talk baseball,” he said. Before enrolling at Golden Gate University School of Law, Kaplan spent about eight years in social service jobs and planned to get a master’s degree in social work. After putting in a year with a general civil solo practitioner in San Francisco, Kaplan came to the municipal court in 1988 to work as a research attorney in the law and motion department. In 1995 she was picked to be a municipal court commissioner and assigned to small claims. She remained there, for the most part, until last spring when she moved to her current courtroom. “I thought I would stay [at the court] a year or two. Now it’s 15 years later,” Kaplan said. Michael Hall of the Law Offices of Michael C. Hall, who usually represents landlords, says Kaplan is underutilized. “She could take on a more responsible role.” The commissioner applied for a judgeship under former Gov. Gray Davis, but says she doesn’t plan to try again under the new governor, nor to run for a seat. “There are judges that are suited for long trials,” Kaplan said. “I like the short issues. “I like to do puzzles,” she says. “I like the analysis and the law. And then when you get the overlay of people, their personalities and their psychologies, I’m riveted.”

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