COURT: San Francisco Superior
APPOINTED: Sept. 30, 2003, by Gov. Gray Davis
DATE OF BIRTH: Feb. 29, 1964
LAW SCHOOL: Yale University Law School, 1989
PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None
After a jury convicted Adam Gasner’s client of his second DUI, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos stayed 30 days of jail time, deciding the defendant won’t have to serve them — if he guest teaches economics at Mission High School for a year.
Gasner lauds the judge’s foray into alternative sentencing. “It’s creative thinking, and I think it bodes well for defendants.”
While the Gasner, Spahr & Larson lawyer gives Bolanos a thumbs-up for thinking outside the box, lawyers’ opinions on the judge are mixed, and sometimes contradictory.
About a year after her appointment, some attorneys are calling Bolanos cordial, convivial, balanced and a quick learner.
On the other hand, some of the public and private defense attorneys interviewed think Bolanos favors prosecutors — or at least that she used to — and some suggest her learning curve is particularly steep.
A child of immigrant parents from Chile and Peru, Bolanos began her legal career working for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national Latino civil rights organization. While lobbying for that group on Capitol Hill, she met Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who hired her to be a lawyer for a committee he chaired. Today, a couple of photos of Bolanos and Kennedy hang on a wall in her chambers — alongside some of her with then-Vice President Al Gore, for whom she worked as a domestic policy adviser.
After a stint as an associate in the litigation group at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, Bolanos became a federal prosecutor. Her trial experience as a lawyer was all in federal court, mostly prosecuting drug trafficking and alien smuggling cases and defending the government in civil cases. She worked briefly for the U.S. attorney’s Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property unit before her appointment by then-Gov. Gray Davis.
Bolanos, said to be the first Hispanic woman on the San Francisco bench, says Latino legal groups urged the governor to pick her. She also got recommendations from Kennedy and Gore. “I had a lot of help getting here,” she said.
In her misdemeanor courtroom, Bolanos says she’s big on decorum, likes lawyers to brief arguments, and encourages them to negotiate everything. And she “strongly” encourages attorneys to include treatment for any mental health or substance abuse problems when proposing plea bargains or sentences for defendants.
The judge also appreciates when lawyers, even private counsel, make it to her chambers by 8:30 a.m. to discuss their cases.
Several lawyers praise Bolanos’ demeanor, calling her soft-spoken, approachable and personable.
“Not only is she polite and nice, she appears to make really good rulings,” said defense attorney James Collins.
“She’s very, very patient and gracious. I give her among the highest marks that I can” for that, said a criminal defense lawyer who has used a peremptory challenge against her. This lawyer, who asked not to be identified, thinks Bolanos favors the prosecution, an opinion based in part on the judge’s job history as well as several rulings observed by a colleague.
About five months ago, complaints that Bolanos was treating deputy public defenders and their clients unfairly reached a point where Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s office used — briefly — an unusual blanket peremptory challenge against her.
Bolanos asked Judge Mary Wiss, her mentor at the court, to give her some coaching.
Bolanos says she makes fairness a priority, examines the law closely, and listens to both sides carefully.
While Assistant DA John Delgado said Bolanos doesn’t make snap judgments, a private defense lawyer who requested anonymity said the judge makes decisions quickly and can be defensive about them.
Bolanos has been fair and sympathetic to clients, the lawyer said. But once her mind is made up, “She’ll let you make the record, but she won’t necessarily listen to what you say.”
The judge says she often sticks to her guns because she’s thought her decision through carefully, but she’ll revisit something if attorneys raise new authorities or facts. Otherwise, she said, “I make sure they have a complete record so they can take it up on appeal.”
Since the public defender’s short-lived blanket challenge in April, the “general consensus” in that office is that Bolanos is treating litigants better, said Chief Attorney Teresa Caffese, No. 2 in the PD’s office. “The jury’s still out on all other matters.”
Deputies still have to “educate” the judge on basic issues when they arise for the first time, writing briefs on what “should be obvious,” Caffese added. “She is trying,” she said. “But it’s been painful at times to practice in her department.”
A couple of lawyers who perceived a prosecutorial bent at first say Bolanos seems to have shifted more to the middle.
“Recently when I’ve been before her, she was very balanced,” said Paul “Nate” Puri of Puri & Walia, who as a volunteer public defender tried two cases in front of Bolanos last year.
And solo Douglas Horngrad said the judge seems to be relying more on her own instincts, “finding her own terra firma.”
“It’s a subtle change,” he added.
Bolanos says she’s made an effort from the very beginning to be open-minded, so she’s intrigued by comments that she’s changed. Noting that she’d never practiced in a state misdemeanor court, she said, “If there’s been any change, it’s that I’m feeling more at ease.”