Judging Matthew Rothschild

Why is the Democratic Party elite backing an underqualified party operative for the local judiciary?

For years, it's been standard operating procedure for the established leadership to elevate party operatives and famous kin to elected positions. The reason for this is simple and well-known: Consultants and party ops run the local political culture. An insular and inbred lot, they reward and empower their own by manipulating local political clubs and constituencies with money and self-serving deals.

Instead of reaching down and empowering true community representatives, they give us: Carole Migden, party fund-raiser; Kevin Shelley, son of former mayor, party activist, and Phil Burton aide; and, most recently, Michael Yaki, Pelosi aide and party activist.

Political cronyism works fine in the legislative branch, where party-building and partisan agendas are natural components, where votes are traded and party loyalty makes for effective governance. The natural trajectory of Rothschild's political career should have carried onto, say, the community college board, the BART board, or even the Board of Supervisors, places where the party could watch over and prevent him from doing any damage. But by applying its devotion to mediocrity to the judiciary, the Democratic machine has revealed that it sees no difference in electing a dogcatcher and fixing a race for a judge.

Municipal Court deals in civil matters where the contested dollar amount of a complaint is lower than $25,000. All evictions, called unlawful detainers, and all violations of the vehicle code (moving and parking violations) go through Muni Court. And most misdemeanor criminal cases course through the lower court. But one of the court's most important duties is in conducting preliminary hearings, where the sufficiency of the district attorney's criminal complaints, from fraud to murder, is determined.

It is not a place for a novice.
Matthew Rothschild's resume -- which is reprised in his campaign literature and ballot book statement -- portrays the 37-year-old as an excellent candidate for the bench. He seems to have plowed the legal field sufficiently, taken all the appropriate steps:

Graduate, Juris Doctor, Hastings Law School. San Francisco Deputy City Attorney, 1994-1996. Law Clerk, U.S. Justice Department, United States Attorney, Criminal Division, 1984-1985. Attorney, LaFollette, Johnson, DeHaas, Fesler & Ames, 1986-1993. Attorney for fair housing, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, fall 1993.

But CVs can be misleading, and Rothschild seems to be holding to the grand tradition of rŽsumŽ puffery.

His HUD job lasted exactly 19 days. How much lawyering can one cram into 19 days? It takes longer to write a legal brief. The assumption in most voters' minds after reading that line in his literature is that he performed at least moderately sustained work on fair housing.

But leave it to the voters and the state bar discipline committee to decide if Rothschild has violated Canon 5 of the Canon of Judicial Ethics, the body of law covering the behavior of judges and candidates for judicial office.

The canon states, "A candidate for election or appointment to judicial office shall not ... knowingly misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position, or any other fact concerning the candidate or his or her opponent."

But if the bar were to find that Rothschild "knowingly misrepresented" his work at HUD, he could be subject to a range of discipline, from admonishment to disbarment, according to Meri Glade Massara, senior attorney with the Judicial Council of California.

Rothschild says he worked at HUD 36 days, not 19. "I stand by my work there," he says. "I prepared several charges against people who discriminated against women with children."

Resume-puffing is a good gauge of Rothschild's ethics, but a review of the legal work he touts is even more relevant. He says he has 10 years of civil litigation experience. True, but his resume doesn't elaborate on the scope and type of litigation, nor does it say anything about his role in the cases he worked on. If it did, Rothschild's allure would quickly wane.

Rothschild has practiced the law in two places: LaFollette & Johnson and the City Attorney's Office. At LaFollette & Johnson, which represents insurance companies in product liability, toxic tort, and medical malpractice cases, Rothschild was never the lead attorney on a case.

"Matthew's role was as associate attorney supporting a partner," says John Supple, Rothschild's supervisor at the firm. "He was trial support, handling matters at trial."

Those matters usually involved making routine trial motions like demurs, a legal convention that contests the adequacy of a legal complaint. None of the trials involved a jury, Supple adds.

Within this limited scope, Supple says Rothschild produced quality work. "He showed a courtroom attentiveness I appreciated," he says.

But Rothschild himself admits that he left the firm in 1993 after coming to the conclusion that he would not achieve partner status.

"I just knew in my heart what it takes to make partner at a downtown firm, and I knew in my heart that wasn't going to happen," he says. He adds he would have had a better shot at making partner if he had spent less time on politics.

After his fleeting stint at HUD, Rothschild was offered a job at the City Attorney's Office, where he joined the workers' compensation team. The unit represents city departments and agencies in cases where city workers have been injured on the job.

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