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This week The Recorder and Cal Law are publishing excerpts from interviews with the two candidates in the June 6 election for San Francisco Superior Court. The newspaper’s editorial board interviewed Eric Safire on April 17. He was accompanied by his campaign manager, Enrique Pearce. We’ll publish our interview with Lillian Sing May 11. RECORDER: Tell us why you should be elected judge. SAFIRE: I find this an opportunity to have an impact on the bench. I hope to have the opportunity to effect positive change on the San Francisco Superior Court. I am running for an open seat. The perception that I am running against an incumbent seems to be somewhat prolific but it’s not accurate. I never did have any aspirations to replace anybody on the bench. And having the opportunity to run for an open seat came about a couple of years ago, but my friend Gail Dekreon and I discussed it and she was going to run, so I didn’t take the opportunity to do so then. But when I became aware at the very last minute that Judge [Perker] Meeks didn’t want to put his name in for reelection I decided � talked to some friends � and decided this would be the opportunity. I think one of the things I’d like to have the most impact on is the concept of processing of cases. When I first started we would go as a public defender or into court-appointed situations and discuss cases. We would talk about each individual case, talk about the circumstances of the parties, and the circumstances of the case. And as time goes on, it seems that the courts are turning into processing centers. I always tell my clients that there’s no such thing as a standard first offense, in my practice. Each case has its own nuances, it has its own individuality. And to go into court and see a big pile of files � this one fits into this pigeonhole, and this one fits into this cubby � that’s not what I went to law school for. I find it disappointing, if not offensive. And I really want to try and bring back the idea that the courtroom exists for the benefit of the litigants. When Abraham Lincoln went around � the circuits he would bring the litigants with him, and they would convene courtrooms for those individual cases or for that particular week. And that’s what I did in Alaska, as a public defender. We would fly from little town to little town and handle all the misdemeanors, and every case would go to trial. Every case had a chance. But here, the processing should be at the DMV. We have agencies that handle licensing and things like that. But the courtroom, to me, is not a place where processing should go on. And, in fact, they built a new courthouse on McAllister. I was so surprised � they spent so much money on a new courthouse, and there’s only a couple of courtrooms that are big enough to pick multi-party litigation juries. I think there’s two or three. But I feel the whole jury system is disappearing, and the concept of individuality in the courts and cases. I’d like to be able to stem that tide. I don’t anticipate that on June the 7th I’m going to change everything, but to the extent that I’m able I’d like to have that opportunity. And I’m uniquely qualified for this job because I have so much experience at such a young age � mean, 52 isn’t that young. But I do have 200 trials. I’ve been in practice for 25 years. I was a public defender for three years in the state of Alaska. I went right from college to law school and to practicing law. And I have a very successful practice. I love what I’m doing, though I think that it’s a time for me to participate in a more effective fashion. RECORDER: You mentioned Judge Dekreon. She had done some pro tem judging before she ran for the bench. Have you done any pro teming? SAFIRE: I’ve acted as an arbitrator. I haven’t done any pro teming with the courts. But, as I like to tell people, in private practice, when people come into your office � I mean, thousands of people have come through my office since 1982 � most of those cases are resolved before they ever get to court. I mean, when people come in with a dispute, you get the parties together � I mean, I’m an arbitrator and a judge pro tem every day in my office. You bring in people and their lawyers, you’d be surprised how many disputes are resolved that way. I fashion myself, and I consider myself � that’s the greatest talent I have � is dispute resolution. RECORDER: Have you acted formally as an arbitrator or a mediator, as a third-party neutral? SAFIRE: Just in the context of volunteer. I haven’t done any actual � well, I take that back. They have that mediation, or settlement program, at the courts, where you have a defense lawyer and a plaintiffs lawyer and, you have the three folks together, and I’ve done that several times on a volunteer basis. RECORDER: With regard to processing cases, you mentioned your experience in Alaska. Obviously, San Francisco is not Alaska, the volume’s a little bit different. So, more specifically, how you would tackle that problem? SAFIRE: Well, it’s more of an atmosphere that’s created, that’s what I’m talking about. When people come in the morning, instead of running through the calendar in a fashion where each case is pigeonholed, I think it’s more important for the judge to sit and evaluate a case from both sides. Most of the time, by the time a case gets to court it’s already prepared. There’s a different posture of a case when you’re in court, than from when you developed it in initial interview. � To answer your question more directly, when people come into my courtroom, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to create an atmosphere where the case is going to be discussed or a litigant can have a face-to-face contact with the judge. I’d like to be able to have the lawyers come in more than one time about a case. And I’d like to be able to eliminate this concept of having standard resolutions. � How I’m exactly going to do that I don’t have a precise plan in mind. But it’s the atmosphere that I want to create. I want to create an atmosphere in the courtroom that’s [like] my office, where people can come in, sit around the table and resolve a case. And when