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DEFENDANTS MAY HEAR JUDGE’S OWN HISTORY COURT: Alameda County Superior APPOINTED: Elevated via court consolidation in 1998; previous appointment to municipal court by Gov. Pete Wilson on Jan. 24, 1992 BORN: April 19, 1954 LAW SCHOOL: Boalt Hall School of Law, 1979 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Oakland-Piedmont-Emeryville Municipal Court judge, 1992-1998; Alameda County Superior Court settlement commissioner, 1990-1992 In Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte’s courtroom, defendants can expect a talk, whether it’s a lecture, a warning or a good old-fashioned “you know better.” Those who appeared before the Alameda County judge in her previous drug or juvenile assignments have likely heard Harbin-Forte’s personal history of growing up in poverty, a black girl in segregated Mississippi, and becoming a mom at age 16. “I always tell people, ‘Everybody has struggles to overcome,’” Harbin-Forte said. “There’s no excuse for you to just wallow in your problems.” It’s not that she’s smug about her professional success. She would often use her story, she explains, to prove she understood the temptations defendants faced to escape from their problems. Like them, she wasn’t perfect. And if the judge was able to turn her dire circumstances into something better, it wasn’t too late for those defendants. These days however, “Judge Brenda,” as many know her, rarely gives that talk in her current assignment, where she handles felony and misdemeanor trials and preliminary hearings. She says it wouldn’t be appropriate for the more serious criminal cases. And given her 15 years on the bench handling nearly every assignment, from civil jury trials to drug court to felony arraignments, she’s learned how to tailor her spiels. Attorneys say she doesn’t play favorites and isn’t easy to predict. “Judge Harbin-Forte is one of our most courageous judges, and one who will follow her own lights,” said Deputy Public Defender Richard Foxall. In the past, he said, she’s found a police officer perjured himself and has even held opposing views with the executive judge when she was presiding judge of the juvenile court. “A lot of judges just let cases grind through,” said Kathryn Cox, a San Francisco solo previously based in Oakland. “She actually … sees the people before her and humanizes the process for people. She doesn’t just run a mill.” Attorneys have to stay sharp, ready to answer Harbin-Forte’s questions. When Deputy District Attorney Annie Saadi first argued in the judge’s courtroom, she said Harbin-Forte reminded her of her own constitutional law professor because she asked questions in the Socratic style. “Even if you don’t agree with her, she would appreciate your candor,” Saadi said. “She invites debates.” Despite the welcome discussions, attorneys also say she manages to keep control of her courtroom. In a homicide case Deputy DA Amilcar “Butch” Ford prosecuted last year, all the prosecution witnesses were family members with tense relationships among them. They had appeared on “The Jerry Springer Show” just a few weeks before appearing in Harbin-Forte’s courtroom, according to Ford. It seemed to be the makings of a stormy trial, but in the end, according to Ford’s recollection, the judge kept them in line and let them tell their stories. “Before anything was said, she said this was her courtroom, she was the judge,” Ford said. “She let them know there was no funny business to be had.” Asserting herself can be especially important when she gets the feeling defendants expect her to be more lenient as a black female judge. “Sometimes, I think it makes them think I will cut them more slack,” she said. “It’s kind of funny.” For years, Harbin-Forte has spoken out on the need to diversify the bench. She was the first African-American woman to be appointed dean of California’s judicial college. In March, the State Bar appointed her chair of the Council on Access and Fairness, which advises the Board of Governors on diversifying the legal profession. She started out planning to become a public defender, but later realized she didn’t want to limit herself to criminal law. So after her clerkship with the now-Senior Judge Dorothy Nelson of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, she moved on to handle both civil and criminal cases at the former firm of Oakland attorney John Burris, and later became a partner at what was then Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges. In her days as a lawyer, she once represented defendants in quasi-medical malpractice and asbestos litigation, where she says she realized she wasn’t everyone’s favorite person. One class action involved defending a company that provided in vitro fertilization to women, which was eventually settled. “The plaintiff’s bar thinks you’re just evil,” she joked. But it seems there isn’t much that can faze this former sixth-grade oratorical competitor. On a recent afternoon, as Judge Harbin-Forte filled in on an arraignment calendar, one defendant facing a public intoxication charge was being especially loud and boorish, which attracted laughs from the audience. She read him an order to stay away from a Castro Valley video store and read aloud his next court appearance. “I gotta come back to court, your honor? Why?” he demanded. She smiled only slightly amid laughs from the spectators and kept her eyes on her files. “Because you have a pending matter,” Harbin-Forte said, raising her voice slightly. “June 12 at 9:30. Dept. 501. That’s next door.” You can order past judicial profiles of more than 100 Bay Area judges here or by calling 415-749-5406.

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