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Editorial: SF judges deserve re-election

by BAR Editorial Board

Judges Andrew Cheng, Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee, Curtis Karnow, and Jeffrey Ross. Photos: Rick Gerharter
Judges Andrew Cheng, Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee, Curtis Karnow, and Jeffrey Ross. Photos: Rick Gerharter  

Four San Francisco Superior Court judges are being challenged in the June primary. In stunning fashion in February, four deputy public defenders announced that they would each run against an incumbent judge because they were appointed to the bench by Republican governors and do not reflect San Francisco's diversity. The challengers have not made a convincing case for change or their candidacy, and their claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

We recommend that readers vote to retain the four judges, who, by the way, are all registered Democrats: Andrew Cheng, Curtis Karnow, Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee, and Jeffrey Ross. Each has extensive judicial experience and committed themselves to equal access and equal justice for all.

In his Bay Area Reporter questionnaire, Cheng responded that he has a solid record of progressive rulings. As a Chinese-American who grew up in the Midwest, he said that he has personally experienced discrimination. "I see and understand the situation of those who are minorities or who have faced bias," he wrote.

As an attorney, Cheng worked on the city's tobacco cases that resulted in a $500 million settlement that was used to renovate Laguna Honda Hospital. As deputy chief of the civil division of the U.S. Attorney's office, Cheng supervised hundreds of federal civil cases.

And while Cheng said that he has not presided over any cases in which discrimination against LGBT or HIV-positive people was at issue, he has been active in his church, Old First Presbyterian Church, and as an elder was among the first to call for the ordination of gay and lesbian elders, deacons, and ministers in 1997. That position was eventually adopted by the Presbyterian Church USA many years later.

Karnow stated that the bench "must have judges who are fearless, and who won't bow to ideology, public pressure, or to party politics - national or local. ... I am one of those judges." Karnow oversees complex civil cases, and was appointed by the state Supreme Court to its ethics opinions committee. He has also written extensively about legal matters, including as the author of the Rutter Guide, the bible of California's civil procedure. He's also wrote a key 2008 paper that is now relied on by state and federal courts as they challenge the state's money bail system.

In terms of LGBT issues, Karnow stated that he has taught courses on implicit bias and worked with the former president of the International Association of LGBT Judges on the issue. "I teach judges here and in other parts of the state on these subjects, focusing on the mechanisms of discrimination, how to recognize and deal with discrimination in ourselves and as manifested by others in the courtroom."

But Karnow is probably best known to readers as the judge who issued the order that saved City College of San Francisco from losing its accreditation. That major decision allowed the community college to get back on its feet, and was an important ruling to students, teachers, and the San Francisco community.

Regarding changes to the court, Karnow wrote in his questionnaire that he has spent "over three decades pushing for access to justice - making the process more affordable and transparent."

Lee, who has been a judge for 20 years, led the San Francisco Superior Court as the first Asian woman presiding judge in its history. During that position, 2013-2014, she was the sponsor for technology improvement to make the court "paperless" and instituted other efficiencies to keep the doors open in a time of severe financial crisis.

In her questionnaire, Lee said that she has had LGBT victims, witnesses, and defendants in cases over the years. "I believe every person is entitled to dignity and respect and insist that the attorneys act in a manner that honors that dignity," she wrote. "In jury selection, I educate the jury that their decision must be made on the law and evidence and not based on sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status." Most importantly, she added, "If a lawyer raised LGBT or HIV/AIDS as relevant to his/her case, I would have a hearing without the jury present to determine the relevancy of those issues." On occasion, she said, she has had to interrupt an attorney attempting to raise sexual orientation or health status after she had already ruled it irrelevant or inadmissible.

Ross said his courtroom respects people and treats them fairly. He presides over San Francisco's veterans court, where he works with veterans to get them housing, and mental health and drug treatment, and to avoid incarceration.

In criminal court, Ross stated in his questionnaire that he works to find alternatives to incarceration, including inpatient treatment facilities. "For undocumented defendants, I tried to resolve cases with outcomes which will not subject them to deportation," he wrote. "When I have the jurisdiction to do so, I have reduced charges, and exercised my discretion to lessen the effects of the three-strikes law."

As an attorney, he helped a man living with AIDS regain custody of his daughter. He represented an African-American man on death row who was denied a fair trial.

As a judge, he dismissed criminal charges against Sean Moore, an African-American with mental health issues who was shot by police in the stairwell of his home. (The district attorney's office has appealed that decision to the Court of Appeal.)

In summary, these four San Francisco judges - Cheng, Karnow, Lee, and Ross - have served the city well. Their leadership collectively has resulted in more transparency for people who encounter the court system, efficiency to save scarce resources, and a depth of knowledge that benefits San Francisco.


Judge Tara Flanagan. Photo: Courtesy Flanagan for Judge campaign  

Flanagan for Alameda court

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Tara Flanagan is also being challenged as she faces re-election June 5. We recommend re-electing her to the bench.

Unlike San Francisco, Alameda County does not have many LGBT judges; Flanagan is just one of three lesbians now serving. In her questionnaire to us, she replied that she brings a diversity of life experience to the bench, and integrates that into her judicial perspective. "I understand how society marginalizes many and how the justice system must be culturally competent, fair, and unbiased to all," she wrote.

"I have a deep understanding of our LGBT community - and of course all people - needing fairness and justice," she wrote. "I also believe the community needs to see something of themselves reflected back at them when they come to court, or any government institution."

When Flanagan sees inequities in cases before her, she wrote that she generally tries to urge the attorneys to find a just resolution, or advises them on the court's inclination for a resolution, then helps them find a way to resolve it or divert the case.

Regarding LGBT issues, she wrote, "On an ongoing basis, I also have had the opportunity to talk to attorneys about issues related to gender identity and take efforts to ensure that court users are comfortable and correctly identified by the court based on their preferences/identity." She recalled a case in which a deputy district attorney repeatedly misidentified a litigant "by what seemed to be the wrong gender identity, and took the opportunity to inquire of the court user and attorney how they/she/he wished to be called."

As we and other news outlets have previously reported, Flanagan was fined a few years ago by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for an unintentional campaign finance violation she committed during her first election in 2012. She admitted her mistake, took responsibility, and paid the fine. Having learned from her mistake she retained a professional campaign treasurer for this race, and we see no reason why this past violation should disqualify her from continuing to serve as a judge.

Flanagan is a solid choice for Alameda County voters.


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