Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ulmer vs. Nava and the Judicial Shakedown

Peter Keane (above) is one of the most respected and accomplished legal scholars in the country. He served as Dean of the Golden Gate University School of Law from 1998 to 2003, was president of the San Francisco Bar Association, Vice-President of the California Bar Association, and has provided legal commentary for everyone from NPR to CNN. Last Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle published an "Open Forum" op-ed by Mr. Keane where he accused the San Francisco judiciary of "borderline ethical (if not downright unethical) campaign tactics by San Francisco judges to elect Ulmer." (Click here for a link to the whole article.)

Keane prefaces his accusation with the following:
"First, put aside whether you favor incumbent Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer or challenger Michael Nava (above). Whoever the voters choose is qualified and will be a fine, capable judge."
Keane voted for Ulmer in the primary election but has decided to change his vote to Nava this Tuesday because:
"With lockstep unanimity, the judges of the San Francisco Superior Court have savaged the democratic process and cheapened the important principle of protecting the independence of the judiciary. To their personal discredit, they have done this out of a self-serving fear that potential competitors will run against them and that the voters might legitimately and democratically decide that others are better qualified to serve."

Keane continues:
"Last summer, all former bar presidents and I received a cryptic e-mail from Presiding Judge James McBride speaking for the entire court. It urgently summoned us to a meeting in the conference room of a prominent downtown law firm for the evening of July 7...

At the meeting, McBride and a delegation of other judges, announced that they spoke for all of the judges of the San Francisco Superior Court. They proclaimed that a Nava victory would be the destruction of judicial independence in San Francisco...

But that was not the most distressing part of the meeting. The bar presidents were then given marching orders by the judges to raise $350,000 to defeat Nava.

Remember now that present in that room was the top legal establishment of San Francisco. These were the heads of virtually every large, wealthy San Francisco law firm. The lawyers of those firms appear every day before San Francisco Superior Court judges in cases where huge amounts of money are at stake. Every lawyer in that room understood how essential the goodwill of San Francisco Superior Court judges is to the prosperity of their practices and to the success of each individual firm member.

This was a shakedown."

As commenter cosmo wrote, "It's really amazing--lawyers NEVER use this kind of language, so when a mainstream guy like Keane does, it carries extra force."

The San Francisco Chronicle has endorsed Ulmer over Nava, but I would urge you to do the opposite. Nava is thoroughly qualified to be a Superior Court judge after a long and varied legal career, but he's not a member of this self-selected club, which only increases the prospect that he will embody true "judicial independence." Above all, Mr. Keane is to be thanked for speaking out from behind a wall of judicial silence. He's a salutary example of what a professor of legal ethics should be.


AlbGlinka said...

Nava is a friend and neighbor of a friend of mine, and that's enough for me to vote for him-- thanks for the post, Mike...

janinsanfran said...

I have great hopes for a Nava victory. He has broken through the chatter in a noisy, mostly dispiriting election and made a solid case for having him on the bench.

Unlike Mr. Keane, I am not at all sure we should be electing judges. As with school board members, I am not sure that the qualities that make a good candidate correlate very highly with the qualities that enable an individual to do the job. However, worthy outsider judicial candidates like Michael Nava don't have a lot of chance of getting in to the system in the absence of an electoral route to office, so I guess we need the option.

I've voted for Nava and we all should! What do we care about the Chronicle?