COURT: San Mateo County Superior
LAW SCHOOL: Yale Law School
PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Judge, San Mateo County Municipal Court (1987 to 1992)
PREVIOUS EMPLOYMENT: McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen (1980 to 1981); deputy district attorney, San Mateo County (1981 to 1987)
PLACE OF BIRTH: San Francisco
POLITICAL AFFILIATION: Republican
Q: What do you like most about being a judge?
A: I think the part about being a judge I like best is trying to improve levels of public service to the constituents that we serve, and I’ve been presiding judge three separate times in the 25 1/2 years that I’ve been a judge. And each time I’ve tried to do something innovative to try to serve the public.
Back in the municipal court days, we started telephonic standby for jurors so not all jurors had to come into the courthouse, back in 1989, I believe. And then when I was presiding judge in 1997 of the superior court, we started Internet standby for jurors. Then when I was presiding judge in 2003 to 2004, Judge [George] Miram was my assistant presiding judge, and we went to 35 different law firms in San Mateo County, at lunch, and we invited the attorneys to give us suggestions as to how we could improve our delivery of services to them and to the public. And as a result of that very interactive, positive set of meetings, we ended up with a full-time probate court, direct calendars for family law they were previously not single assignment calendars and we started the open-access system where people can go on the Internet and access their case information on the Internet. All of those changes and innovations came through those meetings. So that’s what I most like about being a judge, is to try to figure out ways to improve our services.
The other thing I really like about my job is my mental health calendar that I’m going to start in a few minutes. It’s really rewarding to see people get treatment, get help and not return to committing new crimes and not returning to jail. And the program has been in existence for six years now.
Q: Is this Pathways?
A: Yes, Pathways. I also was part of the group that founded Bridges, which is another great program, but Pathways is the mental health court. Bridges is the court that deals with drug/alcohol treatment and I oversee the admission of defendants to both courts and we do that together every Friday morning.
Pathways, we’ve had 49 graduates, which means people have completed probation either two to three years and not returned to committing new crimes. We’ve had only two probation violation hearings in six years and the treatment team does a wonderful job. It’s a team made up of probation officers, mental health professionals and the district attorney, Mr. [Stephen] Wagstaffe often will appear at the calendar and the second-ranking person in the Private Defender Program, Myra Weiher, will also appear at the calendar. The team has stayed together for the whole time and I think that accounts for some of the success that we’ve had.
It’s rewarding to see a positive turn around. We always take a picture of every graduation and I collect the pictures up on my bookshelf.
Q: When I spoke to Judge Miram, he had pretty strong opinion on the state of technology at the moment, in the county, how about you?
A: I’m on the Alliance of California Judges’ board of directors, and I am a strong proponent of democratizing the Judicial Council. Particularly in light of the problems with CCMS. We were on our way to doing some really positive things with technology here. Our court, under the leadership of Peggy Thompson, our former court administrator, created a program called EZLegalFile, which is like a TurboTax model for people to be able to navigate through and file cases, small-claims cases, particularly, but any civil case. And it was eventually taken over by the Judicial Council and Administrative Office of the Courts and terminated because they put all their funding into the CCMS program.
Unfortunately, CCMS was a very ill-conceived concept and over half-a-billion dollars was wasted on it and we have nothing to show for it. And it’s held a number of courts back from their own technological advances that would have benefitted our citizens here in San Mateo County. It’s kind of in a state of limbo now as to what’s going to happen because it’s unclear whether there’s going to be funding now for local courts to be able to innovate on their own or develop their own systems. So we’ll have to wait and see how that all works out.
We do have a scanning program, which is pretty good. I’d love to see something that’s similar to the federal system, where we have a paperless system, eventually, and something that would not put so much pressure on our clerks. The current criminal system that we use, for example, is very intensive on the clerks entering codes and things, and it would be nice to make their lives easier by having a scan system or something that would be more efficient, effective.
Q: For your criminal trials, do you impose time limits on argument?
A: I do not impose time limits. I do mostly felony jury trials so the lawyers are very thoughtful and do an excellent job for the most part, so I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to limit their case. If I think something is going over the top, I do occasionally raise an objection or I’ll talk to the attorneys out of the presence of the jury and suggest to them, maybe, they could tighten some things up. But time limits are not something I impose either on voir dire or on argument.
