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Lesbian Judge Joins SF Bench

by Matthew S. Bajko

Judge Teresa M. Caffese
Judge Teresa M. Caffese  

A former chief attorney at the public defender's office in San Francisco recently joined the local superior court bench, maintaining the number of out LGBT judges serving on it at eight.

Judge Teresa M. Caffese, 57, a lesbian whose 24-year career with the San Francisco Public Defender's office ended in 2010 when she announced she was going into private practice, took her judicial oath of office December 18. The court's presiding judge, Teri L. Jackson, administered the oath.

"I have a passion for justice ... I think I always wanted to return to public service," Caffese told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent interview about her joining the local bench. "I love public service and I love this city. It seemed like the right fit and the right time to do it."

Between 2011 and 2017 Caffese represented several high-profile clients, including gay ex-San Francisco 49ers football player Kwame Harris, who was charged in 2015 with two counts of hit-and-run, as well as charges of battery on a police officer and driving under the influence of drugs, and San Francisco Police Officer Edmond Robles, who was convicted in 2014 of federal felony charges from the theft of money and property during searches in 2009.

As a judge, Caffese said she would have no trouble maintaining her impartiality.

"When you are a judge you don't have a dog in the fight or a bone in the fight. Your passion is for justice," said Caffese, whose wife, Laura Caspellano, is a lawyer. "That is the difference, you are not an advocate for one side or the other. You are an advocate for justice. That is certainly my goal and what I plan to do every day serving as a judge for the city and county of San Francisco."

As is typical for new judges, Caffese has been assigned to hear traffic cases at the Hall of Justice and will preside over various trials when needed.

"Whatever the court wants me to do, I will do it," she said when asked if she had a certain legal area she wished to focus on as a judge.

Governor Jerry Brown announced November 2 that he had appointed Caffese, a Democrat, to the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge James P. Collins. It came two years after Caffese had applied to be considered for a judicial appointment.

It also came two months after the retirement of lesbian Judge Nancy Davis, who had first won election to the San Francisco bench in 2002. She stepped down effective September 21.


Judicial Data

Caffese's appointment means the number of gay and lesbian jurists on the local bench remains at its historic high of eight. As of this month, there are five lesbians and three gay men on the San Francisco court, based on a list compiled by the B.A.R.

According to the annual report released by the California Administrative Office of the Courts on the diversity of the judiciary, including on the sexual orientation and gender identity makeup of the state bench, the San Francisco Superior Court first reported having eight out jurists, four lesbians and four gay men, on the report released in 2017.

The data covered the makeup of the state bench as of December 31, 2016 and marked an increase of one from the seven gay or lesbian judges counted in the report released two years ago. For the reports released between 2015 and 2012, there had been a total of six gay or lesbian judges on the San Francisco bench.

According to the 2017 report, there were 47 LGBT trial court judges out of 1,584 on the state bench as of the close of 2016. It reported that, for the first time since the LGBT data started being collected in 2011, there were two bisexual judges serving on trial courts, one in San Bernardino and one in San Joaquin counties. (The report does not identify the names of the judges, as the demographic data is reported anonymously.)

The state continues to have just one out trans judge, Victoria Kolakowski, who serves on the Alameda County bench and is married to B.A.R. news editor Cynthia Laird.

San Francisco had the second most LGBT judges, with Los Angeles having the most at 11, three lesbian and eight gay judges. All seven of the state's Supreme Court justices at the time identified as heterosexual - one has since left the bench and the B.A.R. last week called on Brown to appoint an LGBT person to the seat - while just two lesbians and one gay man were serving on the state's courts of appeal: two in the First District and one in the Fourth District.

Two more out judges joined the roster of trial court judges when Brown announced a host of judicial appointments December 22. Joel S. Agron, 49, a gay resident of Whitewater, was appointed to a judgeship on the San Bernardino County Superior Court, where he had been serving as a commissioner since 2016.

Susan J. De Witt, 56, a lesbian resident of Pasadena, was appointed to a judgeship on the Los Angeles County Superior Court. She had served as senior litigation counsel at the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Central District of California since 2015, where she had been an assistant U.S. Attorney since 1997.

De Witt earned her Juris Doctor degree from the Georgetown University Law Center, while Agron earned his Juris Doctor degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where Caffese also earned her law degree. All three judges are registered Democrats.


Special Resonance

Being appointed to the bench by Brown carries special resonance for Caffese as the governor toward the end of his second term in 1983 appointed Herbert Donaldson as the first out gay judge in the state. Donaldson was a mentor to Caffese as well as a close friend and her neighbor near San Francisco's Duboce Triangle neighborhood.

"Really, it is an incredibly humbling time. It is important for me to say that. I know Herbert is looking down and being supportive too," said Caffese, who also thanked Brown for being supportive of a fair justice system that reflects the state's diverse population. "We don't know how lucky we are to have Governor Brown, who supports inclusion and diversity."

Caffese's judicial seat, number 13, will be on the June primary ballot if she draws an opponent by the March 9 filing deadline. Two other out judges' seats are also scheduled for the same election - lesbian Judge Angela Bradstreet's Seat 2 and gay Judge Roger Chan's Seat 3. Bradstreet has served on the local bench since being appointed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, while Chan received a judicial appointment from Brown in 2016, becoming the first known LGBT person of color to serve on the San Francisco bench.

There are a total of 13 judges whose seats on the San Francisco court are up in June. If no one runs against them, then the judges' names will not appear on the primary ballot, and all will be automatically elected following the November 6 election. According to the elections department, none of the judges have yet to be opposed.

"I am hoping I will not be the first," Caffese said when asked about the possibility of having to run for the seat.

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