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Susan Illston is very agreeable to lawyers. During one recent pretrial criminal hearing she closed it to the public at a lawyer’s request, without even asking why. That kind of cooperation is hard to come by. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons despite perceptions by some in the defense community that she’s conservative and not the easiest judge to read Illston is almost universally well-liked. Extremely so. “I’m quite high on her,” said Harold McElhinny, a senior litigator at Morrison & Foerster. Not long after she took over for Barbara Caulfield in 1995, Illston was assigned a complex biotechnology patent case McElhinny was arguing. Initially, he said, “she expressed some reservations about whether she could handle the complexity.” Illston, who agreed to comment for this article but could not do so by press time, had just come from Cotchett, Illston & Pitre (now Cotchett, Pitre & Simon), where she was a plaintiffs lawyer who often dabbled in securities fraud cases. Instead, she came through with flying colors, issuing opinions that McElhinny said bordered on judicial brilliance. McElhinny said Illston is very gracious with lawyers, perhaps even to the point where lawyers get the wrong idea about how they’re doing. A loquacious lawyer may be able to talk almost without end in front of Illston, only to find out she was never on his side. McElhinny’s advice: “Ignore her questions at your peril.” Easily the biggest case Illston has had is one that never came to fruition. The merger of British-owned BP Amoco and the Atlantic Richfield Co. sparked antitrust concerns among several states and the federal government, which filed suit to block it. Last year, the companies settled with the Federal Trade Commission and Illston dismissed the suit. But she wasn’t done yet. The Oregonian sued to unseal files made secret under the settlement. Over objections, Illston unsealed 4,000 documents, including some that tended to show the company planned to drive up prices in the West Coast gasoline market. She also presided over an infamous criminal case. John Dalton was eventually sentenced to 27 years for growing marijuana. But during the course of his case it was revealed that a Drug Enforcement Agency agent had developed a romantic relationship with Dalton’s wife. In fact, he had her hide a tape recorder behind her husband’s bed. Illston didn’t allow the tape to be used, but Dalton was convicted anyway. “Illston is a great judge,” said Dalton’s trial lawyer, J. Tony Serra. “She gives a fair trial, and she’s intelligent and prepared.” “However,” he continued, “we had one of the most outrageous government intrusions into privacy that we’ve ever encountered. If that doesn’t shock the judicial conscience, nothing ever will. “She should have thrown the case out and punished the government for that conduct.” Defense attorney Jerrold Ladar offered praise for Illston, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Stanley Mosk’s California Supreme Court seat. “She has a good practical grasp of what lawyers are going through because she was a practicing trial lawyer,” Ladar said, adding that jurors say they are very comfortable in her courtroom. Illston is sharp, but extremely courteous along with it, a former extern said. “The sort of savvy, slick lawyer is not going to get past her,” said Alexander Saksen, now a litigation associate at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. “If someone tires to trick her, she can see it.” Her patience is nearly boundless, Saksen said. “She was very impressive with both unprepared and, for lack of a better word, obnoxious lawyers.” Although it is probably not wise to be either.

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