The independence of the judiciary took center stage at a swearing-in ceremony for San Francisco Superior Court judges on Monday, months after an unsuccessful campaign challenging four judges who were appointed by Republican governors.
Superior Court Judges Cynthia Lee and Jeffrey Ross were among the 11 judges who took the oath of office at the Civic Center Courthouse ceremony, while Superior Court Judges Andrew Cheng and Curtis Karnow did not attend and were expected to be sworn-in at a later time.
The four judges won re-election to six-year terms on the bench over Deputy Public Defenders Maria Evangelista, Kwixuan Maloof, Niki Solis and Phoenix Streets in June, despite attempts to paint them as conservatives.
“I’m honored and humbled by the voters of San Francisco, who affirmed the importance of an independent judiciary, a non-political judiciary dedicated to fair and impartial decision-making and access to justice for all,” Lee said at the ceremony, speaking on behalf of herself and her colleagues.
In an interview after the ceremony, new Presiding Judge Garrett Wong said judges do not take political sides. He echoed the statements of Chief Justice John Roberts, who said in response to criticism from President Donald Trump in November that there are no “Obama judges or Trump judges.”
“We’re not a Democratic appointment or a Republican appointment, we’re just judges,” Wong said. “The most important thing for us is that we dispense justice in a fair and impartial way and we must abide by the law. It makes no difference what political party we belong to, how we voted or what our personal feelings are about a particular case.”
This year is the first time in history that both the presiding and assistant presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court system are Chinese American.
Wong, a fourth generation San Francisco native whose years of experience include work as a defense attorney and public defender, succeeded Judge Teri Jackson as presiding judge Jan. 1 for a two-year term.
Wong presided over the domestic violence case against former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi in 2012. In the legal world, he is known for his work around mental health issues.
Judge Samuel Feng, who presided over the Kate Steinle murder trial in 2017, will serve a two-year term as assistant presiding judge.
Wong struck an optimistic note during an interview with reporters, praising the diversity of San Francisco’s court system, which for the first time in four years will have a full roster of 52 judges.
Four of the six judges appointed to the bench in San Francisco over the last year are women. Within the last year, the court also celebrated the appointment of its first Indian-American judge.
Wong also recognized the challenges that the court will face in the years to come. Last year, the system endured a 10 percent budget cut that resulted in shortened hours for court clerks.
Among his priorities will be a focus on the long-awaited construction of a new courthouse to replace the crumbling Hall of Justice, he said.
While the court system does not yet have an official plan for the building, Wong said the idea is to deconstruct parts of the building while leaving the courtrooms standing, and then build new courtrooms where the rest of seismically unsafe building used to stand.
There currently is no timeline for the courthouse reconstruction.