Judging Matthew Rothschild

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

The debate was cordial by local political standards. A smattering of law students and political types gathered in an auditorium at Golden Gate University Law School on Feb. 6 to hear the three candidates for Municipal Court discuss the issues.

As you might suspect, the tenor of the three-way debate in the steep bowled room wasn't much different than a legal lecture. After all, discussions about dwindling jury pools and the consolidation of Municipal and Superior Court aren't as incendiary as the issues that define mayoral and supervisorial contests.

But as the evening drew to a close, one of the candidates, Matthew Rothschild, departed from the academic nature of the proceedings and gave those who like a good scrap something to chew on.

The subject of his attack was the campaign slogan of "Justice Not Politics" that adorns the buttons, signs, literature, and fund-raising appeals of his main rival, Ron Albers. Albers picked the slogan to differentiate himself from the more conventionally political Rothschild.

" 'Justice Not Politics' isn't right," Rothschild chided. "We have an obligation to teach young lawyers to come out, and not just come out, but in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, come out and get in the game.

" 'Justice Not Politics' has a chilling affect on the First Amendment," the deputy city attorney-turned-candidate continued, growing more animated. "It says don't get involved. Don't fight back. Don't speak out against things like Prop. 187, because if you do and you decide to run for judge, they will use it against you."

Forget curricula vitae (CVs), forget legal experience, Rothschild was saying. This race is about free speech.

Judged as spin, Rothschild's bit of sophistry gets high marks. It redefines his opponent's message and helps Rothschild dodge a difficult issue: his scant legal experience.

If Albers succeeds in convincing voters to make their decisions based on merit, if he makes them see Rothschild for what he truly is -- an overly ambitious political operative who's spent more time in the salons of the Democratic Party than in a courtroom -- the election will be a slam-dunk for the seasoned public defender. That's the true meaning of "Justice Not Politics."

But in San Francisco, logic and bona fides quickly give way to cronyism. And that's the reason why Rothschild is the guy to beat even though his opponents -- Albers and Kay Tsenin, a sole practitioner from the Richmond District -- are vastly more qualified to sit on the bench.

So how is it that Rothschild is apparently out in front of the pack? How has he raised more money and more key endorsements than the other two candidates?

Because he's a longtime member in good standing of the Democratic Party establishment in San Francisco. For 15 years, Rothschild has busied himself raising campaign money, serving as a campaign staffer, and steering Democratic Club and Democratic Central Committee votes in the direction of powerful local pols. It also doesn't hurt that Rothschild's parents have deep personal ties to John Burton and Nancy Pelosi. (Burton was high school friends with Rothschild's mother.)

In the privileged causeways of local politics, that counts for a lot more than decades toiling in the courtrooms and legal aid clinics of the nation, writing textbooks, serving as judge pro tempore, and assessing gubernatorial nominees to state courts, which are Albers' and Tsenin's selling points.

With Election Day less than a month away, Rothschild has the momentum. His campaign literature is garnished with the entire Democratic Party establishment -- Willie Brown, Pelosi, Burton, Louise Renne, Kevin Shelley, Carole Migden, Michael Hennessey, and Doris Ward -- which is paying back the multitude of political favors he's done them over the years.

His campaign treasury is twice the size of Albers' -- $47,000 to $20,000 to be exact. And two of the party's champion fund-raisers -- Brown and Pelosi -- are holding an event for Rothschild 18 days before the March 26 election.

Don't count Albers out. He's collected a formidable and politically balanced range of endorsements -- Art Agnos, Roberta Achtenberg, Tom Ammiano, and the San Francisco Labor Council on the left, and Frank Jordan, Annemarie Conroy, and the Republican Party Central Committee on the right. He's assembled a professional campaign team. (Sadly, you can pretty much forget about Tsenin. Her campaign has a paltry $8,300 in the bank, and has fielded a dedicated but amateur campaign operation.)

Rothschild won't acquire the legal skills required of a top-notch judge in the 28 days remaining until Election Day. He doesn't need to. He has a more potent facility: the resources to blanket San Francisco in slick campaign fliers brandishing names like Burton and Brown. In an election where people don't know what Muni Court judges do, let alone how to rate them, the names of the big politicians mean more to the average voter than legal experience, judicial temperament, and ethical behavior.

The election of Rothschild won't irrevocably lower the quality of Muni Court. The preliminary hearings and smaller civil and criminal matters that fill the calendar will survive his judgeship. The real problem with Rothschild's candidacy is his anointment by the San Francisco Democratic Party establishment, and what that anointment says about the values of the party's powerful.

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.

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.

"It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to maybe someday head the Democratic National Committee," Rothschild purportedly added. The staffer says Rothschild spoke with conviction and passion about his desire to be a party man. It seemed he had prepared for this role his whole life, the colleague says.

Then Rothschild learned that Judge Lillian K. Sing was vacating her Muni Court seat to run for Superior Court, and his career path took a sharp turn.

