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COURT:San Francisco Superior APPOINTED: Elected to municipal court Nov. 5, 1996; elevated to superior court upon consolidation in 1998 DATE OF BIRTH: Jan. 10, 1947 LAW SCHOOL: University of San Francisco School of Law, 1973 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: San Francisco municipal court pro tem judge When an August homicide trial before Judge Kay Tsenin ran longer than expected, one juror, a student, fretted about missing the start of classes, defense attorney Sean Ellis recalls. The San Francisco Superior Court judge “called every single one of her professors,” says Ellis. Many lawyers say the felony trial judge shows compassion for juries and defendants. They also say she has a down-to-earth style that makes her courtroom a pretty easygoing place for lawyers. Tsenin’s department is “less form-over-substance,” compared to many others, said Assistant District Attorney Anthony Brass. “She’s practical.” “You don’t have to walk on eggshells,” said San Francisco solo John Hickman. Tsenin, who came to the bench from a small civil practice, seems to understand the juggling lawyers have to do. Though she’s been known to start court late, she also cuts counsel some slack when it comes to the clock, some lawyers said. “I frankly like the fact that she doesn’t bust people if they walk in at 9:35 instead of 9:30,” said Ellis, the San Francisco solo. “She gives the same wiggle room with punctuality to the lawyers in front of her that she gives to herself,” said former Deputy Public Defender Franz Fuetsch. Besides, said San Francisco solo Kenneth Quigley, “When she gets there, she takes the time to do it right.” Tsenin gives lawyers latitude to make their arguments without a cut-off, some lawyers said — a practice they seem to appreciate if it’s their case, but can find a little frustrating if they’re waiting their turn. “It’s not really a criticism,” said Tamburello & Hanlon’s Stuart Hanlon, a defense attorney who was full of praise for Tsenin’s smarts and fairness. Tsenin is being respectful, he said, but “there are times I sit in court, and I wish she’d shut lawyers up.” Once a matter is submitted, Tsenin puts on the brakes. Quigley recalls once trying to dissuade the judge from her ruling. Tsenin went from polite and attentive to telling him to button his lip and sit down, Quigley said. “When she says no, don’t kick up a fuss,” he warned. “Cut your losses and go.” Many defense attorneys said they think their clients get more of a fair shot before Tsenin than some other judges. “There are judges who seem to be influenced or swayed by the district attorney. I think Kay is her own person,” said criminal defense attorney Bill Fazio, a former prosecutor. Tsenin seems more willing than some judges to terminate a defendant’s probation early, if he’s done well and doesn’t have much of a prior record, said Fazio. “Most criminal judges feel criminal defendants’ motions are without merit,” said San Francisco solo Eric Safire. “She gives it a full hearing and consideration.” Assistant DA Andrew Clark said he’s gotten a fair shot before Tsenin in trial. “Not all of her rulings have been in my favor, nor have they all been against me.” Tsenin typically has a kind word for defendants, said Steven Gayle, managing attorney for the public defender’s felony unit. “She has a real good memory for them and their personal background.” Criminal defense attorney James Collins was impressed by the “intellectual argument” he had with Tsenin over his request to seal records of a blood-alcohol test for his police officer client in the so-called fajitagate case, even though she turned him down. And the judge has a talent for making the courtroom as relaxed as it can be for jurors, clients and lawyers, Collins said. “You can’t find a better bedside manner.” Tsenin is often smiling and upbeat, said some attorneys. But the judge dished out harsh criticism to then-DA Terence Hallinan during the fajitagate case last year when she tossed charges against five members of the city’s police command staff, including defendants represented by Fazio and Hanlon. She scolded Hallinan for not dropping the grand jury indictments himself. Other things that bring out Tsenin’s less pleasant side are gum chewing and personal jabs at other attorneys. “I’ve had situations where I’ve gotten personal with prosecutors in chambers,” said Hanlon. “She shut me up.” “I tolerate cell phones going off once,” Tsenin said, a faux pas that might get a strong admonishment or a confiscated phone in other courtrooms. “But if someone comes in my courtroom chewing gum, it drives me crazy.” Tsenin won a seat on the municipal bench in 1996 in her second attempt to get elected. At the time, the bench didn’t seem to have many people from smaller private practices, and it also seemed unlikely that a Republican governor would appoint a liberal lesbian Democrat, she recalls. For the duration of her bench career, Tsenin’s been assigned to criminal courtrooms — which she also supervised for about 18 months — in contrast to her background as a civil attorney, when her caseload ran the gamut from personal injury plaintiff cases to estate litigation and civil rights work. “She wasn’t a prosecutor, she wasn’t a public defender, she didn’t work in a big firm,” observes Assistant DA Paul Kelly. “She’s used to working with folks.”

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