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4 Public Defenders Run for San Francisco Judge Seats

by by Seth Hemmelgarn

Deputy Public Defenders Kwixuan Hart Maloof, left, Nicole Judith Solis, Phoenix Streets, and Maria Elena Evangelista are each challenging a sitting San Francisco Superior Court judge in June
Deputy Public Defenders Kwixuan Hart Maloof, left, Nicole Judith Solis, Phoenix Streets, and Maria Elena Evangelista are each challenging a sitting San Francisco Superior Court judge in June  (Source:Nate Allbee)

Four San Francisco deputy public defenders, including a Latina lesbian, have filed papers to unseat incumbent Superior Court judges in the June 5 election.

While the attorneys who spoke to the Bay Area Reporter said they want changes on the bench, they didn't provide specifics on what they'd do differently. One of their main complaints was that the incumbents were appointed by Republican governors, but they didn't point to specific judges' decisions they disagreed with.

Deputy Public Defender Nicole Judith Solis, 49, said she's running to defeat Seat 11 Judge Jeffrey S. Ross because if she's elected, she'll be "the first lesbian Latina on the bench in San Francisco."

Referring to the fact that Republican former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Ross, a Democrat, Solis also said that judges should reflect the values of the community, and "a Schwarzenegger appointee doesn't reflect the values of our community. It's that simple."

As for Ross being a Democrat, Solis said, "I don't know what he is. I know he was appointed by Schwarzenegger."

Asked to name one specific change that she would bring, Solis, who's also a Democrat, said, "There are many changes. When we go to debate, I am happy to debate those with my opponents."

She didn't share any specific decisions of Ross' that she's disagreed with, saying, "I don't want to discuss my opponent."

However, she said, people have expressed concern to her "that the criminal justice system is broken, and I think it's time for something new. ... I bring a brand new perspective that nobody has ever seen before."

Among other achievements, Solis said that she sat on former mayor Gavin Newsom's criminal justice steering committee when the Community Justice Center was being formulated.

Governor Jerry Brown appointed Solis to the state bar's Criminal Law Advisory Commission, and she's also served as president of the San Francisco La Raza Lawyers Association.

Additionally, Solis sat on the city's pretrial diversion committee, and she's worked as an attorney in juvenile hall.

For the past several years, Solis has represented James Rickleffs, 51, who's charged with murder in the death of Steven "Eriq" Escalon, a 28-year-old gay San Francisco hairstylist whose body was found bound and gagged in 2012.

Rickleffs, who's been in custody since shortly after Escalon's death, was ordered to stand trial almost four years ago, but that trial has not yet gotten underway. Prosecutors and Escalon's family have expressed dismay with Solis for delays in the case.

Solis declined to discuss the case, saying her race for judge "has nothing to do" with Rickleffs.

One of Solis' supporters is Bevan Dufty, a gay former San Francisco supervisor and current BART director.

"I've known Niki for over a decade, and she's been an incredible public defender," said Dufty. "I see her being compassionate and tough, and I think that she brings a lot of great qualities to the bench. I don't think there's a judge that really has the perspective and background that she does."

Ross, 66, whom Schwarzenegger appointed more than eight years ago, spoke of his own qualities.

"I have been fair, I have been thoughtful," and willing to make decisions required by law "regardless of any political issues," he said, adding, "I love my job and the people I serve."

Ross said, "We were told we were being challenged because we were appointed by Republican governors."

However, he said that he's been registered as a Democrat since 1969, when he was 18. The reason he applied for a judicial appointment under Schwarzenegger was that "it was pretty well known" that former Democratic Governor Gray Davis, who preceded Schwarzenegger, "didn't appoint criminal defense lawyers," so he waited.

"I'm so proud to be on a bench as diverse as ours," since it includes judges from the gay, lesbian, black, Hispanic, and Asian communities, said Ross, who practiced law for 34 years, representing criminal defendants in state and federal court, before he became a judge.

He also handled family law and other cases, argued cases in the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, and served as president of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

As a judge, Ross has overseen the Veterans Justice Court, which sees veterans who've been charged with crimes and helps them with housing, treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and other problems.

In his current post, he's handled cases involving murder, rape, domestic violence, and other crimes.

Ross said that jurors have written to him saying they'd volunteer for jury service again after seeing how he conducted trials.

"I very much enjoy doing that work, doing it that way and knowing that I'm serving justice," said Ross. "... My job is to make sure that all are respected, and treated courteously and with dignity."

Lesbian criminal defense attorney Nanci Clarence said she knows Ross the best, but with all four judges, there is "not any question about their independence or fairness or their ability to do a good job."

Clarence said working to defeat a judge because the governor of a certain political party appointed them "is really dangerous ground to walk on."

"Gay people need to know that this sword can be wielded against us," she said. "...We need to be aware that when you challenge judges for their perceived political affiliation, you're endangering their independence."


