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COURT: Marin County Superior APPOINTED: Oct. 14, 1999, by Gov. Gray Davis DATE OF BIRTH: Oct. 11, 1945 LAW SCHOOL: Stanford Law School, 1970 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None On a busy afternoon in Marin County Superior Court, Verna Adams is sitting not only as judge but as a substitute parent for a dozen wayward criminal defendants. This is mental health court, better known as STAR court — Support and Treatment After Release — where defendants whose mental health troubles contributed to their crimes are supervised in rigorous therapeutic programs in lieu of being jailed. On this day, Adams, the full-time supervising criminal court judge, gets to hold, or slap, the hands of small-time crooks looking for help. She begins by gently lauding a young, dark-haired woman, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, for having the courage to participate in STAR court. She encourages a spirited blonde who just marked a year in the program, saying she’s earned a “soft spot” in the judge’s heart but hasn’t used her income wisely enough to take a step to the next level. Then Adams, blinking her eyes and sucking on her eyeglass stems, gets tough with a long-haired man for testing positive for methamphetamine use since his last court visit. Diagnosed with paranoia, he makes excuses and denies any drug use. “I’m shocked,” he says. “So am I,” Adams responds. “You can deny it all you want, but machines don’t lie. A dirty test is a dirty test.” More tests and supervision are ordered. “Whether I’m being a judge or a stern mother, it doesn’t matter. I can do both,” Adams says in her chambers afterward. “What we’re trying to do is avoid recidivism, and it’s working.” In STAR court and in her regular criminal courtroom, Adams, who sits in San Rafael, has impressed Bay Area lawyers as someone almost destined for a judgeship. “She’s one of these people, it’s sort of my guess, who aspired to be a judge because it’s a certain calling or something they need to do for the public good,” San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Douglas Horngrad says. Roy Chernus, executive director of San Rafael’s Legal Aid of Marin, calls Adams a passionate judge who was the “motivating force” in getting the county’s self-help legal center off the ground. “She’s the one who brought everyone together,” he says. “She set the example that we’re all busy, yet we have to find time.” Adams, 59, was born in Racine, Wis. — the youngest of five kids — and spent her formative years in South Bend, Ind., before heading to Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She graduated summa cum laude and, after a one-year pit stop at Columbia Law School, went on to get a degree from Stanford Law School in 1970. Adams spent 28 years in private practice as a domestic-relations attorney in San Rafael. She was appointed to the bench by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 and, aside from her warm and fuzzy side in STAR court, is known to be all business. Lawyers who know her call her “efficient,” “smart” and “formal” — all compliments. Adams says the quickest way to get her mad is to show disrespect for the court. And she had been on the bench only a few months when that was tested. In the midst of a heated child custody case for Novato mother Carol Mardeusz, Los Angeles solo practitioner Patricia Barry began verbally attacking the prosecutor. Adams fined the family law specialist $1,000 for contempt. When Adams suddenly became the target of Barry’s vitriol, the judge had her locked in a holding cell. “I had to do that after she called me a whore,” Adams recalls. “Luckily, the jury was not there.” Mardeusz’s subsequent conviction produced a storm of criticism and, combined with a controversial report alleging judicial abuses in the family courts, led to efforts to recall Adams and three other judges. A bizarre alliance of disgruntled family court defendants and medical marijuana advocates failed to get enough signatures to put the judges on the ballot, but managed to force a vote on then-District Attorney Paula Kamena, who prevailed handily. “The good news was that I felt if I could get through this, I could get through anything,” she says. “I learned you don’t always get affirmation, but if you do the very best you can, you can hit the ball out of the park.” In the years since, Adams has had cases far more legally significant. A 2001 case involved John Dannenberg, a convicted second-degree murderer who had been denied parole for 18 years. “I told the Board of Prison Terms you ought to put this guy out on parole,” Adams says. “I believed his was a case where there was truly no evidence to militate against giving him a parole date.” San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal agreed, noting Dannenberg’s exemplary prison record, superb psychological evaluations and a solid plan to integrate back into society. The court also trashed the BPT’s policies on lifer inmates and said new factors must be taken into account. The California Supreme Court reversed the ruling in January, voting 4-3 to uphold BPT policies on lifer inmates and keeping Dannenberg behind bars. “They did the best they could. I did the best I could,” Adams says. “But I would have preferred a different result.” As is her style, Adams had stood up for Dannenberg because she felt he deserved a chance to start over. Helping those who need the help, she says, is part of her job. “I feel that it’s really important for a safe and free and orderly society for the laws to be firmly and fairly administered,” she says. “It’s an awesome responsibility and a privilege. “I know I sound like a poster girl for a civics class,” Adams says. “But I really feel that way.”

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