Sunday, February 28, 2010

Michael Nava and the Myth of Judicial Independence

I accompanied Michael Nava (above right), the lawyer and novelist who is running for San Francisco Superior Court Judge, to Jane Morrison's Chinese New Year's fundraiser. Michael had been through a hellish couple of weeks because he had just committed the unforgivable sin, which was changing his mind about running for an empty judicial seat and instead running against a sitting judge, Richard Ulmer Jr., who was appointed to his post last June by Governor Schwarzenegger.

On February 11th in The Recorder, a local legal journal, Kate Moser wrote an article about the blowback Nava has been receiving from former supporters in the judiciary because of his decision, including his own boss, California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno:
"Moreno was earlier featured on Nava's campaign Web site and campaign literature under endorsements, but is no longer listed on the Web site. Moreno confirmed Wednesday that he's not endorsing Nava anymore. "I just have a policy against endorsing any candidate who runs against an incumbent judge," Moreno said. "I think it threatens the independence of the judiciary. I think if you talk to most judges, they would be reluctant to endorse a candidate who is challenging an incumbent judge."

San Francisco Superior Court judges Suzanne Ramos Bolanos and Kevin McCarthy were also listed under endorsements on Nava's Web site in January, but they are also no longer listed. McCarthy couldn't be reached by the Recorder 's deadline, but Bolanos confirmed that she had withdrawn her endorsement. "I was one of his early endorsers, but at the time he told me that he would be running for the open seat and absolutely reassured me that he was not going to be running against any of my colleagues," Bolanos said. "Sadly, I think the elections here in San Francisco have become heavily politicized, and I just don't think that's appropriate for the judicial branch."

If Presiding Judge James McBride's reaction to the challenge is any barometer, it appears Ulmer can expect some strong support from colleagues. "I am very surprised that [Nava] would take on a candidate whose apparent only deficit would be that he will not be getting the Democratic Central Committee endorsement," McBride said. "I question what it is about Judge Ulmer's record that could make him a suitable target for a race based on qualifications. If Mr. Nava is attempting to make this nonpartisan race into one based on partisan endorsements, we hope he's not successful."

I asked Nava how he'd come to this decision, and he told me, "There were too many of us who were friends and allies running for the same empty seat, and it made me heartsick. [Linda Colfax, above left, from the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, is one of them.] One of the main reasons I'm running is because I believe strongly in increasing judicial diversity, and this election just felt like underrepresented friends fighting over scraps at their master's table. I knew the blowback was coming, and writing out checks to return donations was hard, and so was being publicly attacked by so many colleagues, but after I made the decision a huge weight lifted from my chest. It was the right thing to do."

On February 17th, in the San Francisco Daily Journal, another legal publication, Nava struck back at the hypocrisy of those who accused him of sullying judicial independence and turning the apolitical judiciary into a partisan brawl. Nava is such a good writer that his defense really can't be improved upon, so I'm going to quote the whole thing.
"When I filed for a seat on the San Francisco Superior Court currently occupied by a Schwarzenegger appointee, the reaction from other judges was swift and predictable; they circled their wagons and accused me of politicizing the judiciary, engaging in partisanship and even threatening judicial independence. A judge friend of mine in Los Angeles told me recently that when you become a judge, two things happen: You lose your first name and no one will criticize you to your face. Sadly, this kind of deference and absence of accountability can foster, not judicial independence, but judicial isolation. So, let me set the record straight about judicial independence and politics and partisanship in judicial races."

In article six, section 16, the drafters of California's Constitution made the decision that every California judge, from the lowliest trial judge in the smallest county to the Chief Justice, must face the voters. Thus, California's constitutional lawmakers chose to balance judicial independence with judicial accountability to the people whom the judges serve. In the case of superior court, where judicial elections are competitive and not simply retention elections, it is clear that the intent was to give the people a voice in deciding who sits on the court in their counties. In superior court races, the voters decide who has, not only the formal qualifications, but the candidates' community ties and values. These are legitimate considerations because, as everyone in the legal system knows, a judge's background and beliefs form part of the temperament that he or she brings to the job of judging. Therefore, to criticize me, or anyone, for running against a sitting judge as threatening judicial independence ignores California's constitutional mandate and the choice it represents to give voters the ultimate say about the judiciary. If judges feel that standing for election threatens their independence, their recourse is to seek a constitutional amendment, not to attack those of us who are giving voters the choice to which they are entitled under the state constitution.

