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Election triggered by candidates seeking to unseat 2 San Francisco Superior Court judges

Election to unseat 2 San Francisco Superior Court judges causing some controversy
Election to unseat 2 San Francisco Superior Court judges causing some controversy 05:14

Two San Francisco Superior Court judges are up for election, but only because two people have decided to challenge them — And the fact that the judges are facing opposition is itself causing some controversy.

Judges Michael Begert and Patrick Thompson are being challenged by critics who say judges are partly responsible for San Francisco's drug and property crime woes. They each face a challenger: Chip Zecher and Jean Roland, respectively.

But supporters of the incumbent judges say the criticism is unfair, and they call the elections unnecessary, or even dangerous.

"There's a couple things that really opened up running," explained Albert "Chip" Zecher, candidate for Superior Court. "The first thing is looking at the conditions in this area, surrounding the tenderloin surrounding the college here."

A corporate attorney, Zecher said it is the drug crisis just outside of UC Hastings that compelled him to run for the bench. And it is judges, he argues, that share some of the blame for the flood of drug dealers on city streets.

"Who needs to be accountable," Zecher explained. "And who should be holding accountable individuals, and bad actors on our streets."

"For me the choice is pretty straightforward," said Judge Michael Begert. "If this is a job interview, I've got 13 years of experience as a judge."

Begert, appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2011, is in charge of the county's new CARE Court. He said "tough on crime" judges are not the answer.

"You've got to address what's causing people to engage in behavior that you don't want them to engage in," Begert said of his philosophy. "If you are expecting one judge to solve these complex social problems, you are probably going to be disappointed."

"I am currently the head of the general felony trial unit," explained candidate Jean Myungjin Roland. "And I see the majority of the felony crimes that happen in San Francisco right now."

Roland has spent the past 23 years in the District Attorney's office.  

"It's important to me to be a part of doing something different for San Francisco," Roland said of her decision to run for the bench.  

"I've lived and worked in San Francisco for 30 years," said Judge Patrick Thompson. "I know the city has lots of challenges. I think voters have frustration."

Thompson, who Roland is challenging, was appointed by Governor Newsom in 2022, a job he said he does by the book.

"I can't stake out ground as saying I'm tough on anything or soft on anything," Thompson said. "In my view, that's really inappropriate."

Judges Thompson and Begert would have been re-elected automatically had they not faced challengers, and that is partly because of the work of another man.

"And the judges, some of the judges are part of the problem," said Frank Noto of Stop Crime SF. "We looked at 14 judges. Only two of them failed."

Noto heads a citizen group that has monitored the city's courtrooms, looking for judges they believe are too lenient, primarily in respect to drug dealers. Now, the challenge on the ballot.

"We are a democracy," Noto said. "We have elections. The state constitution provides for elections every six years for judges."

"It is legal," added Supervisor Aaron Peskin. "That doesn't make it right."

Having a race for a judge's seat is not something everyone embraces. Peskin, the Board of Supervisors President, is among those who have raised concerns about the risk of pulling the judiciary into the political arena. He and others have also pushed back against the assessment of the judges' records,  

"The notion that she can use alternative facts, and have big lies," Peskin said. "And it's playing out here with some very, very right-wing forces who are trying to politicize the bench."

"You can see I've worked on Hilary's campaign," Noto said, pointing to his campaign trinkets. "Obama's campaign."

Noto rejects the 'right-wing' label.

"I mean, we have judicial elections for a reason," Roland said. "I think that the people have a right."

"The issue that I have with this election is that it has been so focused on a specific issue, about crime in public safety," Thompson added. "That, in some ways, we have lost sight that our focus should be on a fair independent judiciary. Because that's what I hope the public really wants."

"The people have a right, constitutional right, to weigh in on what their judges are doing, and who our judges are," Zecher said.

"I don't think the question is whether I should be challenged," Begert added. "I think there's a larger question about whether judges should be elected."

That legal/political debate is not going away any time soon. So, for now, the voters are left with the old-fashioned choice of two options. Parsing through years of court cases, involving details that often aren't available to the public, that's a big ask of voters, and everyone involved in the campaigns acknowledged that. 

The last time a San Francisco judge was defeated in a reelection campaign was in 2008.

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