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SACRAMENTO — For the first time in 23 years, the second most powerful elected official in California won’t be a lawyer. So lawyers and court officials will have to wait to see if he speaks the same language. Don Perata, the state senator from Oakland tapped by the Democrats to replace termed-out John Burton as president pro tem Tuesday, was once a high school teacher. And unlike his rival for the job, state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, he doesn’t have much of a record in areas of concern to lawyers and court officials. Stakeholders are scrambling to get a fix on some of Perata’s positions. He’s been perceived by both sides of the tort reform debate as more moderate than Escutia, voting for plaintiff-friendly legislation behind the scenes as opposed to actively advocating for it as she has done. Prosecutors expect he will be strong on public safety issues, and court officials are optimistic that he will be attuned to their concerns. “Don is not a lawyer, but he’s a quick study,” said Don Green, who has been chief legislature advocate for the Consumer Attorneys of California and the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association for three decades. Trial lawyers count Perata as a somewhat silent partner. As the majority leader, Perata has been “someone Sen. Burton could go to and trust on consumer issues,” said Consumer Attorneys of California President James Sturdevant. “In that context, we have not had the kind of legislative authorship of Martha Escutia or Sheila Kuehl, [D-Santa Monica], who have been very public with their leadership on a variety of issues, from civil justice to unfair competition.” Sen. Dick Ackerman, an Irvine Republican, has a similar assessment. “I think he is not so much a consumer attorney advocate as perhaps Martha Escutia would have been,” he said. “We look forward to working with him to restore more balance to the system,” said John Sullivan, president of the business-backed Civil Justice Association of California. Oakland City Attorney John Russo, a friend of Perata’s, expects he can achieve consensus on some of the state’s thorniest legal issues. “This is a guy who is completely committed to his career as an elected official and completely committed to doing things that will advance the state of California,” said Russo. “The type of issues that have bollixed the Legislature, where we end up in the initiative process when there wasn’t a deal made, things like 17200, Three Strikes. � These types of reforms we are more likely to make progress on with Don as president pro tem,” said Russo. Perceived differences between Perata and Escutia may also be attributable to the different roles the two legislators have played — Escutia, as an outspoken advocate and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Perata, as a backstage dealmaker. “The majority leader’s job is to help out the leadership on tough issues,” said Green. “He’s probably had more exposure to them in the capacity of working out deals for whatever is going to be done on the floor.” Green expects Perata will want to continue “to protect the rights of people who suffer injuries, whether it’s on the job, or in other areas, such as personal injuries.” Prosecutors too are expecting strong leadership from Perata, who as a state assemblyman chaired the Public Safety Committee. He garnered high marks for his work, said David LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. “He said to me — and this was well before this [caucus vote] — how much he enjoyed being chair of the Public Safety Committee, dealing with the day-to-day issues people face,” said LaBahn. Particularly significant to prosecutors will be Perata’s appointments to the Public Safety Committee, where four out of eight senators will be termed out and leaving the committee. “That sets the tone for the kind of bills that are going to make it through,” said LaBahn. As a legislator, Perata has worked to ban assault weapons and require testing of professional athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. He has tried to have public defenders and DAs reclassified as “public safety” employees eligible for higher retirement benefits, and has improved retirement benefits for judges who retire early due to disability. But plenty of lawyers and court watchers say they still don’t know much about him. Members of the judiciary and its staff were less sure how well-versed Perata is in court issues. As a former county supervisor who handled court budgets prior to the handover of local courts to the state, Perata, “surely dealt with the courts in that capacity,” California Chief Justice Ronald George said Wednesday. But unlike Escutia, a member of the state’s Judicial Council, Perata has not dealt extensively with court budget issues. That doesn’t mean court officials won’t be working hard to get the new Senate president up to speed by the time he officially takes over in November. “I have already called him to extend my best wishes,” said George, a tireless lobbyist for judicial interests. “I am confident we’ll be able to work well with him.”

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