Seat 9

Deputy Public Defender Kwixuan Hart Maloof is one of two attorneys who are running to oust Seat 9 Judge Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee.

In 2015, while he was representing a man accused of attacking a transgender woman, Maloof repeatedly referred to the woman as male and used male pronouns for her.

Asked at the time about how people in the transgender community would likely be horrified at his comments regarding the victim's gender, Maloof said, "They can be horrified if they want."

"Unless he's had an operation," Maloof added, the victim was still a man.

Reached by phone this week, Maloof asked the B.A.R. to email questions to him. The next day, after the B.A.R.'s deadline had passed, he said that he didn't have time to respond to questions by email.

Lee, 68, who served as the court's first Asian-American female presiding judge, told the B.A.R. that she wants voters to "look at my track record. Look at what I've done over the last 20 years."

"I have been an ethical, hard working judge who's exercised good judgment with integrity and honesty," she said. "I believe the things I've done speak more volumes about who I am and my values than what has been put out by my opponents."

Former Republican Governor Pete Wilson appointed Lee, who's a Democrat.

Lee said that when she was presiding judge, she founded the Veterans Justice Court that Ross eventually oversaw, and "I created the Truancy Action Partnership in collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District and child welfare agencies to go into elementary schools in the southeast part of the city to address issues of homelessness among elementary school children."

She said the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women recognized her after she implemented mandatory domestic violence training for all of the judges.

Attorney Elizabeth Zareh, 56, who filed in January, is also hoping to unseat Lee.

Zareh said that along with being an attorney, she's also a licensed real estate broker. She said that while most of the other candidates have backgrounds in criminal law, she's the only one with background in real estate, business, and other legal areas. She's handled complex business litigation, employment, and real estate matters, and she's argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Currently serving as a judge pro tem, Zareh fills in for other judges as needed, and she also sits on the city's Assessment Appeals board, which hears disputes between the city and taxpayers.

Zareh, a Democrat, said, "I don't know of any of [Lee's] rulings I would say I disagree with," but she said, "I'll be working with all the communities of San Francisco, and I'm not going to be limited to one community or another."


Seat 4

In another race, Deputy Public Defender Phoenix Streets, 49, is working to defeat Seat 4 Judge Andrew Y.S. Cheng.

"I'm running because there needs to be a change in how the judges approach their jobs and how they treat individuals," said Streets. It's time "to focus on the individual needs of each person that comes in, because that is the only time you're going to actually solve any of the situations and problems that we have in this city, and the city has so many different programs that the court has access to, and that the court can utilize to assist people with whatever needs they have."

Asked about specific cases or decisions that he disagreed with, Streets said, "This being a judges race, I can't really comment on their specific decisions."

He said that running together against the four judges was "really a group decision."

"We're stronger as a group than we are as individuals," said Streets. "We're strong individuals, but it's easier to run as a group, because then we don't have all the judges focused on one person. They have to deal with the four of us rather than one."

Cheng couldn't be reached for comment.


Seat 7

Incumbent Seat 7 Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow, 64, who said he's "a lifelong liberal Democrat," has been a judge since 2005, when Schwarzenegger appointed him.

He said it's "peculiar" that people are trying to paint him and other incumbents as "conservative or Republican. ... No one, I think, would call me a conservative."

"I am completely mystified as to why they picked me" to run against, he added. "I am mystified."

Karnow noted, "I issued the injunction that saved City College in San Francisco" when the community college faced being shut down by accreditors, and he's also taken on other progressive issues.

"I wrote the paper on bail reform that is now front and center and of great concern to the people of California" as officials examine the practice of keeping people in custody when they can't afford to bail out, said Karnow, who currently oversees complex litigation.

"The most complicated cases in the state are entrusted to me by the courts," he said, and "I'm one of the most respected trial judges in the state."

In an apparent reference to his book "Litigation in Practice," Karnow said he authored the "bible of civil litigation," and for years he's taught judges around California.

In 2015, the state Supreme Court appointed him to the Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions.

Deputy Public Defender Maria Elena Evangelista, who's running against Karnow, couldn't be reached for comment.


Presiding judges' support

In a statement released the day Solis and her colleagues filed their papers with the Department of Elections, Presiding Judge Teri L. Jackson and Assistant Presiding Judge Garrett L. Wong offered their support to the incumbents.

"Under our Judicial Canon 5(a) we have an obligation as judges to uphold the integrity, impartiality, and independence of our judiciary," Jackson and Wong said in a statement, adding that they "stand firmly behind" the four judges who are being challenged and called them "tremendous assets" to the state and the city.

"Further, as stated in the Canons, we are in a unique position to know the qualifications necessary to serve as a competent jurist. These four judges are extremely well respected by their peers throughout the state. They are exceptional members of the state judiciary and as judges on the San Francisco bench have presided over every case with fairness, impartiality and consideration of every person that comes before them," stated Jackson and Wong.

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