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COURT: Northern District of California APPOINTED: 1997 DATE OF BIRTH: Aug. 1, 1943 LAW SCHOOL: UCLA School of Law, 1968 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None When U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson first took the bench, some lawyers were a little worried about his ponytail. The long hair was an emblem of Larson’s days as a successful criminal defense attorney, and prosecutors admit fearing that a pro-defense bent would find its way into his courtroom. But those reservations, like the ponytail, disappeared soon after Larson’s 1997 appointment. Seven years later, Larson has developed a reputation as an even-handed, polite jurist whose rulings favor neither side of the table. “Initially, the U.S. attorney’s office was guarded because of his defense background,” said Miranda Kane, a former federal prosecutor who is now at Rogers, Joseph, O’Donnell & Phillips. “But as the prosecutors came to know him, [they found] that’s not the case. He’s very fair.” Because he is known for the work he did for more than 20 years, Larson still picks up cases that take advantage of his criminal experience. But now he’s also made a name for himself with civil settlement conferences. “Settling is also pretty satisfying,” he said, adding that he enjoys working within the Northern District’s “sophisticated alternative dispute resolution system.” Presidentially appointed judges — or, “Article IIIs,” as they’re called — typically don’t handle civil settlement conferences in the Northern District. Instead, that grunt work is farmed out to Larson and the other magistrates appointed by the court. Larson said he works on 100 to 125 settlements each year. According to John Scott of The Scott Law Firm, which does civil rights and police brutality cases, Larson knows how to stimulate parties into discussion. “[A magistrate judge's] role is to forge a compromise and � to not let the thing fall apart and to keep the parties participating, even when people have lost faith in the process, even when people seemingly aren’t motivated,” Scott said. Working with attorneys John Burris of Oakland and James Chanin of Berkeley, Scott spent about a year in settlement talks in front of Larson in the “Riders” Oakland police brutality case, Allen v. City of Oakland, C00-4599. Scott called the settlement “extremely complicated” because negotiations included the plaintiffs lawyers, who represented about 120 people, as well as attorneys for Oakland and its insurance carriers and representatives from the police department. “[Larson] worked hard. To a certain extent it was his patience and persistence and ability to maintain a good working relationship with everyone there that kept the process going,” Scott said. The magistrate was professional and polite, and he kept the “posturing and saber-rattling” at a minimum, Scott said. The plaintiffs were most concerned with a consent decree to require institutional changes within the police department, while the defendants wanted a global settlement and finality, Scott said. “And [Larson] was ultimately able to get the two things going on parallel tracks and get them both done.” Randolph Hall, who as chief assistant Oakland city attorney opposed Scott in the Riders case, had similarly positive things to say. He highlighted Larson’s ability to handle different kinds of personalities. “Sometimes we are involved with people who are high-strung, intense, results-oriented. If allowed to run free they can be very detrimental to settlements,” said Hall, who estimates he’s been in front of Larson in more than 50 cases. “He knows when to stop them from talking. He will cut through the verbiage.” If he didn’t come by them naturally, Larson’s people skills were probably learned from years of dealing with clients, witnesses and opponents. Attorneys who have appeared in front of him say Larson’s easy-going, courteous manner removes a lot of the stress that comes from being in a courtroom. Much of Larson’s demeanor, no doubt, comes from the fact that he knows just about everybody. V. Roy Lefcourt, a San Francisco defense attorney, said it’s normal for Larson to address lawyers by their first names in court. Larson said his attitude on the bench also stems from his desire to avoid being perceived as pro one side or the other. He said he was well aware of the concern about a defense slant, but by being respectful to everyone, he hopes to evade any claim of bias. As for his treatment of defendants, criminal lawyers on both sides of the table say he isn’t overly harsh, nor is he a bleeding heart. Larson said he just wants to make sure people know what they’re facing. He said he tells people that federal penalties can be much harsher than those in state court. At the same time, there are a lot of programs in which defendants can enroll to try to change their lives, he said. “I think our system can only work if there is some possibility of redemption or rehabilitation at some point,” Larson said. “If we don’t consider that possibility at some point . . . ultimately the system is going to collapse.”

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