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BALIF splits in SF judicial races

by Alex Madison

The candidates for San Francisco Superior Court judge, from left: Judge Andrew Cheng, Maria Evangelista, Judge Curtis Karnow, Judge Cynthia Lee, Kwixuan Maloof, Judge Jeff Ross, Niki Solis, Phoenix Street, and Elizabeth Zareh talked at a recent forum held at Golden Gate University. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The candidates for San Francisco Superior Court judge, from left: Judge Andrew Cheng, Maria Evangelista, Judge Curtis Karnow, Judge Cynthia Lee, Kwixuan Maloof, Judge Jeff Ross, Niki Solis, Phoenix Street, and Elizabeth Zareh talked at a recent forum held at Golden Gate University. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom endorsed two deputy public defenders and two incumbents in the San Francisco Superior Court judicial race in the June 5 primary: Maria Evangelista and Nicole Judith Solis and Judges Curtis Karnow and Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee.

Evangelista and Karnow are running against each other. Solis, a lesbian, is running against Judge Jeff Ross. Lee is running against deputy public defender Kwixuan Maloof.

BALIF did not endorse for Seat 4, where deputy public defender Phoenix Streets is challenging Judge Andrew Cheng.

In Alameda County, BALIF voted to endorse lesbian Superior Court Judge Tara Flanagan for re-election.

The LGBT bar association endorsements were voted on exclusively by the BALIF Board of Directors and announced online Friday, April 20. BALIF declined to comment on the endorsements to the Bay Area Reporter and stated it would not comment further on its website.

Incumbent judges in San Francisco and most counties usually do not draw challengers. In February, the four San Francisco deputy public defenders shocked the legal establishment by filing to run against four sitting judges because Republican governors appointed them to the bench. The judges are all registered Democrats.

Of the 13 San Francisco Superior Court judges up for re-election this year, only Karnow, Lee, Cheng, and Ross are being challenged.

The judges' appointments and the need for a new perspective have been the main messages coming out of the challengers' campaigns, which has been criticized by some, including gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who said in a San Francisco Chronicle article, "This whole notion that these are 'Republican appointees' is absurd."

Candidate forum
But at the first forum April 12 at Golden Gate University, the nine candidates went head to head as the challengers, more specifically, expressed their vision and the incumbents defended their years of experience. (Attorney Elizabeth Zareh is also running for Lee's Seat 9.)

The two-hour forum focused primarily on implicit bias in the legal system and bail reform. The incumbents talked about their accomplishments, while the challengers made statements about what is wrong with the system, including mass incarceration and racism.

The first question of the forum, "What would you do to reduce implicit bias in the legal system?" elicited the most tension among the judges and their challengers.

Maloof, a black man, accused the current judges of not being aware of their biases. "Understanding there is implicit bias is number one. If you don't understand there is bias, it'll be impossible to fix the solution," he said.

Although he didn't mention the name, Maloof told a story of a current judge who denied reducing charges against a white woman with an African-American sounding name before seeing her, but agreed after seeing the race of the defendant.

"Not basing decisions on the color of people's skin, but on the content of their character is the very first step," he said.

Maloof has been with the public defender's office since 2001 and a managing attorney since 2008. He is also the former president of the Charles Houston Bar Association. In a 2015 case, as the B.A.R. previously reported, Maloof represented a man accused of attacking a transgender woman. Maloof repeatedly referred to the woman as male and used male pronouns for her saying, "Unless he's had an operation," the victim was still a man.

Ross, at the forum, said he understands implicit bias as he has faced discrimination because he is Jewish. He talked about establishing the Law Academy when he was president of the Bar Association of San Francisco. The academy mentors students, many Latino and African-American, and encourages job opportunities for underserved students.

"I have done this because it's important to understand the communities in which we work," Ross said. "I am aware of implicit bias and focus on it everyday."

Evangelista, who would be the first Mexican-American woman elected to the bench, said, "The best way to get to the root of implicit bias is by having members of the court on the bench be actual members of the community." This was a theme she mentioned numerous times throughout the forum, recruiting more community members to the court.

