COURT: Santa Clara County Superior
ELECTED: Nov. 6, 1996, re-elected in 2002
BORN: Nov. 25, 1954
LAW SCHOOL: Hastings College of the Law, 1983
PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Santa Clara County Municipal Court, 1992-1996
Superior court Judge Edward Lee is well-known for a few things around the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice: He catches bees for the six hives in his backyard, makes his own wine under the label “Ned’s Red,” which he passes out to staffers each holiday season, and has a photo of actress Gwyneth Paltrow perched on his desk.
While he’s known for being a funny guy, he’s also known for handing out some pretty stiff sentences.
“This doesn’t endear him to some defense attorneys,” commented Daniel Barton, a partner with Palo Alto’s Nolan, Armstrong & Barton. “I think there is a part of him that has very high expectations about the way people behave.”
But, Barton added, “there is a good side to it, too. [Lee] creates a real human courtroom with his sense of humor. � I think he has had a lot of human experience, and it gives him a wisdom.”
Indeed, by the time Lee was appointed to the county’s municipal court in 1992 in his late 30s, he’d already seen a lot of the world, as an army reservist, a Redwood City cop and finally, a Santa Clara County prosecutor.
“It’s part of the baggage he brings with him to the bench,” Barton said. “But he does it in a way that doesn’t make him favor one side over the other.”
Santa Clara County Deputy Public Defender Panteha Ebrahimi knows firsthand that Lee doesn’t play favorites.
She appeared before the judge last week, representing a man on a Three Strikes case. The district attorney was asking for life; Ebrahimi was pleading for leniency.
In the end, the man got 17 years and a stern warning from Lee that there would be no second chances next time.
“He made a tough decision,” Ebrahimi said. “It was an unpopular decision with the DA. And that’s the difference between a good judge and a great judge.”
Once thought to be eyeing a bid for district attorney, Lee, 50, said he’s happy with where he’s at right now and isn’t planning to vacate his post anytime soon. After four years on the municipal court bench, Lee won a superior court seat in 1996, which is where he’s been ever since, mostly doing felony trial work.
“There’s a real drama in the courtroom,” Lee said. “The most interesting thing to me is that you have a serious impact [on] real victims.”
It is this philosophy that has helped guide Lee down his multiple career paths. After graduating from Hastings College of the Law in 1983, Lee, a native of Charlottesville, Va., spent just over a year with the Redwood City Police Department before moving to the Santa Clara DA’s office.
He couldn’t stay away from police work, however, and signed on as a reserve officer with the San Jose Police Department. But that wasn’t his only extracurricular activity. During his seven-year stint at the DA’s office, Lee managed to get his pilot’s license, while continuing his weekend and extended reserve duties with the California National Guard. He also became a father, twice.
It was around then that he started taking note of the judges assigned to his cases, and began contemplating life on the bench.
Besides being intrigued with the job, “I [also] thought judges have weekends off,” Lee said with a laugh. But after donning the black robes, Lee was quickly introduced to search warrant duty, which quickly quashed his dreams of weekend leisure, he joked. (Judges are assigned to search warrant duty on a rotating basis.)
Asked to describe the judge’s personality, most attorneys are quick to point out Lee’s healthy sense of humor and jovial courtroom manner. They also say he’s accommodating.
“He’s not forgotten what it’s like to be a trial lawyer, who understands that stuff comes up,” said Supervising Deputy DA Charles Gillingham.
Lee is also “very mindful of jurors � and protecting their privacy,” Gillingham added.
In a practice not often seen in Santa Clara courtrooms, Lee allows jurors to ask questions in open court. It’s a point that doesn’t sit well with too many attorneys.
“I’m sort of on the fence about that,” Gillingham admits, adding that there are some questions attorneys may not want � for whatever reason � highlighted during court. “I’m not a big fan.”
Still, Gillingham said he thinks the judge has a “refreshing depth of knowledge of the evidence code.”
And Deputy DA Margo Smith said she admires “the way he handles his courtroom.”
“He is fair to both sides,” Smith said. “He’s delightful to be with.”
Barton, who has been a criminal defense attorney for nearly two decades, can vouch for that.
“After the case I did with him, I felt like I developed a rapport” with Lee, Barton recalled. “I felt that he was more human than other [jurists.]“
Lee shrugs when asked what kind of reputation he thinks he has with the lawyers who enter his courtroom.
“I’m a mellow guy,” Lee said, nonchalantly, adding that he tries to keep attorneys happy by providing them with little dishes of candy at their tables.
“It’s important to give lawyers sugar,” the judge said with a grin.