Phoenix Streets, Niki Solis, Maria Evangelista, Kwixuan Maloof. Together, their names sound like a troop of superheroes fighting for justice — and the reality isn’t too far off. With more than 50 years of courtroom experience between them, these four San Francisco public defenders made history Wednesday when they each pulled papers to run for San Francisco Superior Court judge — with the specific goal of unseating four longtime incumbents appointed by Republican governors.
A crash course in how this works: Judges are technically elected by the people, but most are initially appointed by the governor of California when another judge retires, dies, or steps down, and a seat needs to be filled. Once appointed, they will then run for the seat they hold — and they almost always retain it. Technically the vote is ours, but so few candidates challenge incumbent judges that we often end up just voting for ones that governors appoint.
In this case, Judges Curtis Karnow, Jeffrey Ross and Andrew Cheng were all appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger between 2005 and 2009. Judge Cynthia Lee was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s.
The fact that four people are taking on these long-time incumbents is a big deal, compounded by the fact that unlike their prosecuting counterparts, public defenders rarely make it to the bench. And in the next four months leading up to the election, many of the above lawyers will be defending cases in the courtrooms of the judges they’re running against.
Brave doesn’t begin to describe it, and already the politics in the Hall of Justice are getting messy. Streets was working a case in Judge Ross’s courtroom while his colleagues filed papers at the Department of Elections Wednesday afternoon, one hour before the deadline for June’s ballot. According to Streets, Ross held up the case, in what seems to be a pretty sly move to throw a wrench into his race. (He made it to City Hall to drop off forms with just a few minutes to spare.)
It’s unprecedented that four public defenders would make this move together, and although they’re each running independent campaigns, their stories speak to a higher collective goal. All people of color, many come from unique backgrounds, offering an insight into the diversity of San Francisco that current judges may not have. SF Weekly met up with each candidate as they filed paperwork Wednesday afternoon.
Solis moved to the United States from Belize when she was 1 year old. She was undocumented for much of her childhood, but always had a dream of being a public defender. When she was 20, she called S.F.’s Public Defender’s Office and asked to volunteer. She took the LSATs. She went to law school. And she’s been working in San Francisco as a public defender for 21 years.
She’s also an out lesbian, part Latina and part Black, and a mom of two kids. And her “unique perspective,” as she calls it, is missing from the current lineup of judges.
“As a judicial officer, you have a lot of discretion,” she says. “It’s important that everybody who comes before you is viewed as an individual. I don’t think the judiciary in San Francisco is digging deeply enough to get to the root of the problem. We just shove people off to the side, and we don’t ask why. We just ask what.”
Maloof was born and raised in Diamond Heights and has worked as a city defense attorney for 17 years. Over that span of time, he’s noticed that he has to work harder in courtrooms for his clients of color. He’s tired of this imbalance, and although it would require a pay cut, is working hard to earn a seat as judge.
When asked why he’s running now, Maloof cited the Trump administration as a major motivator. “I sent in my application for judge to the governor years ago,” he says. “It’s just sitting there. I can’t wait for the governor to decide what San Francisco voters should decide. It’s the perfect time for all of us. Donald Trump has appointed very conservative judges to the bench. One way that you get appointed is by becoming a state superior court judge. So if more of us are superior court judges, that gives the Trump administration a bigger pool to elevate us to the federal bench.”
Evangelista was one of the first Mexican-American women to graduate from Vanderbilt Law School — but her roots are deep in San Francisco. Raised by parents who moved to the U.S. to become migrant farmers in the 1960s, she grew up just a block from the Hall of Justice in SoMa.
“I started going to kindergarten walking past 850 Bryant, and I quickly realized my parents were not connected to the system, and they didn’t understand how the system worked,” she says. “I so desperately wanted to know what was going on and how to become a part of it.”
She’s now committed to changing things on a judicial level.
“There are pockets of conservative judges that are not acting like their public servants, they’re acting like they’re conservative politicians when they make their decisions,” she says. Too many look at what’s on paper and make blanket charges, without looking at defendants as individual people.
While we chatted, one of her four-year-old twins hopped over for a hug.
“Didn’t you argue a motion sometime? What kind of motion?” Evangelista asked her.
“995,” her daughter answered, referencing the motion to dismiss criminal complaints.
“Did it get granted?”
“But we’ll try again, right? Yeah, we will, that’s what we do.”
Last but not least is Streets, who cites the civil rights movement as a major motivator for becoming a public defender. That passion has extended to addressing the implicit bias that he sees in courtrooms every day.
“Look at the racial inequality,” he says. “This city has a population that’s 6 percent or less African American. You go down to the Hall of Justice on any given day, and if you were the judge, you’d think the city was 85 percent Black. A lot of this has to do with implicit bias. A lot of people don’t even know that it’s happening.”
The four candidates have the experience, the drive, and the support from one another to be serious contenders in June’s race. But whether they can oust judges who’ve spent decades on the bench remains to be seen.
In the meantime, you can find them in the Hall of Justice, defending the people of San Francisco.