Judging Matthew Rothschild

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

Rothschild began work as a deputy city attorney in 1994. (He is on leave from the City Attorney's Office while he campaigns for the judicial seat.) But again, the legal experience he acquired was limited. He acted as lead attorney on cases but never faced a formal trial with a jury. All of his cases were adjudicated before an administrative law judge at the Workers' Compensation Appeals board, where the courtroom rules of evidence and procedures are informal compared to jury trials.

The upshot of Rothschild's inexperience is that he's a legal tenderfoot who knows as much about the workings of the court as a viewer of Court TV. Maybe less.

Rothschild has also come under fire by some in the City Attorney's Office for his lax work habits. Deputy city attorneys and other staff members who worked closely with Rothschild say he was chronically late for work and hearings. As a result of his tardiness, Rothschild once narrowly skirted a contempt-of-court charge in 1995. That same year, Rothschild's tardiness forced the city to accept a doctor's report on an injury that cost taxpayers approximately $50,000 more than was required, according to one deputy city attorney familiar with the case. The attorneys say Rothschild was routinely 45 minutes late to work, to court hearings, and to meetings with opposing council.

Rothschild doesn't deny being tardy. But he denies that he cost the city $50,000, and says he can't recall whether a formal order to show cause for contempt was ever issued. "I do remember a judge being angry because he couldn't find me," he says. "But I was down the hall at another [workers' comp] hearing."

While he was often late to official proceedings and meetings, deputy city attorneys say that Rothschild had a habit of signing in early on the office ledger that keeps track of who's at work and who isn't. Rothschild did not return calls seeking comment on this issue.

"It was a game in the office to guess how much earlier than he actually arrived Rothschild would sign in," says one City Attorney staffer.

Attorneys and investigators sign in on the same ledger, which is privy to all eyes in the office. (There are separate timecards attorneys and staffers fill out and hand in to payroll.)

Normally, staffers in the office say, the succession of times people sign in on the ledger are chronological, for obvious reasons. But sometimes an attorney or an investigator who has gone to a 5:30 a.m. stakeout will start the day's work before coming into the office. When he arrives at the office at noon, that investigator will enter 5:30 a.m. on the ledger.

But staffers in the office who kept an eye out for Rothschild say he regularly signed in as having arrived at 9 a.m. after someone who had signed in at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m., indicating that the attorney may have been late to work and making it look as if he had arrived earlier.

Minor offenses, you say of Rothschild's rŽsumŽ puffery, courtroom tardiness, and time-sheet padding. But taken together, Rothschild's co-workers say, they trace a pattern of playing outside the rules that is discomfiting in a judicial candidate.

Then there's the issue of temperament, almost as important as ethics and knowledge of the law.

Or as the Judicial Canon of Ethics states, "A judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity."

Many say Rothschild is noticeably lacking in this department. In fact, his petulance is a minor legend in local politics.

Several deputy city attorneys say Rothschild brought an air of superiority, condescension, and ill temperament into the office.

"I would say it's pretty simple," says a City Attorney staffer who worked closely with Rothschild. "He lacks judicial temperament."

The staffer says Rothschild would often yell at people working under him. Secretaries, insurance adjusters, and other attorneys have all felt the sting of "the judge," as his co-workers derisively refer to him. "You can hear him down the hall," says the staffer, who requested anonymity. "There are insurance adjusters who have requested not to work with him."

The staffer continues: "He talks down to people, like secretaries. Imperious is a good word for him."

A deputy city attorney says that when Rothschild was focused on the work at hand he was a competent attorney. But, the attorney says, Rothschild didn't give many of his cases his full attention because he was too busy working on his political projects. During Rothschild's tenure in the office he was concurrently serving as chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party Central Committee.

"The [workers' comp unit] didn't garner much respect from outside council because Matthew was here," the attorney says. "There would often be complaints that cases weren't moved along fast enough, and those were generally Matthew's cases."

The attorney adds, "He had more important things to do. He had politics."

More than a year ago, Matthew Rothschild was talking to a colleague in the City Attorney's Office about his career path. He told the staffer that his singular desire was to be head of the state Democratic Party.

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