Judging Matthew Rothschild

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

It was in India in 1970 at the Gujarat Vidyapith Institute set up by Mahatma Gandhi. More than 5,000 students, ranging from children to Ph.D. candidates, lived on a sprawling campus in Ahmadabad in northwest India. There they learned to teach, and how to build schools, hospitals, and even natural gas fermentation tanks that operated on human feces.

"We also studied philosophy and political science," Albers says.
The big lesson the students learned, though, was community service. "I still remember we went to one village after a monsoon and rebuilt the roads, carrying dirt to repave the pavement, carrying mud to rebuild bricks for the school."

It's called action yoga, Albers explains. Not the physical contortions or the philosophy we normally associate with the discipline, but the third component of any yoga education: service.

"We were involved very significantly in the service aspect, coming from the heart and doing good deeds."

By any conventional measurement of legal experience, Albers beats Rothschild hands down. He had practiced law in a variety of settings -- civil, juvenile, family, and criminal court -- for more than a decade when Rothschild passed the bar in 1986. Whereas Rothschild has never faced a jury or led a case in court, Albers has tried more than 100 jury trials, ranging from misdemeanor to death penalty cases, as a public defender.

From 1991 to 1994, Albers held the prestigious positions of chair and vice chair on the state bar's Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, the body that rules on gubernatorial nominations to all state courts. He has written textbooks on the law and lectured widely on topics ranging from defending misdemeanor cases and evidence law to AIDS and the law and sentencing laws.

Also, Albers' sense of community service is in the real world, outside the penumbra of a party or bureaucratic apparatus. At the beginning of Albers' legal career in Minnesota's twin cities, he worked in the community service field. In 1973, he did the tax work to help set up Minneapolis' first gay community service center, the second in the nation after the one in Los Angeles. The next year, he joined a program for women re-entering society after prison and volunteered his legal skills at a battered women's shelter, the first such shelter in the nation. Mostly, Albers applied for stay-away orders and child custody on behalf of the women in both programs. In private practice, Albers represented juveniles coming out of mental institutions, as well as criminal defendants.

Because he is gay, Albers says, he was unable to find a nonprofit to sponsor him for a government grant. So he worked stocking grocery shelves at night to supplement a university fellowship he had won.

Knowing San Francisco would welcome a gay lawyer dedicated to legal aid service, Albers moved here in 1975. The war on poverty, dead elsewhere, was still in full swing here thanks to liberal Mayor George Moscone.

Albers joined two Chinatown organizations doing groundbreaking gang intervention work. "I was doing everything I could to not be a lawyer in an ivory tower," Albers says.

Albers worked directly with families, doing intervention and counseling more than legal work. But as a lawyer, he also found himself in juvenile courts advocating for gang members. He defended one of the youths implicated in the Golden Dragon massacre.

As a street-level advocate trying to break up gangs, Albers soon found that he had put himself in harm's way. One day, a pipe bomb was left on his front step.

With Moscone's assassination, the support for community-based programs ended and Albers and his colleagues had to close up shop in Chinatown, leaving people in the community angry. "We had built up a lot of expectations," he says, growing pensive. "But some of the circumstances were beyond our control. I was really impressed at how fragile relationships are and how important it is to just be there with people."

Albers moved on to work for Legal Services for Children, where he represented juveniles in court and school disciplinary hearings before joining the Public Defender's Office in 1978.

Over the last 18 years, Albers has risen steadily in the office. From 1989 on, he has served in administrative positions, heading up the misdemeanor, the juvenile, and eventually the felony units in the office.

Albers' most visceral legal memory is connected to a 1986 incident in which a murder victim's father pulled a gun in court and started firing at Albers' client. The defendant was wounded three times and a bullet missed Albers by inches.

"That taught me that what we do as attorneys is not just a performance," Albers says. "We deal with real lives. It made the legal process starkly real for me."

Matthew Rothschild ignores his hamburger on focaccia at Zuni Cafe. The trendy morsel grows cold as the candidate tries to turn Albers' vast legal experience into a campaign liability.

"What Mr. Albers represents, and this isn't meant to be a criticism, what he represents is already represented on the bench, meaning a person who has come from the legal community," Rothschild says.

"If you want to choose a judge based on who has been the lawyer the longest, who has had the most murder trials, who has been the most involved in the bar association, the barristers, and all the other legal organizations, you can come to that conclusion," he adds.

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