U.S. District Judge, Vince Chhabria Northern District of California (Hillary Jones-Mixon)
SAN FRANCISCO — In a sense, the Northern District’s newest judges are known commodities.
James Donato is a former president of the Bar Association of San Francisco. Beth Labson Freeman served as presiding judge in San Mateo County Superior Court. Vince Chhabria handled high-profile cases in the San Francisco city attorney’s office.
But a race to size up the trio as federal judges is underway.
The rush of new blood has largely remade the Northern District bench, lawyers and judges say. In the San Jose courthouse, for example, every active judge is an Obama appointee.
“There has been a tremendous impact” on the court under Obama, said U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel of the Northern District, who heads the Federal Judicial Center. “It’s almost a generational change—it’s a younger group, it’s a more diverse group, and I think it’s certainly a more technologically savvy group.”
And the appointees’ relative youth means that lawyers are likely getting acquainted with the judges that will hear their cases for the long haul. Chhabria, for example, is just 44.
“[Obama] has shaped the bench for decades,” said Rory Little, a professor at UC-Hastings College of the Law.
In his first term, the president appointed Judges Richard Seeborg and Edward Chen to fill San Francisco vacancies; Edward Davila and Lucy Koh to San Jose seats; and Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland. After Obama’s reelection, the Senate confirmed Judges Jon Tigar and William Orrick III, who assumed seats in San Francisco last year.
One of Obama’s lasting impacts will be a more diverse judiciary. He appointed the district’s first Article III judges of Asian descent and its first Latina. Chhabria is the district’s first judge of South Asian descent.
Robert Van Nest, a name partner at Keker & Van Nest, said he likes what he’s seen in the recent additions to the bench. “Experience and a practical approach is what I see sticking out among these folks,” he said.
Freeman, for one, has not had to discover her approach to the bench. After serving for more than a decade on the San Mateo bench, she said she has been pleasantly surprised by how many aspects of judging carry over from state to federal court. But she has spent her first months on the job getting acclimated to the breadth of cases heard in the Northern District.
“It’s both exciting and challenging for a judge to hear the words, ‘The Ninth Circuit hasn’t ruled on this issue,’” she said.
She views oral arguments as a critical juncture in the development of a case.
“I truly love the intellectual give-and-take with the attorneys,” Freeman said. “To me, it’s the epitome of lawyering and judging.”
Donato, who was previously a partner at Shearman & Sterling, comes to the bench with a litigator’s vantage. He said he strives to ensure that lawyers enjoy appearing in his courtroom, regardless of whether they prevail.
“I think every day in court should be the highlight of a litigant’s week,” he said.
Fogel said Obama’s appointees seem to take a holistic approach to judging.
“When I was coming up as a judge, there was a sense that you had this logical, rational job to do,” Fogel said. “I think the notion of judging has grown in some ways to include not only being good at analyzing the law but also being smart about people.”
Speaking at Thursday’s investiture, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera noted that Chhabria did not shy away from controversial cases, though he knew he might have to answer for them during the judicial confirmation process. During his remarks, Chhabria vowed to empower members of the community to overcome their disadvantages in his courtroom.
“The dominant cannot have the benefit of the doubt over the struggling in the courtroom,” he said.
Like their peers, the new judges already have dockets that are stocked with cases pitting powerful technology companies against each other. Conceding that she is no technophile, Freeman said she has enjoyed learning from the lawyers who appear before her when obscure technology is in question.
“They don’t anticipate that their judge is an electrical engineer,” she said.
Donato, who described himself as a “total tech geek,” said he is itching to dig into the technology cases on his docket. The cases can be vexing, with precedent sometimes set long before the technology at issue was created. Such questions usually rise to higher courts, but Donato is eager to be the first to tackle them.
“Being a district court judge for any trial lawyer is catnip,” he said. “You can’t say no to it.”
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