We've been talking to people who want to be judges, seven of them. One is already a judge and wants to keep his job; two are challenging him; and four are competing for an open seat. They all talk about their impressive legal backgrounds, life experience, desire to be fair and impartial, and to make the system of justice work for all.
The two who emerge as the winners will take their seats on the bench, and the presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court will decide what happens to them next whether they handle felony murder trials, or juvenile hearings, or family court, or complex civil litigation, or small claims court. The P. J. oversees the court budget and things like the indigent defendant fund. So I asked them all: how does the presiding judge get chosen, anyway?
And all of them, including the sitting judge, said: Dunno.
Now, how can it be that six of the top attorneys in the city and one incumbent jurist don't know how the person who runs the local courts gets that job? Well, maybe nobody cares or maybe the whole process is so secretive nobody gets to learn about it.
See, the courts aren't covered by the Brown Act, which mandates public meetings. So when the judges get together and meet (bimonthly in San Francisco), there's no meeting notice and no press or public allowed.
I'm told by reliable sources that the P.J. is typically elected by acclamation when there's only one candidate, and by secret written ballot when there's competition. The ballots are tallied by the outgoing P.J., then discarded. Nobody knows who voted for whom.
Years ago, when the state Legislature (led by SF senators John Burton and Quentin Kopp) was updating the Brown Act, Ralph Grace, the publisher of a Los Angeles legal paper the Metropolitan News, went to Sacramento to argue that the courts, like any public agency, should operate openly. He got nowhere. "When you're talking about running a public institution, you should do it in public," Grace told me this week.
There's no law saying the P.J. has to be elected privately. The California Rules of Court say that local courts can set their own policies and procedures. So it appears that the San Francisco Superior Court could if the judges wanted open the doors.
They could. If they wanted to.