you can’t, I mean I’ve tried over 200 cases. I’m certainly competent to try cases in both the criminal and civil arena. I mean, there’s very few lawyers that have tried cases in both civil and criminal areas, and I have done both, and I’ve done both for a long time. I’m one of the few lawyers around who can say, I’m proud to say, that I’ve tried cases in City Hall. � RECORDER: Is there a particular judge whose approach you’d emulate on the bench, in terms of treating people they way you’d like to treat them? SAFIRE: Dominique Olcomeny comes to mind. � People respected him. He was fair. Everybody knew he was fair to both sides. If I could be a modern day Dominque Olcomendy that’s what I’d like. RECORDER: Didn’t he also rub some people the wrong way? SAFIRE: Well, I anticipate that that might happen to me [laughs]. Not a popularity contest � well, right now it is. I don’t mean to criticize anybody and I’m part of the problem, and part of the process. But when you go into a courtroom and people are handing out sushi and dim sum and doughnuts, I mean, my clients come to me, this is the kind of thing that’s going to impact their lives sometimes for their entire future, for their children. I wanted to become a lawyer because it was a very respectable profession when I started, certainly my dad felt so. Now it’s more like you’re clerking at the DMV house. And I’d like to bring back the respect, dignity, the integrity and the honor that the legal profession deserves. Don’t get me wrong, I have a realistic approach. As I say, I’ve been in private practice 25 years, you get reality every day. But it’s an opportunity for me. I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve represented landlords, I’ve represented tenants. I’ve represented the accused, I’ve represented police officers. I’ve represented employers, employees. And I bring a certain savoir faire to the position that I don’t think the bench gets an opportunity to take advantage of. There’s not many me and Gail Dekreons around that are willing to give up a big, successful private practice and have time to go be a judge. You see public defenders, and district attorneys and city attorneys and government employees. But to get somebody from the neighborhood who’s got their own private practice on the bench I think is a rarity. RECORDER: Where are your endorsements coming from? SAFIRE: I have many elected people who are endorsing me. I have Aaron Peskin. I’m proud to consider myself the progressive candidate in this race. The Jewish community certainly is very supportive. I think that the business community is relatively supportive, but primarily it’s, I think, a progressive group. I’m hopeful to get the endorsement of some of the more progressive groups in the city. I’m proud to say I’m the progressive candidate in this race. Also, I think it’s important for � I don’t know how to overcome this � but it’s important for me to get the message across, it’s an opportunity for somebody from the rank and file of the legal community to run. It doesn’t come about very often. Usually judges retire in the middle of the term and they’re replaced � as when Judge Sing retired, she was replaced by Gov. Schwarzenegger. But for an open seat to become available, and for somebody to just throw their hat in the ring is an opportunity that doesn’t exist in most places and only here very rarely. And that’s what’s exciting to me about it. I’m generating my support, endorsements, in a grass-roots fashion. I’m knocking on doors, going to diners and taverns and wherever I can. RECORDER: Lillian Sing has the support of Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom. It appears she has a lot of support from the bench. SAFIRE: Well, she started way before I did. I didn’t know that she was politicking. In January some of the people told me they had committed to her. I think a lot of those people would not have supported her if they knew it was going to be a contested seat. There’s nobody that I’ve gone to on the bench who’s said I don’t support you. They’ve only said that I can’t support you because I’ve committed to Judge Sing. I think if all bets were off right now, and we went to the bench, I think I’d get as many endorsements as she. � I might also add I got the endorsement �’m very proud of � of William Cahill, who was considered the best judge on the bench by the survey of 1999. We’ve done a lot of business together, both when he was on the bench and as a mediator � I mean volunteer at the summer pro-am league at Kezar. RECORDER: To play devil’s advocate, what would be wrong with someone saying, “Gee, Judge Sing seemed like a good judge when she was on the bench, and she’s the known quantity. So why not vote for the person we know?” SAFIRE: I’d be honored for the opportunity to be her colleague. I can’t say that she’s not competent. I’m surprised that she’s running. But why should she occupy two spots? She’s a judge today, she was a judge yesterday, she’ll be a judge tomorrow. I just want to be her colleague. RECORDER: How do you mean? SAFIRE: As a retired judge she can sit by assignment, and has sat � I think she’s in Department 303 today. I know she presided over a murder trial last month. I’m not replacing her. I want this open seat. She, as any retired judge, can sit by assignment. We’ve got a backlog of cases. Why shouldn’t I be on there too? She can sit wherever she wants, and from a personal standpoint, I would certainly relish � I mean, that would be a great opportunity. She could sit in Santa Cruz. She can sit in Sonoma. And she collects her retirement and gets paid per diem. I think it’s � I don’t know why she’s running. And I don’t want to replace her, that’s not what I’m doing. If she was running for reelection on her seat, I wouldn’t put my hat in that ring. I’m told never to say never, but I can’t imagine a situation where I would run against a sitting judge. I’m not doing it. RECORDER: You describe yourself as the progressive candidate and as part of a movement. If you are elected, how are you going to explain to this constituency what it means to be a judge, and that you have to then divorce yourself from those political ties and be above it all? SAFIRE: Nobody’s exacting any favors from me. This is a nonpartisan race. I’m not asking people to contribute to my campaign because I’m going to fix their tickets or something. That’s not really part of the game. I think this city has a very intelligent electorate. They know what it’s about. We’re gathering a grass-roots campaign of volunteers among students, young people, people that have been involved in other political campaigns. I don’t think anybody who endorses Judge Sing or I anticipates anything in return in a judicial race. