It's rare to see an open seat on the Superior Court; judges typically retire midterm and allow the governor to appoint their replacement. And with a Republican governor, the more progressive Democrats have had a hard time getting even close to judicial appointments. Four highly qualified candidates are seeking this seat, and all of them make good cases for election.
Since judicial candidates can't take stands on most political issues or indicate how they might rule on cases, it's hard to get a sense of where the candidates stand. But they can talk about their backgrounds and experience — and about how the local courts are run. For example, the Superior Court is managed on a day-to-day basis by a presiding judge, elected by the sitting judges on the San Francisco bench. But those elections are secret; nobody except the judges know who the candidates were; who voted for which one; or what the final tally was. Court administration is done in closed meetings. Most of what happens in the courts is public — but there's no presumption of cameras in the courtrooms to give the public access to the justice system.
Our choices for judge reflect our interest in a diverse judiciary, judges who have both professional and personal experience that will shape fair decisions — and jurists who believe in open government, including open courts.
Our choice for Seat 6 is Linda Colfax, a deputy public defender with a background in community service (she's been an ACLU board member) and progressive politics. Like all four candidates, she has impressive legal credentials and trial experience. She also strongly supports sunshine in the courts and told us she would allow the press and public into judges' meetings when appropriate, supports cameras in the courtrooms (except for cases where a witness or crime victim has to be protected), and efforts to make the courts work more efficiently.
Robert Retana, who grew up in East Los Angeles, has worked in both civil and criminal law, as a prosecutor and a civil litigator. He also has extensive community service with La Raza Centro Legal and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights. He was awfully vague on cameras in the courtroom and didn't seem well-informed on open-government issues, but he's certainly qualified for the job.
Rod Mcleod, a former San Francisco School Board member, told us he won't raise any money for this race since he thinks judges shouldn't be captive to special interests. That's noble, but it also makes it unlikely he'll be a factor in the end.
Harry Dorfman, a career prosecutor with the District Attorney's Office, has extensive trial experience but was the least willing of all the candidates we interviewed to expand public access to the courts.
Colfax has the endorsements of Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, Sen. Mark Leno, and Sups. David Campos, John Avalos, and Eric Mar, among others. She would also diversify the bench in a significant way, not just because she's a lesbian but because she spent her career in the Public Defender's Office. And since Democratic and Republican governors alike tend not to appoint public defenders to the bench, that background and perspective is rare. Vote for Colfax.
Another rarity here: a contested race where challengers are taking on a sitting judge. Richard Ulmer, the incumbent, was a Republican living in Hillsborough when Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed him to the bench last year; he quickly changed his registration to independent and took up residence in Park Merced. But two gay men, Michael Nava and Daniel Dean, saw him as potentially vulnerable and, noting the lack of LGBT appointments coming out of the current administration, filed to challenge Ulmer.
Ulmer's a smart and appealing person with an impressive legal resume, and we see no scandal that would mandate his removal from office. But we also recognize that this is an elected office, and that it's perfectly acceptable for candidates who think they would better serve the public and the bench to run against an incumbent. In this case, we're endorsing Michael Nava.
Nava, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, makes the case that judicial appointments can be just as political as elections: out of some 500 judicial appointments, Schwarzenegger has named perhaps five openly LGBT candidates. Nava also would bring a different perspective to the courts. His career has been in the public sector and he currently works as a staff attorney drafting decisions for Superior Court Justice Carlos Moreno. More than anyone else running for judge this year, Nava is an advocate of openness in the judiciary. He told us the courts are the third branch of government and should be held to most of the same sunshine standards at the executive and legislature.
Daniel Dean also makes a compelling case and has extensive courtroom experience as a litigator and judge pro tem. His accessibility and sense of humor would serve him well on the bench, and we hope he continues to seek a judicial slot. But in this race, we're endorsing Nava.