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COURT: Santa Clara County Superior APPOINTED: By Gov. Gray Davis, June 15, 2000 DATE OF BIRTH: Dec.15, 1947 EDUCATION: Hastings College of the Law, 1989 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None SAN JOSE — Superior Court Judge Sharon Chatman may have lost a step or two since her days playing point guard for Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo’s basketball team, where she twice notched triple doubles. But that certainly hasn’t stopped her from taking on a courtroom schedule as hectic as the bleachers of any college basketball game. At 1:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Chatman has already worked through a busy docket filled with probation violations, bench warrants and failure-to-pay cases — all part of the county’s domestic violence court. One way the 57-year-old jurist manages the workload is to demand respect from everyone who walks through her doors. “People are here because they haven’t been respectful. But I won’t tolerate that,” says Chatman, who is known for cracking down on people who make noise while court is in session. Chatman’s journey to the bench was far different than most attorneys who always aspired to be a judge. After graduating from college, Chatman coached basketball at East Side High School in San Jose and De Anza College. She later went on to a decade-long stint as San Jose State’s women’s basketball coach. Chatman was 38 when she went to law school. Although focused on sports for her first career, she said she had been interested in law since she was a child, reading about Thurgood Marshall while growing up in Bakersfield in the 1950s. In her youth, Chatman worked in the cotton fields picking the grass that was growing around plants so it wouldn’t damage the crop. At that point, the notion that an African-American woman could sit on the bench was quite radical. “It was challenging times in the San Joaquin Valley for all people of color — not just for African-Americans,” she said. Chatman’s years working to instill discipline in young women was good preparation for law school. “I was more receptive because I was a coach,” she said. “You approach things in a different way, and are mature enough to get through things without getting stressed out.” Chatman graduated in 1989 and worked for the district attorney’s office for a decade, including three years prosecuting gangs. “I wanted to try cases so I could be in a position where I could advocate justice for everyone,” she said. While working as a prosecutor, fellow attorneys noticed the people skills Chatman had learned while coaching. Deputy District Attorney James Cahan, who now prosecutes sex offenses, recalls Chatman once encouraging a sanitation worker to apply for a more challenging job in the DA’s office. That employee is still in the office and has worked as a file clerk, among other tasks, Cahan said. Chatman said she was happy as a prosecutor but was frequently approached by Judge Eugene Hyman about joining the bench. That persistence rubbed off and Chatman eventually became Gov. Gray Davis’ first superior court appointment in Santa Clara County. Unlike many former prosecutors who become judges, Chatman seems to have escaped the stigma of being perceived as more favorable to district attorneys. Attorneys from the DA and public defender offices said Chatman is fair and always seems interested in lawyers and their personal lives as well as their cases. Deputy Public Defender Ralph Benitez is in Chatman’s court at least once a week defending clients in domestic violence cases. Just last week he represented a client in a preliminary hearing accused of two battery counts. The case was troublesome because the victim denied her partner had hit her, but there was a 911 tape of the alleged incident filled with screaming. He said Chatman ensured a smooth hearing. “The good thing about Judge Chatman is that she knows the law,” Benitez said. “And whether you are asking for testimony or making a motion, she will make all her decisions on the record.” Benitez said one tough thing about practicing in Chatman’s court is that the judge has almost no patience for any noise. That sometimes makes it tough for public defenders who must confer with several clients in the jury box, he said. “She has very little tolerance for noise — so you can get taken to the woodshed for that,” he said, although adding that “it’s not like the Soup Nazi, where you feel like if you get out of line you’ll get slapped.” Deputy Public Defender Mairead O’Keefe practiced in Chatman’s courtroom three years ago when she was a relatively inexperienced defense lawyer. She said Chatman is extremely patient with new lawyers and that most leave her court with a new understanding and respect for domestic violence law. “She is a great judge to practice in front of — especially if you’re new — because she is patient. She has a lot of interest in the learning process and great passion for that subject [domestic violence],” O’Keefe said. “She’s not a shrinking violet and can lay down the law, but if you’re a defendant and show you’re doing what you are supposed to be doing, she is fantastic,” she added. — Justin M. Norton

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