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem at all. I’m very well-respected in both courthouses. I know every clerk, I know every reporter � you know, court reporters. My reputation is, I think, impeccable. I mean, I’ve made some enemies along the way. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, I’m sure she’ll point those out when the time comes. But I’m very proud of my record and the people I’ve represented. I’ve been the champion of the underdog. When I first hung my shingle my dad said, “There’s no case too small, and everything can be settled. You’ve just got to work hard.” And that’s what I did. I ran out and I got workers’ compensation cases. I started off with a $5,000 loan and a $250-a-month office. I put an ad in the Chronicle, and I got court-appointed cases. I went around to various law firms and said, “What kind of small cases don’t you want?” I got a big load of workers’ compensation cases. Heck, I didn’t even know what workers’ compensation was. I took the cases, and they eventually settled, and one thing led to another. I can walk into either 400 McAllister or 850 Bryant and have the respect of everybody in the building. I’m not concerned about owing people because they vote for me. That’s not what it’s about. RECORDER: How would it feel to be sitting on the bench and having come before you lawyers that maybe you’ve had relationships with that have been contentious, or you’ve simply had to fight hard against, as an advocate for your clients? SAFIRE: I’ve called those people with whom I have contentious relationships and asked for their support. There hasn’t been one person that said I wouldn’t be the better candidate. Whether they can support me or not is another matter. But I have an ongoing battle with a city attorney that maybe you folks know about. I called up Sean [Connolly] the other day and said, “Listen, you know who the better candidate is. You know that if you walked into the courtroom and didn’t know who the judge was, and I came out, that you’d get the best � the fairest shake of anybody, from anybody. You’d get the right rulings. You’d get the rulings of somebody who’s a gladiator, that knows exactly what a trial lawyer has to go through, with witnesses’ calendars and document problems and copies, and the costs.” Bernie Segal was my evidence teacher from Golden Gate. He said to me, “You’re going to do this? It’s going to cost a fortune.” Half the money I make. And he said, “Listen, if you were trying a case and Eric Safire came out on the bench, how would you feel?” I said I’d feel like I had the best trial judge available. He said, “Well, then run for the office.” RECORDER: What did Connolly say? SAFIRE: He’d get back to me. [laughter] RECORDER: OK, you’re a gladiator trial advocate. And I guess some of the scrapes you’ve been in over the years are the result of vigorous advocacy on your part. How do you assure voters you can take off that advocate’s hat you’ve been wearing for many years � SAFIRE: What a question. How can I assure them? RECORDER: Well, it’s a completely different mindset, isn’t it, being judge? SAFIRE: It’s a challenge. I intend to � I know what judicial temperament is. I know what Eric Safire’s temperament is. Am I going to be a perfect judge? Probably not. But I’ll tell you I’m going to give it my best shot. And I’m going to bring my years of experience into the courtroom. And I’m going to try to make people feel respected. And that their disputes are resolved with fair, functional justice, with honor, integrity and respect. Am I going to blow it from time to time? Probably. But I think that my experience, the stage in my life, I’ve got two young kids in high school. I’m concerned about the safety of the streets. It’s a different time now than when I started. The bench and the people of San Francisco are entitled to have a judge with my background on the bench. � Can I assure the voters that I’m not going to yell at somebody from time to time? I’ll try my best not to, I can assure you that. Can I assure you that I’m going to make the right decision every time? I can assure you that I’m going to try my best. And I’m going to use the experience and know-how that I’ve gleaned from all the trial work that I’ve done, and all the experience that I have of people coming into my office with what in their minds is the largest problem in their life. And it seems like nothing to me, and it seems like nothing to my secretary. But we always make them feel like it’s very important to us. And I think I can do that on the bench. At age 52, 53 by the time I take over, I’m going to do the right thing. Can I assure you I’m not going to blow it? I can’t do that. I’m not going to be the perfect judge, but I’m going to be the best one I can be. ENRIQUE PEARCE: I think that that sort of candor is something that is very refreshing. You would not get more � RECORDER: You’d be surprised how candid some people get. PEARCE: Well, I think that that’s great. That’s terrific. But certainly I think the question you’re originally asking � “How as an advocate do you make that transition?” � can be made of any candidate, right? Everyone who’s going to be a judge, or the vast majority have been practicing attorneys at some point. � RECORDER: Some people have more of a track record pro teming, or having a mediation practice. PEARCE: That’s true. RECORDER: But not always, that’s true. SAFIRE: That’s what I think is different about me. I’m not the kind of person that’s hanging around for an appointment. I’m a trial lawyer. And as a trial lawyer I want a trial lawyer on the bench.

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