Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Political Notebook: Lawyer seeks judge seat


Out attorney Robert Retana is running for judge in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy Retana for Judge campaign
Print this Page
Send to a Friend
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on MySpace!

Having represented the state's judges as their attorney in legal matters, San Francisco resident Robert Retana would like to switch roles and join the judiciary himself. The openly gay attorney is seeking an open seat on the San Francisco Superior Court in the June primary.

Retana, 47, is one of three out gay judicial candidates running for the court vacancy. Since 2007 he has worked in the Office of the General Counsel for the state court system. He has worked for private law firms and spent four years in the late 1990s working as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco where he handled some of the first same-sex domestic violence cases prosecuted by the office.

His breadth of legal experience, argues Retana, makes him more than qualified to serve on the bench.

"I think I have a very well-rounded background as a lawyer. I have done civil cases, criminal cases, and large complex cases including class actions. I have trial experience," said Retana, who is a judge pro tem in San Mateo County where he presides over small claims and traffic court matters. "Many of the candidates running have criminal or civil experience but do not have both. I can hit the ground running no matter if I am assigned to the Hall of Justice or the superior court."

The candidates running for seats on the court had until Wednesday, February 10 [after the Bay Area Reporter 's deadline] not only to file to run but also declare which of the 16 judicial seats up for election this year they would seek. Retana is expected to face off against lesbian deputy public defender Linda Colfax; openly gay local attorney Dan Dean ; and several straight candidates for the open seat.

Like numerous other gay legal professionals, Retana had sought a gubernatorial appointment to the bench. He was interviewed by the state bar association's judicial candidate review panel in 2007 but was never contacted by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointments secretary.

Last fall he applied for a seat on the city's police commission but was bypassed for another out applicant, former assistant district attorney Jim Hammer. Had he been selected for the post, Retana said he would not be running in the judicial race this year.

Rather, his plan was to first serve on the commission and then run for judge.

"People throughout my career encouraged me to apply for judge. They say I have an even temperament and a way of treating people with respect that would make me a good fit to be a judge," said Retana, who lives in Eureka Valley with his boyfriend of three years, Tony Valle .

Retana grew up in an East Los Angeles housing project one of eight children. He graduated from Columbia University and attended the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.  

"I have a very humble background that will help me as a judge," said Retana, whose grandparents grew up in Mexico. "Not everyone on the bench has had that life experience of going from one extreme to the other."

As a Latino and a member of the LGBT community, Retana said he can help to diversify the courts, which lack both Hispanics and LGBT judges. While a number of out judges are serving on the San Francisco Superior Court, only one gay judge has been appointed to fill a vacancy by Schwarzenegger.

"There is no openly gay person of color on the bench," said Retana.

With such a crowded field of candidates seeking the open seat, it is likely the two top vote-getters in the June primary will face off in the November election. Due to his current job, Retana said he ruled out taking on a sitting judge.

"It would be difficult for me to do my job and run against a judge who could be a potential client and have to call me for legal reasons," he said.

Having lived in the city for 10 years now, Retana hopes his ties to San Francisco will give him an edge with voters.

"It is important for San Francisco judges to live here. A lot of people who have been appointed don't live here," he said. "We need to diversify the San Francisco bench."

Judge faces gay opponent

Michael Nava, an openly gay staff attorney for California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, shocked the local legal community this week with his announcement he would run against San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer. Nava has been running for a judicial seat since last fall and was expected to also seek the vacant spot.

But Monday morning he filed his paperwork to take on Ulmer, saying in an e-mail to supporters that he "made this decision because I believe that diversity on the bench will not be achieved by members of the LGBT community or the communities of color fighting for the scraps that fall from the master's table. We need to demand our place at the table."

He acknowledged how controversial his decision is and said he pulled all of his endorsements from judges off of his campaign Web site, including that of Moreno. In the e-mail he wrote that Ulmer "lives in Hillsborough" and "appears to be conservative" due to his donating to Republicans President George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain.

He wrote that as a judge he would be "a better representative of San Francisco and its progressive values."

In an interview Monday afternoon Ulmer told the B.A.R. he was "surprised" that Nava "hasn't done more research than he apparently has" on his opponent. After he joined the San Francisco bench last year, Ulmer moved back to the city – he had lived here for 15 years prior to moving to the Peninsula – into Park Merced with his wife, Anita Stork, and their daughter, Rikki Ulmer, who attends St. Ignatius High School.

Ulmer, who turns 56 in March, said he is no longer a Republican and registered as a decline-to-state. At one point a registered Democrat, he bristled at being categorized as a conservative judge.

"The notion he is a progressive and I am not a progressive doesn't fly in my view," said Ulmer, who was also quick to point out that Nava does not live in San Francisco but in Daly City. [Judicial candidates are not required to live in the superior court district in which they are seeking a seat.]

The two candidates' progressive credentials will likely loom large in the race, as two years ago former Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval ousted longtime Republican Judge Thomas Mellon from the city's superior court by targeting LGBT and progressive voters. Ulmer counters that he already had lined up endorsements from Sandoval and Judge Ron Albers , the governor's only known out gay judge pick whom he appointed last year to the San Francisco bench the same day as Ulmer.

Nor does Ulmer believe he faces the same problems Mellon did.

"I am not Tom Mellon and Mr. Nava isn't Gerardo Sandoval," said Ulmer. "Without getting into Mr. Mellon's problems a couple years ago, he had a lot of lawyers unhappy with him. I don't know that I have any lawyers unhappy with me."

Ulmer had already banked $80,000 for his race but had yet to launch a campaign Web site. He said that would be his first order of business now that he is being opposed for his seat. And he expressed confidence he would defeat Nava.

"I guess I would say I am confident I am going to win. I am a sitting judge who, I believe, is better qualified than my opponent is," said Ulmer. "I am sorry he's done it; it will cause both of us to spend a lot of money."

Nava told the B.A.R. he feels "confident" and that he did not come to his decision lightly. He said he spent months thinking about it and consulted various supporters over the last two weeks for advice – including openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and gay Supervisor David Campos .

"They all agreed it would be a tough race but they told me to go for it," he said.

When it became clear all four of the out candidates would be seeking the same open seat, Nava said he made his decision to break away from the pack.

"I didn't want to run against other gay and lesbian candidates. It was just making me sick," he said. "Plus, we would have to go to the same well for money and endorsements."

Despite the e-mail he sent out this week, Nava said he did not plan to mirror the campaign Sandoval ran.

"I am going to run on my qualifications. I am not going to run a partisan campaign," he said. "The point of that was that he is conservative; he has allied himself with ideological conservatism. I think that is important to note."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reports on Equality California's entrance into federal state races.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.

Follow The Bay Area Reporter
facebook logo
facebook logo
Newsletter logo
Newsletter logo
ISSUU logo