Now what about partisanship and politicization? As someone who has gone through the judicial application process, I can state unequivocally that that process is not only inherently partisan and politicized, but, unlike an election, it doesn't even have the virtue of transparency. Just one example: This governor, like his predecessors, employs secret judicial vetting committees which can, quite literally, blackball any applicant without any accountability about their decision. Minority bar associations had criticized this process for its lack of transparency and, in response, the legislature passed AB 2095 which would have forced the Governor to disclose the names of these committee members. He vetoed it.

In his veto message, the Governor asserted that he takes "very seriously" his duty to "appoint individuals to the bench who are equal to the great task of serving this state." And yet, while the Governor has been apparently unable to find many gay or lesbian lawyers (maybe 1% of his appointments) or Latino/a lawyers (about 6.7%) "equal to this great task" he has found room on the bench for two white, male Republicans who were found to be not qualified by the state bar: Elia Pizzoli in San Bernardino and Charles Poochigian in Fresno.About Pizzoli, then-Assemblymember Ted Lieu observed, "Every time we've raised the issue of judicial diversity, the pushback is that the governor only looks for the most qualified applicants....At least we know now what our applicants did wrong. They were qualified attorneys instead of Republican insiders." Regarding Poochigian, a one-time Republican state senator, his former senate colleague, Sheila Kuehl wrote on her website that she had rated him not qualified because "I knew from personal experience that Sen. Poochigan's votes had consistently indicated animosity to civil rights statutes regarding gender, disability and sexual orientation."

My point is this: It is disingenuous for judges to pretend that the appointment process by which they reached office is free of politics and partisanship, and yields only the most qualified judges, while judicial elections are somehow tainted by politics and partisanship and result in less qualified judges. What seems to be happening is that some judges are affronted by the fact that they have to run for office at all. To them I would say: Go read the constitution. This isn't politics, it's democracy."

A final point about why I am running against a sitting judge and not for the open seat. When I made my decision to challenge the incumbent there were three candidates for the open seat who, like me, were either gay or lesbian, and one of them was also, like me, Latino. It is clear to me that this Governor, while he may respond from time to time to political pressure on the issue, has no real commitment to judicial diversity. I do. And I do not believe that judicial diversity will be achieved by fighting for scraps that fall from the master's table. We members of underrepresented groups have to demand our place at the table.

I am unquestionably qualified to be a judge, I represent and am a beneficiary of San Francisco's values of social tolerance, progressive politics and community, and I would bring an historic measure of diversity to the superior court as its first openly gay judge of color. That's why I'm running.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jane Morrison's Chinese New Year Party

After the Joe Lynn memorial, I joined Superior Court Judge candidate Michael Nava at an annual Chinese New Year's Party given in the Sutro Forest home of Jane Morrison (below)...

...who has been a legendary leader in progressive San Francisco Democratic Party politics over the last five decades.

The party was a fundraiser for the Chinese Newcomers Service Center on Stockton Street in Chinatown, a nonprofit that helps recent Chinese immigrants with a myriad of services.

It seems that the organization lost United Way funding about fifteen years ago, which was when Jane Morrison stepped in with her fundraising party.

There was a steady stream of people arriving with delicious food, including Anthony Ng (above), the new Executive Director of the Center...

...and it was marvelous to see such an interesting mixture of Caucasian and Chinese politicos crammed into an intimate living and dining room.

Though Jane Morrison is in her 80's, she's smart and no-nonsense, mentoring a wide group of younger politicians in the local corridors of power.

Just about everybody showed up, including former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, current Supervisor David Campos and District Six candidate Jim Meko (left to right, above).

Jane only allowed them a few minutes for speeches, and then it was back to eating, drinking wine and meeting fascinating people.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Joe Lynn Memorial at The Disco Tomb

The overdesigned, overpriced, useless and architecturally absurd Gay, Etc. Center on Market Street started off on the wrong foot and is aging terribly, transforming into a strange, hollow shell within a decade.

I haven't ventured into the place for years but stopped in Saturday afternoon for a memorial for Joe Lynn, the former San Francisco Ethics Commissioner, lawyer, gay activist, and all-around empathetic genius.