Around that time, the same colleague had a second conversation with Rothschild. Again, the deputy city attorney waxed rhapsodic about his chosen vocation. Again, he said it was a lifelong passion. But this time the post he had been called to fill was Municipal Court judge.

The first conversation was probably more authentic. It's anyone's guess why Rothschild fixed on Municipal Court as his destiny. Perhaps he had grown tired of being a lieutenant in the armies of Carole Migden and John Burton. Maybe he wanted to step out on his own. A young man of 37 has to start thinking about establishing himself, after all.

Even so, the decision was out of character for Rothschild. His lawyering had always taken a back seat to his political life.

And what of this life in politics? If his legal career is limited in scope and accomplishment, the only other place to look for clues about his character and know-how is the political arena.

The bulk of Rothschild's political life has been spent mostly in the small lagoons of San Francisco insider politics. Since 1988, he has been a member of the Democratic Party Central Committee, and in 1994 and 1995 he served as chair of that body.

He has also been a longtime member of the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club and the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club. He was Alice president in 1993 and 1994.

From 1992 to 1995, he also served on the executive board of the state Democratic Party.

A life in these circles involves a steady diet of fund-raising for candidates and politicking in clubs in search of endorsements of one's favored candidates or ballot propositions. It also involves a lot of trench warfare and insider deal-making: stacking clubs with last-minute members to manipulate endorsements, the "selling" of club endorsements to the campaigns that donate the most money to the club's slate card mailer -- stuff like that.

Rothschild hit the zenith of his career as Democratic operative in 1994 when he was elected chair of the Central Committee.

It was not a stellar performance. From the start, Rothschild earned the enmity of minorities on the Central Committee because of the way in which he was elected. Outgoing chair Carole Migden picked Rothschild as her successor and tipped him off as to her departure months before she made a public announcement. Armed with his inside information, Rothschild pre-empted the field, rounding up votes of members before other potential candidates could organize. The strategy effectively shut out any viable minority candidate. Minorities have been struggling for a leadership role on the Central Committee for years. Rothschild denies he received an early tip-off to Migden's departure.

But more controversial was Rothschild's decision to effectively shut down the local party from December 1994 until April 1995 and cease all voter registration efforts. After the 1994 gubernatorial elections, the state party went broke, owing the local Central Committee thousands of dollars. Rather than raise local money to keep the party going, Rothschild shuttered the doors and sent the executive director on unpaid leave. The decision was all the more controversial because Rothschild ran for chair on the platform that he was a peerless fund-raiser.

Some say the decision reflects Rothschild's self-serving nature. His critics on the Central Committee surmise that he did not aggressively tap local donors for party needs because he was afraid it would dry up the pool of money he would need for his judicial race.

Central Committee members were also angry that Rothschild spent a staggering $23,100 on a Fox Plaza headquarters for the 1994 unified Democratic campaign. They suspect he did so -- and did not seek cheaper quarters -- because his City Attorney digs were conveniently upstairs. Rothschild says the decision to rent the Fox Plaza offices was made by Kathleen Brown's campaign, and that it was pure coincidence that it happened to be in the same building where he worked.

Other internecine party fights stirred rancor in minority communities. Many Central Committee members have yet to forgive Rothschild for his role in scuttling an internal affirmative action policy for the local party.

In 1993, then-party chair Carole Migden fired one of the Central Committee's first minority staffers, a woman named Pamela Ayo Yetunde. She threatened to sue for wrongful termination. But Migden struck a deal with Yetunde: If the party developed an affirmative action policy to cut minorities in on the party's lucrative consulting contracts, Yetunde would promise not to sue.

Yetunde reported on the developments to Lesbians and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action (LAGADDA), and one of its members, Norm Nickens, who at the time was a staffer at the Human Rights Commission, drew up some simple boilerplate language, using the city's own affirmative action law as a guiding document.

LAGADDA presented the language to the Central Committee, hopeful that the party's history of giving consulting contracts to favored white consultants would end.

But then Rothschild stepped to the fore and spoke passionately against the proposal, saying it wasn't necessary and that it required further study. Even though Nickens had used the city's own law to draft the policy, Rothschild said the Central Committee should find other similar policies and review them. It was a calculated stalling tactic. It worked. After a month, the proposal was voted down.

The episode says much about Rothschild's politics. As a Democrat, he should have naturally supported affirmative action, but he was conflicted. His longtime ally at Alice B. Toklas, Robert Barnes, was a party consultant who would possibly be hurt by including minorities in consultant positions. In the end, some say, cronyism became more important than party principle. Today, Barnes is managing Rothschild's judicial race, and the consultant is donating the bulk of his services to his candidate for free as in-kind contributions. You can almost hear the sound of one hand washing the other.

If the next logical step for a party fixer like Rothschild was the Board of Supervisors or the BART board, there was a good reason he switched his career path to aspiring judge. He has never built the sort of following that could catapult him to high-profile and high-scrutiny political offices. Indeed, he's cultivated more than a few grass-roots enemies.

