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Senior Judge Fern Smith, the second woman appointed to the Northern District of California bench, is stepping down. Smith, 71, only last year returned to San Francisco from a four-year stint as head of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. She considered retiring after finishing her appointment there, but wanted one more go in the judges’ robes. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the same. “When I first came back I thought some of the excitement and challenge would come back. . . . I really felt somehow my enthusiasm would be regenerated,” she said Monday. Instead, she learned that “you can’t go home again.” Smith joked she has a short attention span and that, because she has done all kinds of cases in her 17 years on the federal bench, it’s time to find something new. She’s not yet sure if she’s going to do any legal work, such as the lucrative private arbitration favored by other retired jurists. For now, she’s looking forward to traveling and spending more time with her family, especially her teenage grandchildren. Smith’s first career was as a stay-at-home mother. She didn’t go to law school until she was 38 years old. After that, she worked as a litigator at Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon and then became a state judge in San Francisco in 1986. Just two years later, President Reagan appointed her to U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. She was the second woman after Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte said that even though there is now a “critical mass” of female judges in the Northern District — 10 of the court’s 32 judges and magistrates are women — it’s still important to recognize the trailblazers. “Many of us still have a history of not being taken seriously,” Laporte said. Judge Phyllis Hamilton said Smith was the most beloved member of the court among the judges. “I’m both sad for us and happy for her,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy that she’ll be able to do other things that this job doesn’t allow you to do.” Indeed, Smith said that even though she only had a third of the caseload of an active judge, “I just felt that I wanted to be free of somebody else’s schedule.” “I wonder how I’ll manage it? Will I suddenly become Grandma Moses?” she said, referring to the New York artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who got a late start as an artist. “Part of it is that I don’t know what is out there for me, and I never will unless I leave and expose myself to other ideas and challenges.” Because she had already taken senior status, Smith’s departure does not create a vacancy on the Northern District bench. The last vacancy came in 2001, when Charles Legge left for JAMS , the private dispute resolution company.

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