Unfortunately, the memorial was being held at the newly branded "The Center" whose only saving grace is that it is called the "Charles M. Holmes Campus," referring to the pioneering San Francisco gay pornographer Chuck Holmes of Falcon Films who happened to die of AIDS just when the capital campaign for the new building was at its most intense, and whose estate decided to donate a huge chunk of money in exchange for naming rights.

The people at the memorial were a wonderful bunch, friends and allies, such as Dance Theater's Krissy Keefer above...

...and Oliver Luby...

...and a boatload of leftist politicians who went out of their way to pay their respects and pontificate into a microphone.

As something of a connoisseur of memorial services, however, I'd rate the event as something of a disaster. The people were fine, and so were the food and drink, but the ugly Gay Center building and particularly the hideous second floor theater room defeated any real conjuring of Joe Lynn's spirit.

The nicest moment was when the speakers stopped blabbing at the microphone for a second and the singer Garrin Benfield above serenaded us for a moment.

The true presiding spirit of the affair was h. brown, above, who had announced in an earlier email to all his friends that he was already shitfaced drunk hours before the memorial began. Since he has some serious experience being in that condition, he was paradoxically one of the most clear-eyed observers of the entire event, hanging on the fringe of the ugly room nursing more booze and offering hugs and jabs in equal measure. For his charming account of the afternoon along with Luke Thomas' photos of all the political celebrities who showed up, click here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Art Photos of Michael Starkman

The five-story building at 49 Geary in downtown San Francisco, between Grant and Kearny, looks like a maze of bureaucratic offices from its hallways...

...but on closer inspection, the place turns out to be the home for dozens of art galleries.

On Saturday afternoon, there was an artists' reception for Michael Starkman (above left) at the Corden/Potts Gallery, in a show entitled Where Nepenthe Flows and All Hallows Eve. (For a better look, check out Starkman's website by clicking here.)

Starkman has taught art and photography across the entire country over the last couple of decades, and is still using black-and-white film which he processes in his own darkroom, a skill set which is soon to become as rarified as woodblock printing. According to signage on the wall, "These photographs began during the year following my mother's death. For me, they are about opening myself to the darkness at the edge of beauty, mourning, slow healing, and the awe of staring at the Veil."

Starkman is also currently working as a clerk in the bowels of Census Bureau bureaucracy alongside myself and the arts writer Allegra and playwright Carol (above), which is how we have all met each other.

Among all the smart, odd characters I've encountered in that place over the last two months, Michael strikes me as the wisest and gentlest. It was a pleasure seeing him in his moment of public triumph.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

British Planets at the Symphony

I was looking forward to last week's San Francisco Symphony program because it featured a favorite guest conductor, the 73-year-old Charles Dutoit, and the second half of the program was Gustav Holst's "The Planets" which I'd somehow never heard live before.

Unfortunately, the program turned out to be a bit lackluster. Maybe it was because Dutoit was focused on his nuptials at San Francisco City Hall February 8th to Chantal Juillet, his ex-concertmaster from the Montreal Symphony.

The concert's first half was devoted to British composer William Walton's 1939 Violin Concerto which he wrote for Jascha Heifetz, and with a dazzling soloist the piece is probably quite fun, but San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik gave a recessive performance, note-perfect but not really standing out from the orchestra behind him.

Fellow Brit Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a fascinating character who was deeply involved in East Indian philosophy and religion, and also a dabbler in astrology. His most famous work is "The Planets" from 1916, which starts with "Mars, the Bringer of War" with its propulsive, "stupid" rhythms that have been copied by film composers ever since, and ends with "Neptune, the Mystic," complete with an ethereal offstage women's chorus.

The noisy, popular movements such as Mars and Jupiter came off well, but the rest of the piece dissipated into dullness. Maybe next time it will be astronomically fabulous, but that wasn't the case last Saturday night.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Ecstasy on Patricia's Green

The small new park at Hayes and Octavia called Patricia's Green opened in 2005 and was host to the first San Francisco Burning Man art installation in June of that year. It was a pagoda temple made out of plywood by David Best and a crew of volunteers that was sponsored by the newly formed Black Rock Arts Foundation. The sculpture was also the subject of the first post here at "Civic Center."

There have been a half dozen temporary art installations at Patricia's Green since then that have met with varying degrees of success, but nothing has quite taken the neighborhood's immediate fancy like Best's pagoda until this week's latest artwork magically appeared.