Staffers for Roberta Achtenberg's mayoral campaign still remember how over-the-top rude Rothschild was at the Toklas club when he interviewed Achtenberg during the club's endorsement process.

Again at Alice, members were shocked in 1994 when he let fly on African-Americans, calling the entire community "homophobic." Worse was his attitude when someone called him on his obvious overreaching bias. "I don't care," he allegedly said. Rothschild denies the incident despite eyewitness accounts.

Tsenin, who is opposing him for the Muni Court seat, still remembers an incident from 1990. "He was at City Hall literally screaming in this poor woman's face, saying, 'Politics is my life!' The only reason I still remember it is it was so extreme."

If political office was not an option, neither was the upper reaches of the Democratic Party. Within the party, Rothschild has always been a caucus scrapper, a political club packer. Just as he couldn't make the cut as a top lawyer at LaFollette & Johnson, he probably realized he couldn't make partner in the Democratic Party either. Asked about Rothschild's ambitions at serving as a high party official, one of the biggest names on Rothschild's literature scoffed openly.

What does it say for Rothschild's big-name patrons that they see the Municipal bench as a repository for washed-up operatives who can't make the jump to prime time?

Rothschild had every reason to believe that a Muni Court race would take place outside the focus of the media and the political culture. So far, the dailies and other weeklies have paid little attention to the race.

As he did when he ran for chair of the Central Committee, Rothschild tried to pre-empt the field when he received the early tip-off that Sing was leaving the Muni bench. Most of Rothschild's marquee endorsements were cultivated before the officials had any other candidates to compare him to.

Given Rothschild's political history, it's surprising to hear him sell himself on the campaign trail as a community activist, someone with a deep understanding of the disenfranchised.

"What I bring more than anything else," Rothschild told the audience at Golden Gate University, "is an understanding of communities. I have been called to leadership in the Jewish community, in the lesbian and gay community, and in the Democratic Party, where I have tried to resolve conflict."

In other campaign settings, Rothschild hammers on the need to reconnect the courts with the community as a way of making his activism seem relevant to the judiciary. But the question remains: How relevant is Rothschild's activism? Party operative work, delivering votes at Democratic clubs, and lining up votes on the Central Committee for Burton's and Migden's senatorial bids can hardly be called community activism.

Instinctively, Rothschild knows he can't sell his insider credentials as grass-roots experience. So he relies on his one year on the Social Services commission under the Agnos administration and the endorsement his commission votes earned him with the Coalition on Homelessness. (An endorsement he curiously leaves off his campaign literature.)

Former staffers to Art Agnos say that Rothschild didn't want to serve on the Social Services commission. When Agnos was making those lame-duck appointments in 1991, Rothschild was angling for a post on the War Memorial Board, where he would help oversee the symphony, the opera, and the ballet -- a far cry from any enduring interest in homelessness.

"I still remember him walking into his swearing-in ceremony," says one former Agnos staffer. "He pulled me aside and said that he still wanted War Memorial but that he'd take social services if he had to."

Ron Albers rests on the brick steps of his Outer Mission home. He's going back nearly three decades to talk about where he first developed his sense of public service.

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.

"But the state of California says that to be qualified [to be a judge] the threshold is five years legal experience and a member in good standing with the bar," he concludes.

So what makes Rothschild more qualified than Albers? "Who I am is an activist who has had to take roll call votes on rent control, on environmental issues, on labor, on privatizing city services, on consent decrees," he says. "The battles I have fought have been more community-based, and that would be refreshing and isn't represented on the bench."

Rothschild seems to be going by the same standard once applied by former Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska when he defended Nixon judicial appointment G. Harrold Carswell in 1970:

"There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers, and they are entitled to a little representation. Aren't they?"

Still, it's the standard Rothschild and the local Democratic establishment are maintaining. To state the real reason for their support -- that they are paying pack political favors to a Democratic Party team player -- would be too embarrassing. Listen to their excuses for Rothschild.

Carole Migden: "[Superior Court Judge] Donna Hitchens had only one trial under her belt, and the liberal left supported her."

John Burton: "Earl Warren hadn't been in a courtroom for 20 years when he was appointed to the Supreme Court."

Rothschild takes the rationale one step further: "Paul Haerle was appointed by Pete Wilson to the Court of Appeals, and he was a former chair of the California Republican Party."

Translation: The right has its unqualified party hacks, so the left should have its own, too.

But even on this score, Rothschild is light-years off-base. Sure, Haerle was state Republican Party chair for two years in the mid-'70s. But more important, Haerle was a senior partner and trial attorney for the San Francisco firm of Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges for 38 years.

For an honest voice among his supporters, Rothschild has to rely on sheriff and attorney Michael Hennessey. Asked why he endorsed Rothschild he says:

"He helped me get my two jail bond measures endorsed by the Democratic Central Committee."

Too bad the filing deadline is past and this talented and forthright lawyer can't enter the race.

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