She continued with a jab at Karnow, who has taught training courses and written books on implicit bias in the legal system.

"Just taking a class is not going to change 50 or 60 years of implicit bias," she said.

In response, Karnow, who has a background as an antitrust and intellectual property litigation attorney, said, "I have spent years researching this material and it is effective."

Karnow issued the injunction that kept City College of San Francisco from losing its accreditation.

Both Karnow and Lee gave examples of a time they stopped proceedings to insist all people in the courtroom be referred to by surnames when some female lawyers were being called by their first name.

"When judges take action in a decisive way it makes a difference," Karnow said.

Lee, who served as the court's first Asian-American female presiding judge, continued with how she deals with implicit bias. "The question every judge needs to ask, and one I ask at all times, is if the person in front of me were a different race, would I be trying them the same way? Would I rule the same way?"

Streets, Solis, and Maloof all cited statistics that African-Americans and other minorities face harsher treatment throughout many steps of the legal system.

"There is an undeniable truth that there's a problem in San Francisco," Solis said. "There is a problem with race and crime in the justice system. The statistics are clear, 55 percent of inmates are African-American when they only make up 4 percent of the population."

Solis was appointed by the California State Bar Board of Trustees, formerly known as the Board of Governors, to the California State Bar's Criminal Law Advisory Commission, and she also served as president of the San Francisco La Raza Lawyers Association. She would be the first lesbian Latina on the bench if elected.

Streets, a black man said, "Our system is failing," a phrase he used many times throughout the forum. "We have to address that the system disproportionately affects people of color. The problem is implicit bias and not nearly enough is done to stop it."

The candidates were asked what they would do to reform the bail system without the use of legislation.

Karnow and Lee suggested a risk assessment for inmates to determine release, and Karnow suggested setting conditions upon release, including monitoring and tracking to decrease re-offending.

Maloof, Zareh, and Streets talked about alternatives to bail, including house arrest and electronic monitoring.

"You can commit a felony and hurt someone, but if you have bail you can get out. But if you don't have enough money for bail, you can't get out. That is ridiculous," Streets said.

Ross touted the need for programs in San Francisco that pair inmates with a case manager who provides support services upon release.

"When you have the support and resources you need, you can release people safely into the community," he said.
Evangelista scrutinized the judges for not doing enough on bail reform, calling out her opponent, Karnow, specifically.

"[Curtis] never once sat on the bench and said 'I am going to release you.' If you remain silent and don't bring it up isn't that complicity?" she asked.

During their closing comments, Cheng gave a statement defending all the judges and noted they all were endorsed by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee endorsement.

"It wasn't an accident that we got the DCCC's endorsement. They concluded that we have benefited the community," Cheng said.

He went on to question the legitimacy of the challengers' campaign. "We have to ask ourselves the rationale behind the campaign. What's it about? Is it an attack on who appointed us? Is it right? Does it benefit San Francisco?"

Zareh expressed the need for improved technology in San Francisco's legal system particularly the filing system. She also called out her opponent, Lee, who earlier in the forum stated she treats everyone she works with with respect.

"I heard my opponent say she has respect for her litigants, but her reputation doesn't speak to that," Zareh said.

In the packed audience were law students, lawyers, and community members. To some in the audience, the challengers' reasoning for pursuing election was not specific enough and some even called it a political statement.

Jim Brosnahan, a Berkeley resident who has practiced law for more than 50 years, said, "Overall it was the judges on the bench, I think, who displayed enormous confidence in many different ways," he said. "For some of those who want to take over the courts, it sounds very political. When they were talking about equality and race, they weren't very specific. The incumbents have worked very hard on social issues, and you shouldn't judge them by who appointed them."

Another audience member, Carolyn Lee, a San Francisco resident for 15 years, who is also a lawyer, said she thinks having an election is healthy, but said she feels the incumbents have done a great job.

"The judges have shown the highest level of integrity and professionalism. I have not seen implicit bias in their civil litigation," said Lee.

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