A liberal female judge, a long-standing feminist with impeccable legal credentials, was going weak in the knees, letting a particular class of criminals off the hook by trashing prosecutors' cases, supposedly because she was biased in favor of -- rapists?
When District Attorney Terence Hallinan used the Examiner to announce late in August that he was going to remove all sex crime cases from the courtroom of Municipal Court Judge Ellen Chaitin, I couldn't help thinking that there had to be a back-story to the whole mess. There were too many gaping holes in the article, holes that any good reporter or editor with even a passing knowledge of the criminal justice system would have plugged. Then, of course, there was the extreme nature of the charge. And finally came the sparse, ephemeral nature of the evidence cited by Hallinan.
And my instincts -- as fuzzy as they can be at times -- were in this instance correct. Hard facts contained in public records lead to a clear conclusion: The Examiner was duped -- or allowed itself to be duped -- into running a distorted story that smeared a respected jurist. The only question left to answer involved motive. What would make the district attorney of a major city stray so far from the truth?
After making his front-page strike in the Examiner, the district attorney has decided to stay mum on the Chaitin matter, according to his spokesperson, John Shanley. (Given the weakness of his position, I think Hallinan is finally employing sound judgment on the issue.)
He was clear as a bell, however, when he spoke to Examiner reporter Jim Herron Zamora in August. Then, Hallinan detailed exactly why his office would begin invoking its right to pull cases from Chaitin's courtroom. So far, the District Attorney's Office has taken at least 10 cases out of Chaitin's courtroom under the theory that she is too biased in favor of sex offenders to preside over preliminary hearings in their cases.
Hallinan's argument, such as it is, goes like this: As a muni court judge, Chaitin oversees preliminary court proceedings that are meant to assess whether the prosecution's evidence in any particular case is strong enough to warrant a trial. In that role, Hallinan asserts, Chaitin has made horribly ill-informed rulings and improperly dismissed cases or parts of cases against rapists before they have had a chance to reach trial. Chaitin's rulings have jeopardized the safety of a vulnerable class of victims, Hallinan told the Examiner.
The district attorney's main point, however, had to do with motivation: He contended the Chaitin rulings he disagreed with were founded on a bias against the victims of sex crimes, and in favor of defense attorneys and their abhorrent clients.
Now, it's expected that prosecutors will disagree from time to time with the rulings of judges. Every once in a while, every head prosecutor will take off after a particular judge's rulings in a particular case. But to accuse a judge of having some personal animus against a vulnerable population seems a bit much.
A bit way too much.
In fact, that claim struck me as something a man tilted off an even keel might make.
Hallinan cited three cases in the Examiner article as evidence of Chaitin's bias. I looked into basic facts of the three cases and found no basis for the outrage of our district attorney. Let me correct that. I can understand why Hallinan would be pissed -- if he were pissed at his deputies for filing weak cases and failing to conduct hearings in a diligent manner.
But in those three cases, Chaitin's rulings were rock-solid and smart. At the very worst, they might be considered fodder for legitimate legal debate or appeal to a higher court.
Had the Examiner done the proper amount of research into Hallinan's complaints, the reporter who wrote the story and his editors might have asked themselves two important questions: Is Terry Hallinan such a bad lawyer that he misunderstands fundamental aspects of the criminal justice system in which his deputies operate? Or does our temperamental district attorney have more unsavory motives for distorting the truth and lashing out at a judge with false slurs?
After doing that kind of research, this is my opinion: In Hallinan's case, it's a little of both.
Chaitin and Hallinan, both liberal Democrats, come out of the same small-town machine that has governed San Francisco for nearly four decades. They have known each other for years. Hallinan even threw a fund-raiser at his house for Chaitin's husband, local defense attorney V. Roy Lefcourt, in his ultimately unsuccessful bid for election to the municipal court bench this year.
These are hardly ideological opposites.
Chaitin was elected judge in 1992, with then-Supervisor Hallinan's endorsement in her quiver, and Hallinan was elected district attorney three years later. Once the ideological soulmates were ensconced in the criminal justice system, it was only natural they would join hands on the kinds of alternatives to incarceration that reformers have been advancing for years. In 1996, they teamed up on something called mentor court.
Mentor court takes first-offender drug dealers and puts them through counseling, education, and job training programs, all the while holding their sentences over their heads as incentive to do well. If they jump through all the right hoops, their sentences are wiped away, and they graduate from the program into, one hopes, more productive lives. Chaitin is the judge who oversees the program.
On Aug. 11, several mentor court participants were set to graduate, and everyone involved with the program wanted to get some publicity out of it. Hallinan, apparently, wanted the bulk of the credit and press-play. He hit the roof when he heard Chaitin had invited the mayor to make a speech at the graduation.