SF's battle for the gavel becomes a referendum on safety issues

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 31, 2024
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San Francisco Superior Court Judge Michael Isaku Begert, left, is being challenged by attorney Chip Zecher. Photos: Courtesy the candidates
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Michael Isaku Begert, left, is being challenged by attorney Chip Zecher. Photos: Courtesy the candidates

San Franciscans will be voting on who will occupy two Superior Court judgeships on March 5 in what is becoming the city's latest referendum on public safety issues.

Attorney Chip Zecher, a gay man who was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to the board of directors of UC Law San Francisco (formerly Hastings) in 2019 and is its vice chair, is challenging sitting Judge Michael Isaku Begert for Superior Court Seat No. 1. Zecher is being joined in running against an incumbent by San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland, who is challenging sitting Judge Patrick Thompson for Superior Court Seat No. 13.

At a debate on December 7, the Bay Area Reporter reported that unlike previous elections where sitting San Francisco judges were challenged from the left, in this case they are being challenged from the right. Due to ethics rules the judges and challengers couldn't discuss how they'd rule on cases, but the two aspirants charged the incumbents with being out of touch with what ordinary San Franciscans are experiencing. They are being supported by Stop Crime Action, the political arm of Stop Crime SF.

The challenges come as citizen concern over crime and public safety have boiled over.

The San Francisco Chronicle endorsed keeping Begert and Thompson in a January 27 This text will be the linkeditorial>. For their parts, the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club endorsed the incumbents as well, while the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club endorsed the challengers. No endorsement in the two races is listed on the website of the San Francisco Republican Party.

Several other San Francisco Superior Court judges were up for election this year, but because they're not being challenged, their names won't appear on the ballot.


Zecher told the B.A.R. he decided to run because of the street conditions in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where UC Law is located.

"It was a slow process but really it started in 2019 when I was appointed by the governor to the board of UC Law — formerly UC Hastings — and I became well acquainted with the challenges businesses face and public institutions face from the public safety concerns on our streets," he said. "UC Law is right in the middle of open-air drug markets and gun violence — shootings around the college are a weekly or biweekly event."

Zecher said he decided to run ultimately after District Attorney Brooke Jenkins made the remark that she "has trouble with some judges," he said. Jenkins was appointed by Mayor London Breed two years ago after the successful recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a self-styled progressive prosecutor and former public defender.

"I've become an activist at 60," Zecher said. "I haven't been involved before, except as a donor and as a volunteer on different campaigns."

Jenkins, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

In his B.A.R. candidate questionnaire, Zecher stated that he has empathy for people who are addicted.

"I do believe in a compassionate approach to those severely afflicted and addicted on our streets and do not think that permitting fentanyl drug dealers to continue to ply their trade unfettered on our streets is a compassionate way forward," he stated.

During the December debate, Zecher took exception to San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin's criticism of him and Roland for putting their hats in the ring.

"The reason we are here today is because a rare thing is happening in San Francisco where a number of incumbent judges are being challenged," Peskin said at a City Hall news conference. "This is a phenomenon that is sweeping our country. It has swept the states of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama. Thankfully, California has thus far been immune from that kind of behavior. ... It is misplaced, it is dangerous, and we cannot allow it to happen in San Francisco."

(For the previous story on the debate, Peskin told the B.A.R. that "Judge Begert is very experienced and highly qualified," and said "I have no idea what he's talking about" when asked about Zecher's characterization of his remarks as a "rant and a rave.")

But Zecher defended himself and Roland from the charges made by their opponents that they are too ideological, and have preconceived notions as to how they'll rule.

"Jean and I can't defend ourselves against a claim like that because we are not allowed to say how we would rule — the judicial canons prohibit us from saying how we would rule, so that allegation is just meaningless," he told the B.A.R.

The only out candidate in either race, Zecher said that being gay makes him more devoted to the principles of equal justice under the law.

"I would say that, if anything, being gay makes me hypersensitive to making sure that everyone's civil rights and constitutional rights are protected and, as a judge, I would definitely make sure everyone who appears in my courtroom, that their constitutional and civil rights are protected and honored and everyone gets a fair hearing," he said.


Begert, appointed by Republican former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is currently the supervising judge of the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment, or CARE, courts established by Newsom.

The goal of the program is to get people in crisis off the streets. According to a fact sheet from Newsom's office, CARE court connects a person struggling with untreated mental illness — and often also substance use challenges — with a court-ordered Care Plan for up to 24 months.

Begert told the B.A.R. that he doesn't believe Zecher would be as impartial as he is, but when asked about Peskin's remarks said he doesn't share the same spirit.

"There are concerns on the things my opponent says and the reason he says he's running that means he may not be an independent judge," Begert told the B.A.R. "I don't resent the fact that I'm running. It's a positive experience for me and I'm getting feedback from the community — people invested in making San Francisco the best possible place it can be. The generosity and grace I've been experiencing has been very rewarding, frankly."

When asked about the "concerns on things my opponent says," he pointed to the remarks about running after hearing Jenkins speak.

"That won't make you confident a judge was independent," he said.

Begert stated in his candidate questionnaire that he has volunteered with numerous community-based and national agencies over the years. These include serving on the boards of the Asian Law Caucus, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium/Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Begert stated that he also has "lived experience."