Q: Do you see any common mistakes that attorneys are making?
A: I think that attorneys, for the most part, are extremely conscientious. But the most common mistake, I think is not getting to the point quick enough. Not synthesizing a case. And give the jurors credit for hearing things, so not having to repeat things over and over. The other area where I think attorneys could do better is in final argument.
I always think that final arguments that tell a story, at the beginning, where you can take and weave together all the facts of the case in that manner are more effective than starting to tell the jurors the jury instructions that they’re going to hear. Because they’re going to hear that from me anyway. I think the jurors are more interested in things they’re hearing if they’re told to them in a way that is compelling and interesting.
Q: How often are you involved in settlement?
A: I settle a lot criminal cases. I think the attorneys here who have worked with me a long time have confidence in my being fair in evaluation of cases. I know one attorney told me one time, and I think he was quoting federal Judge Lowell Jensen: "It’s really good to know the difference between a battleship and a row boat." I think the attorneys have confidence in my ability to do that, and I believe strongly in treatment alternatives where appropriate. I think attorneys know that’s my philosophy and I’ll give people a fair shot at turning their lives around with appropriate programming and things like that.
Q: Would you say the attorneys do a good job in coming up with alternatives for you or is there something they could do better to help the court settle cases?
A: Our court has been pretty progressive in the manner in which we have created alternative programs. Judge [Craig] Parsons and I created drug court all the way back in 1993 and drug court is still going. Judge [Richard] Livermore does a great job with that. And Judge Parsons, [John] Grandsaert and I handle the Bridges calendar, so that alternative’s available. And that program has about a 75 percent success rate. And in fact, we’re going to have a graduation next week, May 7, and it’s really rewarding to see the graduates and their families come into the courtroom and speak about how their lives have changed in a positive way. And then we have Pathways for the mental health piece.
[Also] Judge Grandsaert, within the last two years, just created a veterans court. That’s a real positive addition, too. So we have a number of programs that are positive and the attorneys themselves do a good job in helping or motivating their clients to get into the Choices Program, which is an in-jail facility that’s very good, and then the array of different treatment programs out there like the Women’s Recovery Association and Free at Last in Palo Alto. There’s a whole spectrum of programs available that we make use of as a sentencing tool.
Q: Do you have any advice for new attorneys?
A: Advice for new attorneys is, don’t try to imitate other attorneys. Be yourself in the courtroom. Let your own, positive personality shine through, No. 1. No. 2, try to be more succinct. Try to get to the point quicker and trust that the jurors, in fact, will understand what you are presenting to them. Those are my main suggestions.
Q: How often to you sanction attorneys?
A: We sanctioned people when we used to do the case management calendar and I’ve handled that calendar on and off over the years, maybe three or four different times if an attorney didn’t show up or didn’t file a CMC statement. The practice at the time was to sanction the attorney for not complying with a court directive or order. The problem with the whole thing was usually the attorney had a reasonable explanation as to why they didn’t do something. So they’d write a letter to you and most of the time I would relieve the sanction and it would create a sort of paperwork mess. And staff time to work on it all. As the years have rolled by, I’m even reluctant to sanction people on that calendar for not doing things.
And now we don’t use a court reporter on that calendar so now I don’t think the judges feel comfortable sanctioning people without a court reporter. That would be a real problem, so I think we’ve kind of evolved into not sanctioning people before that type of calendar.
Q: Do you feel hamstrung by this evolution that sanctioning is rare?
A: No, I don’t. I think when I was younger as a judge, I was more intent on seeing cases get pushed through the system quicker. Certainly when I was presiding judge in ’03 I inherited a civil calendar that was backed up and was pretty hard line on continuances, but in more recent years, I don’t share that same philosophy anymore. In fact, with all the budget problems, I had advocated to go to an automatic system where we set a trial automatically through a computer that would set a trial out three years and go back to the old system of having attorneys tell us when they were ready. Fast track was a big deal at one point along the evolution of our court system. Now, with the budget problems that we have, philosophically I think it’s hypocritical to come down on attorneys, force them to do things on a deadline when we ourselves are having trouble now getting cases out with some of the financial problems that we struggle with. At least, speaking for myself, I think I’ve evolved into not worrying much about the timeline when cases go on.