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JUDGE FROM L.A. FINDING ALAMEDA’S TEMPO COURT: Alameda County Superior APPOINTED: Feb. 23, 2005, by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger BORN: May 11, 1955 LAW SCHOOL: University of Virginia School of Law, 1980 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, 1997-1999, Los Angeles Superior Court judge, 2000-2005 Ronni MacLaren knows few shortcuts in the pursuit of justice. Having climbed her way to a coveted spot as a felony trial judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court, she moved away in 2004 with the hope of landing a seat on a Bay Area bench. Her husband came north to open a San Francisco office for his firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Before claiming a permanent assignment in Alameda County in 2005, MacLaren wound up sitting in temporary assignments in three Bay Area county courts. At one point, she was switching locations with such regularity that she used her SUV as a traveling law library. Some lawyers say MacLaren can take the long road in court, too. Before arriving in her current civil law assignment, MacLaren once presided over a marathon 30-day trial in family court, featuring some 41 witnesses and 351 exhibits. Cynthia Podren, a family law specialist in Berkeley, said the trial was originally set to run roughly one week. She said it was her longest trial “by about 28 days.” But when all is said and done, even if the result comes slowly, attorneys say MacLaren brings a sharp mind and a serious work ethic, inspiring confidence that her rulings will be fair and well-reasoned. During the trial of a woman who killed her ex-husband by stabbing him 48 times with a kitchen knife, defense lawyer Stuart Hanlon said, MacLaren spent a lot of time reviewing the law pertaining to a defendant’s state of mind. “She was a real judge. And a lot of the judges we have now are not really judges. They’re really rubber-stampers for the prosecution,” he said. MacLaren, a former federal prosecutor, was appointed to the Los Angeles municipal court by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997, and was then elevated to the superior court three years later. One of her first assignments had her toiling away mornings and some nights on arraignments for misdemeanor defendants whose last names began with the letters O to Z. That experience “taught me how to deal with volume,” MacLaren said. In Alameda County, like in her current assignment as a civil law judge in the city of Alameda’s diminutive George E. McDonald Hall of Justice, she has at times found that courtroom activity moves at a more relaxed pace. “I needed to adapt to that culture rather than that culture adapting to me,” she said. But MacLaren hasn’t always found the right tempo to satisfy all lawyers. Podren, the Berkeley attorney who had the 30-day family law trial in a custody dispute involving molestation claims, said colleagues complained that her case was creating congestion in the system. She also said the lengthy trial ran up hefty legal bills. “You have to wonder what would have happened to these people and that little girl if there hadn’t been enough money to bankroll that trial,” said Podren, who won a custody order. In another case, Oakland solo Thomas Tagliarini said MacLaren had lawyers conducting their trial only one or two days a week because of calendar conflicts. Then, once MacLaren took over an asbestos case involving a dying plaintiff, Tagliarini said she sent the lawyers home until August. “I’ve never had a case that’s been tried in piecemeal fashion and then adjourned for a long period,” he said. MacLaren said the presiding judge directed her to take the asbestos trial, which had to be given preference by law because of the plaintiff’s condition. And while the judge declined to discuss specifics of the 30-day trial, noting it was an ongoing case, she said when setting a trial calendar the court must rely on estimates of counsel “which are not always realistic if certain issues aren’t resolved ahead of time.” “I try very hard to keep people within their time estimates, unless it’s going to result in injustice,” she added. Panos Lagos, a solo practitioner in Oakland who represents tenants in landlord-tenant disputes, had a favorable first impression. Lagos visited MacLaren’s courtroom before his first appearance there to decide whether he should proceed in front of this unfamiliar judge or request a new one. He watched MacLaren to figure out if she interrupted the parties as they spoke or if she appeared to favor one side over the other. “I saw none of that,” he said. “She listened and was courteous, and she asked good questions when she did talk. That’s all I’m looking for.” Lagos said he came away so impressed, “I concluded that not only do I want to keep this judge, but I’m waiving the jury.” When the Alameda County court reshuffled its civil case assignment system so that most cases get assigned directly to one judge for all purposes � instead of constantly bouncing around from one judge to another � MacLaren was picked as one of a dozen direct calendar judges. Her courtroom in Alameda has had its advantages and disadvantages. As an outdoors enthusiast, MacLaren gets to admire the bay view from her chambers, just a stone’s throw from the shoreline. When she’s not working on court papers there, she puts in extra time answering an ethics hotline for the state judiciary. On the downside, MacLaren’s spot in the McDonald courthouse has limited the amount of contact she has with other judges and the local bar. But if MacLaren is feeling isolated in her bay-side courtroom, she isn’t letting on. She wasn’t put on the bench, after all, to perform for a crowd. “I don’t try to be a personality up there,” MacLaren said. “I think you try to embody an institution up there.”

Matthew Hirsch

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