It's a huge metal sculpture by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito entitled "Ecstasy" that was part of a larger installation at the 2008 Burning Man Festival at Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

According to the Hayes Valley Art Coalition site:
"Ecstasy" is one of the eight monumental metal figures of the artists’ masterpiece, "Crude Awakening." These eight figures surrounded a 99-foot tall wooden oil derrick in gestures of prostration, worship and exaltation. The figures represented the "faithful"; the religious peoples of the world in their various postures of worship, all joining together in homage of the ominous symbol of the oil derrick. The installation culminated in a massive firework and fire display, and in the burning of the oil derrick. It was the biggest and most memorable burn to date at the Burning Man event."

"Alone, Ecstasy embarks on a hopeful journey. Instead of throwing her head back in reverie to the oil derrick, she gazes wistfully into the open sky as she steps forward into an optimistic future, free of dependency on fossil fuel."

There was another Mann/Cusolito sculpture installed near the Ferry Building in 2006 which was called "Passages." Though it was quite striking, the problem with sculpture along the waterfront is that it's in competition with the even more beautiful water-meets-land view, which is part of why the late Donald Fisher's Oldenburg sculpture of "Cupid's Bow" seems so monstrous. What's worst about the latter is that the sculpture is supposedly a permanent installation unlike the Black Rock Arts Foundation pieces which are gone after six months in case you hate them.

The monumental scale of "Ecstasy" works well with the height of the surrounding apartment buildings in the neighborhood.

If you want to meet the artists and celebrate in public style, an official opening is scheduled for February 26th from 4-7 pm. Update: There's a note in the comments as follows: The "Opening Reception" for Ecstasy has been delayed until March 19, due to possible rain.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Father Never Knew Charles Ives

The father of composer John Adams (above) also never knew Charles Ives but that didn't stop Adams from writing the beautiful and whimsically titled concerto for orchestra, "My Father Knew Charles Ives" a couple of years ago. Adams was at Davies Hall last Saturday as part of a memorial for the superb music writer Michael Steinberg, who wrote the concert notes for the San Francisco Symphony for the better part of the last three decades.

Adams read from an unpublished memoir by Steinberg about being one of the Jewish Kindertransport children who made it out of Germany to England in 1939, and though it was fairly interesting, the choice of material seemed strange. Adams was followed by somebody named Robert Guter, who read us four poems, and then pianist Garrick Ohlsson played Beethoven's Largo e mesto, from Piano Sonata in D major, Opus 10, no, 3. It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, Robert Guter got up again and started reading more goddamned poems, and we slipped out of the auditorium. A few ushers who were lined up for that evening's concert assignments told us, "The memorial was a bit of a shame. Michael Steinberg was always so droll. It didn't really capture his spirit."

We returned to Davies Hall after dinner for the final performance of an interesting pairing, an early Schubert Mass and Charles Ives' hour-long Concord Piano Sonata which had been reorchestrated by the recently deceased "spatial" composer Henry Brant and turned into "A Concord Symphony." The San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto (above) had the lion's share of soloist duties in Schubert's Mass No. 2 and she was just fine, but the voice that struck me as special was tenor Thomas Cooley (below, middle right) who only sang for about sixty seconds.

He's been performing for the last decade in Germany, specializing in Rossini, Mozart and early music composers, and he's somebody to hear. When he appears with the Philharmonia Baroque in Haydn's "Creation" next year, it will probably be worth a special trip.

"A Concord Symphony" was preceded by one of Michael Tilson Thomas' lectures to the audience, and he warned us that the "Emerson" first movement was "craggy," and then went on to delineate what the rest of the symphony entailed. I found myself wishing that I could just read Michael Steinberg's description instead (alas, he never got around to this piece). However, the performance by MTT and the orchestra itself was wonderful and committed.

Though I have fairly sophisticated musical tastes, this was one concert where I wished I'd done some serious homework with a recording, because the piece was way too dense to absorb on a first hearing, particularly that Craggy Emerson movement which seemed to blast away cacophonously forever. The Hawthorne second movement was altogether enchanting, however, and Peter Grunberg (above left) was a heavenly celesta player.

The short Alcotts third movement was charming, and then the Thoreau finale meandered moodily all over the place. The beautiful young couple sitting in front of us looked positively bored out of their minds and I could understand their frustration, but the more I think about the performance and the music, the more I'd like to hear it again. The Symphony and MTT deserve congratulations on not playing it safe.