"My mother is an immigrant from Japan. She raised five children in a rural community," he stated. "As a child, my mother would take me into town with her. She would drop me off at the Woolworth's so that she could shop at the J.C. Penney next door, and I remember the sales clerk following me around the store because I was Asian. I endured racial epithets at school. I have owned a home with a covenant that prohibited me and my wife as people of Asian descent from purchasing it."

Begert said it's been interesting being involved in the political process at the local level, from seeking endorsements to knocking on doors.

"The weather hasn't been that great, but people have been interested," he said.

Like his opponent, and indeed the other candidates in the judicial races, Begert has to live the unique distinction between the position being elected but fundamentally not about policymaking.

"We're not policymakers, so typically when you're campaigning in an office, you can affect what the law is," he said. "You can tell people 'I can do this for you.' As a judge, I cannot make those kinds of promises."

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick Thompson, left, is being challenged by Assistant District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland. Photos: Courtesy the candidates  

Roland, an assistant district attorney since 2001, is currently managing attorney of the general felony trial unit. She is challenging Thompson.

"At a time when I feel this city needs a real change, I am stepping forward because I want to be a part of a bench that values public safety and accountability," she stated to the B.A.R. "I am here challenging one judge, Patrick Thompson, not the entire judiciary."

Roland stated she finds it "challenging" to walk the tightrope between politics and running for a judicial position. When asked about her judicial philosophy, she wrote to the B.A.R. that she "cannot comment on how I would rule on specific cases or issues" but can say "the kind of judge I will be."

"I have heard my critics say that I am a 'tough on crime' candidate, but I am not entirely sure what that means," she stated. "I want accountability and that can look different to many people. There is not one type of offender, nor one type of victim. Every person has his/her/their unique background and circumstances, which should be considered."

Roland didn't have much to say as to the criticism she shouldn't be running.

"I don't take stock in the comments people make without even knowing who I am or meeting me. People are entitled to jump to uninformed opinions. It doesn't intimidate me nor does it question who I am," she stated.

In her B.A.R. questionnaire, Roland noted she has worked in the DA's hate crime unit.

"I was the hate crimes deputy for a few years where I was dealing with crimes directed at specific protected classes of people, which included race, gender, and sexual orientation," she stated. "I was responsible for reviewing the cases that were submitted to our office, weighed the evidence presented, spoke to the victims, and made a charging decision on cases."

The San Francisco Standard reported January 19 that Roland confronted her husband around 2002 about his use of drugs, while they were both working for the DA's office, but that she did not report the drug use to their superiors at work. The drugs in question were methamphetamines and MDMA, according to state bar records.

Robert Roland was disbarred for nine years after he lost his job at the DA's office for prosecuting his alleged suppliers. He was readmitted to the bar after recovery but is not working at the DA's office.

When asked about the article, Roland stated that "what happened 20 years ago is public record. I am extremely proud of my husband and everything we have gone through."

She told the B.A.R. she hopes voters judge her on her own accomplishments.

"I am and have been a fair ethical prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney's office for 23 years. I have faced my own challenges as a woman, as a minority, and overcome those challenges to be where I am today," stated Roland. "It's not just any one experience but the countless experiences of trauma and triumphs in my lifetime that shape me into who I am today. And it's these real life experiences along with my career as a prosecutor and lifelong public servant to this city that gives me perspective on diverse issues that will make me an exceptional judge."

Thompson, who was appointed by Newsom, told the B.A.R. that since the debate he has been "doing a better job of trying to explain what I do in simpler language." For instance explaining his being in a preliminary hearing department for the court.

"The preliminary hearing department — in that role — I consider if the DA has enough evidence to go to trial," he explained. "I see people who've already been arraigned, so the custody decision has already been made to release them with conditions or to keep them in custody. ... My role is a relatively narrow one." (Thompson added that he does hear appeals of custody decisions.)

Thompson used the same three words that he often used to characterize his courtroom at the debate — "by the book." His opponent, he claimed, might not be.

"I think my opponent has said public safety is the principal concern and is running a tough on crime campaign," he said. "That's completely politically oriented, considering what judges are supposed to do. I don't do trials, so the only times I do sentencing is in connection with a plea."

In his B.A.R. questionnaire, Thompson noted that he has been committed to supporting the rights and dignity of all people, particularly those who identify as LGBTQI+. "Through the years, I have mentored LGBTQ attorneys," he added.

Thompson said he doesn't find the political aspects of a judicial race to be challenging.

"I don't feel it's a tightrope — primarily because I'm not political in my role," he said. "I'm a judge who's by the book. I respect the law, I respect the legal process, and I respect the people who come before me. I work hard to keep politics out of the courtroom."

When asked about Peskin's questioning of the race, he said, "I'm not going to speak to what he meant."

"The law allows for challenges," he said. "That's what the law is. I am in this race because someone has chosen to challenge me. So I think I am someone who recognizes the law and follows the law. Whether that's a good idea or not is an open question. That event [Peskin's news conference] was held during court hours, but I do think voters should really look at whether someone's been vetted."

And he was vetted, citing his appointment by Newsom last year. (Judicial appointees go through a process overseen by the Commission on Judicial Nominee Evaluation, which makes recommendations to the governor.)

"This election is different from four years ago because four years ago voters were asked to fill three empty slots," Thompson said. "None of the people in that case had been vetted. I very much respect and appreciate Supervisor Peskin's observations and comments. My pitch is trying to ensure the courts remain fair, independent and impartial. Where you have people who are vetted, that serves the public better. Where you have me doing that, I'm a by the book person."

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