Online Extra: Political Notes: Pro-gay judge to leave SF bench
by Matthew S. Bajko
Early next month Judge Ellen Chaitin , who early on in her legal career spoke out for LGBT rights, will retire from the San Francisco Superior Court after serving two decades on the local bench.
Her departure will be effective as of November 2. Chaitin's retirement, and that of another judge in January, will bring to six the number of vacancies on the 52-member court.
Voters elected Chaitin to another six-year term in 2010. But in an interview last week with the Bay Area Reporter , Chaitin, 64, said that since she is over 60 and has reached her maximum in terms of how many years she can claim toward her retirement, the timing is right for her to step down.
"Besides that, I am still energetic enough that I want to pursue additional interests. And it is now or never," she said. "I am not absolutely certain but am very interested in the nonprofit world."
A current board member of HealthRIGHT 360, the name adopted in July after the merger of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics and Walden House, Chaitin previously served on the boards of the San Francisco Pre-Trial Diversion Project, San Francisco CASA, and the Jewish Community Center.
She is interested in working on mental health issues or with foster children, she said.
"When you are working all day long, it is very hard to think, let alone explore options," said Chaitin.
In the court's release announcing Chaitin's retirement, City Attorney Dennis Herrera praised her time on the bench.
"Judge Chaitin isn't somebody who merely works in the justice system – she's someone who works for justice," stated Herrera. "As the head of an office that has appeared in her court on literally hundreds of cases, I've seen her dedication evidenced by the preparation she brings to her trials. We will miss her on the bench."
After graduating from New York University, Chaitin earned her law degree in 1973 from UC Hastings. She co-wrote a groundbreaking law review article shortly thereafter that argued for the extension of civil rights to gay men and lesbians under the U.S. Constitution's equal protection guarantees.
Titled "Is Gay Suspect?" it was the first law review article of its kind.
"People were very into civil rights but they just didn't get it about gay and lesbian rights," she said. "It just troubled me so I decided let's think this through on a legal analysis."
She was drawn to the topic due to her involvement in the civil rights movement as well as friendships she had made with gays and lesbians.
"We have these deep-seated discriminations against gays and lesbians. But it is not spoken about," recalled Chaitin of the culture back then. "That is how I got inspired to do it. I couldn't find any answers. Homophobia was as entrenched, unfortunately, in the counterculture circles or in the liberal circles as much as it was entrenched in mainstream society."
She marveled at how far society has come in accepting LGBT people. Recently a potential jury member revealed himself to have been one of the plaintiffs in the landmark state case against Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban against same-sex marriage.
While the California Supreme Court let the 2008 ballot measure stand, both a federal district judge and an appellate court ruled Prop 8 to be unconstitutional. The case is now on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the man's announcement of being involved in the lawsuit, Chaitin's courtroom erupted with "spontaneous" applause. The 60 or so people represented a cross section of society – both young and old, of various races – she said.
"Wow, this is really something. What a sign of how things have changed," Chaitin recalled thinking about the reaction.
Judicial tenure grabbed headlines
Chaitin won election to an open seat on the court in 1992. Her two decades on the bench saw her assigned numerous headline-grabbing cases.
In 1998 she and then-District Attorney Terrance Hallinan sparred over her rulings in a trio of sexual assault cases. He accused the judge of being biased toward "sexual predators," according to news accounts, while court transcripts showed that Chaitin had trouble finding witness testimony credible enough to support the charges the DA's office had brought.
A case involving conditions at a residential hotel that Chaitin oversaw brought her praise from housing advocates when she showed up at the Mission District building in 2001. The year prior she had ordered the owners to bring it up to code, yet on her tour she found few repairs had been made.
Other rulings by Chaitin that garnered media attention included finding city permit expediter Jimmy Jen had committed fraud and violated housing codes, and ordering Edgard Mora to stand trial on murder and hate crimes charges for the 1998 death of Brian Wilmes.
Mora had punched Wilmes outside the Loading Dock, a defunct leather bar on Mission Street near 11th. Wilmes fell to the pavement and died two days later due to injuries he had sustained.
A jury hearing the case deadlocked over whether Mora had committed second-degree murder or manslaughter. In 2000 Mora quietly pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a hate-crime enhancement and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Another high profile LGBT case that Chaitin handled was that of transgender prisoner Alexis Giraldo, who in 2007 sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for its failure to protect her from sexual assault. The jury hearing the case ruled against Giraldo, but she ended up winning on appeal.
Transgender advocates were critical of how the lower courts handled the case. Prior to the start of the jury trial, Judge Peter Busch dismissed Giraldo's negligence claim, ruling that California law does not create a "special relationship" between jailers and inmates, according to a story in The Recorder.
The legal paper also noted that, "Giraldo's suit was further narrowed when she was released on parole later that year. She had sought a court order declaring it cruel or unusual punishment for prisons to house transgender people with men, but trial Judge Ellen Chaitin said her parole made that issue moot."
Asked about the case last week, Chaitin couldn't recall exact particulars but said Busch "made some significant rulings limiting the case" before it came before her courtroom.
Reflecting on her time as a judge, Chaitin said it had been a "great honor to serve" and has been "deeply humbled" by the trust San Franciscans placed in her as a judge.
In the release announcing her retirement, Chaitin stated that, "It's a bittersweet farewell to a career I've loved for two decades, but I look forward to new professional challenges and to continuing to work on issues I care about."
Chaitin is married to criminal defense attorney V. Roy Lefcourt. The couple has two children, Adam and Juliet.
Chaitin was close friends for years with the late gay political consultant Jim Rivaldo. He ran her judicial campaigns and named her executor of his will.
As a 2010 B.A.R. article noted, Chaitin has been trying since Rivaldo's death in 2007 to get gay political consultant Ray Sloan to hand over Rivaldo's papers to her so they can be properly stored and catalogued. Sloan insists Rivaldo bequeathed them to him with instructions to donate them to an institution where historians and researchers could access the archival material.
To date, nothing has happened with the papers. And Chaitin doubts the public will ever get to see the political ephemera believed to be stored in three metal filing cabinets and up to 40 boxes.
"He has absolutely no right to anything. Jim, in his last year of life, became friends with him. Why he thinks he has any claim to anything is ridiculous," said Chaitin.
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