SF judges, challengers introduce themselves at pre-election forum

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday December 8, 2023
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San Francisco judicial candidate attorney Albert "Chip" Zecher, second from left, speaks at a forum featuring two sitting judges and their challengers. From left, moderator Stephanie Lehman from Stop Crime SF, Zecher, Assistant District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick Thompson (whom Roland is challenging), and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Michael Begert (whom Zecher is challenging). Photo: John Ferrannini
San Francisco judicial candidate attorney Albert "Chip" Zecher, second from left, speaks at a forum featuring two sitting judges and their challengers. From left, moderator Stephanie Lehman from Stop Crime SF, Zecher, Assistant District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick Thompson (whom Roland is challenging), and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Michael Begert (whom Zecher is challenging). Photo: John Ferrannini

Two incumbent San Francisco Superior Court judges debated challengers ahead of the March 5 primary at a forum held by community groups, representing contrasting views of salient criminal justice matters.

Judge Patrick Thompson debated Assistant District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland, and Judge Michael Begert debated attorney Albert "Chip" Zecher, a gay man. The December 7 forum was moderated by Stop Crime SF's Stephanie Lehman.

The event, held at the San Francisco County Fair building in Golden Gate Park, drew over a hundred people. It came as citizen concern over crime and public safety have boiled over just as voters are starting to pay attention to the election.

Thompson and Begert are the only two out of 14 San Francisco judges up for election this year who are being challenged in March, according to Stop Crime Action, one of the debate sponsors. On its website, the organization calls Thompson and Begert two of the "worst" judges in the city because of their "track record of releasing serious and dangerous offenders back into the public."

Because no one challenged the other judges, their names won't appear on the ballot. 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.

Thompson, appointed last year by Governor Gavin Newsom (D), said he runs his courtroom "by the book."

"Well-run courts are the foundation of a safer community," Thompson said. "I believe in that really fundamentally, and I believe in it so much that I run my courtroom by the book. I have respect for the law, the legal process and everyone who comes into my courtroom."

Thompson said he's had a lifelong desire to serve. In his 20s, as he climbed the legal ladder at the prestigious Pillsbury firm, he "started out on a low-income housing board in the Mission — working ... to make life better for the elderly poor." He also served on the board of the American Conservatory Theater and as chair of the board of Grace Cathedral.

"I run my courtroom by the book and some people don't like that," Thompson said. "I don't coddle the defense counsel and I don't coddle the prosecutors."

Roland, who has worked in the San Francisco District Attorney's office since 2001 and is currently managing attorney of the general felony trial unit, is challenging Thompson.

Roland said she decided to have a career in the criminal justice system when, as a teenager, her grandparents were the victims of a bloody home invasion robbery.

"I went in my car across the Bay Bridge and I went home," she said. "They could not effectively communicate with the police so I did what I'd done growing up; I went in and I translated and I knew in that moment I wanted to be a voice for victims. People see me as an Asian woman and expect me to be quiet, submissive, and take a back seat. Not this Asian woman."

Roland said she is running because she is concerned about violent crime and street conditions in the city.

"I've been lunged at in court," she said. "My life has been threatened. None of that scares me — what does is the condition of San Francisco. My mother can't walk down the street because she is afraid.

"This is not the city I remember growing up," the Lowell High graduate said.

Begert, appointed by Republican former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is 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.

"These courts have allowed me to change lives, hold people accountable, and make our community safer," Begert said. "Through more than a decade on the bench I've learned ... to see the humanity in everyone."

Zecher, who was appointed by Newsom to the board of directors of UC Law San Francisco (formerly Hastings) in 2019 and is its vice chair, attacked Begert for living in the East Bay city of Piedmont; Zecher said he himself lives in the Sunset neighborhood on San Francisco's westside. (Judges do not have to live in the county to which they are appointed.)

"They don't have 3,000 people dying on the streets," he said of the small affluent town that is surrounded by Oakland. "They don't have gunshots on the streets."

He also attacked San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who, as the San Francisco Standard reported last month, was critical of the judicial challenges at a City Hall news conference.

"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 that event. "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."

Zecher said he was subjected to a "rant and a rave by Aaron Peskin."

"It's your constitutional right to vote on judges," Zecher said. "You should vote on judges and you should look at judges' records and decide if it hurts or helps public safety."

Of Zecher, Peskin stated to the Bay Area Reporter, "I have no idea what he's talking about and have only met him in passing."

"Judge Begert is very experienced and highly qualified," he continued.

Judicial discretion

During the debate, Begert said that he doesn't have as much discretion as people think.

"The work I'm doing is in four different treatment-based courts," he said. "It [a case] doesn't get to those courts except by statutory authority or agreement between the defense attorney and district attorney. If you don't respond or engage in the program, there you are subjected to sanctions, including being terminated from the program."

Roland said her opponent, Thompson, was bucking responsibility.

"There is a lot of discretion that judges have so balancing the rights of the defendant, the rights of the victim, and all of that is extremely important," Roland said. "Judges decide what evidence is included and what evidence is excluded as well."

Zecher turned around Thompson's "by the book" comment, saying that can lead to "throwing the book at people" and "missing" what's going on with the case.

"We need to consider victims, that they have a need to feel heard and part of the process is being able to help them heal," he said.

Thompson said he only said that because "I'm a book nerd" and because "I have respect for the law."

"I see about 25% of the felonies that happen in San Francisco," Thompson said. "I get to grapple with those questions and sometimes I get to hear the stories. ... I believe that fundamentally we do those right things, applying the law to the facts and circumstances of the case and respect that and respect each other."

He also said he would do what he could to combat discrimination in the justice system.

Zecher agreed with that.

"As a gay man, I am particularly cognizant of the fact that discrimination happens," Zecher said. "Discrimination happens all the time with gender, color, and sexual orientation. Those things should not happen, ever. You litigants, people involved in the community, get a fair hearing."

Thompson concurred "as a Black person who has been singled out because of an immutable characteristic." He said he wanted to make the legal system accessible and helpful to everyone involved.

"I try to make it that I don't traumatize someone," he said. "I want to make sure interpreters are available; I want to ensure they are in a situation where our support doesn't reinforce the trauma."

Zecher attacked Begert for remarks he made in the press.

"I heard Judge Begert say he always follows the law," he said. "I did see him in a media thing the other day — that statement isn't exactly true. He doesn't always follow the law; he defers to other individuals in the process. If you're charged with a fentanyl drug crime ... you should follow the health and safety code section with requirements for two to four years in prison."

Begert clarified his remarks.

"I did make a regrettable statement to a reporter about when it is time to terminate someone from a treatment program," he said. "I said, 'I would listen to what the treatment provider said about whether the person would be susceptible to treatment.' I should've said, 'I'd listen to them but ultimately the responsibility lies with me,' which is true."

Begert said that to address juvenile crime, he wanted to "build relationships" with disaffected youth to prevent recidivism. Roland agreed and said, "it's important to have restorative justice."

Zecher said he felt everyone learned from the forum.

"Judges feel like they're immune from the electoral process," he said. "I've had a couple judges come up to me and tell me I'm really wrong to run against a sitting judge. I view this as an exercise in democracy."

In addition to Stop Crime Action, the forum was sponsored by the Chinese American Democratic Club, Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District, West of Twin Peaks Central Council, D2Unite, SensibleD7, Hi5D5, and the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association, among others.

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