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San Francisco judges, challengers face off in debate ahead of March 2024 election

Two men sit at a table.
Judges Patrick Thompson, left, and Judge Michael Begert participate in a debate with their challengers on Thursday. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Two San Francisco judges and their electoral challengers—a prosecutor and a corporate lawyer—sat before more than a 100 people Thursday night in a debate where there were few disagreements over how a judge should behave on the bench.

The debate was the first in the race for two judicial seats in March. The election pits Judge Patrick Thompson against Assistant District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland, and Judge Michael Begert against attorney Albert “Chip” Zecher, a corporate lawyer and board member at UC Law San Francisco.

The hourlong debate that took place in Golden Gate Park is the latest political battleground over how San Francisco is dealing with open-air drug dealing and other public safety concerns that worsened over the pandemic. 

Two people sit at a debate table.
Corporate lawyer Albert “Chip” Zecher, left, Assistant District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland, center, and Judge Patrick Thompson debate during a candidate forum on Thursday night. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

The rhetoric at the center of the judicial elections is redolent of the debate that fueled the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Some of the same forces that funded the 2022 recall are now backing the tough-on-crime candidates against sitting judges. 

Meanwhile, critics of the effort say it unfairly politicizes the criminal justice system and scapegoats judges for the city’s problems.  

Despite rhetoric attempting to differentiate how each candidate would behave on the bench, all four generally agreed about how judges must be impartial and fair in how they apply the law. Judge candidates are barred by judicial ethics rules from speaking about how they would rule on any specific cases. 

That consensus was exemplified by Thompson. 

“I really believe that well-run courts are the foundation of a safe community,” he said. “I have respect for the law, the legal process and everyone that comes into my courtroom.”

A man stands with a mic.
Judge Patrick Thompson takes a turn to speak during Thursday's debate. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

For at least three of those present at the debate, biography and position dominated their comments. The two sitting judges spoke about how the courts work and what they have the power to do in their courtrooms. 

Begert runs rehabilitation courts for veterans and drug offenders and spoke about success stories and how helping such individuals can make the city safer. He pointed out that he only deals with the cases once they are in his court, but the district attorney and defense lawyers decide whether or not people come to his court.

Thompson runs a preliminary hearing court, where he decides whether felony cases will go to trial. During Thursday’s debate, he focused on how he runs that court and how the fair application of the law is what helps make the city safe. 

Meanwhile, Roland spoke of her advocacy for victims as a prosecutor and how her personal and professional experiences give her special insight into the experience of victims. 

Zecher, for his part, took less time to speak about his limited legal experience in the criminal courts and focused instead on the reason he is running to unseat Begert. 

“I don’t agree with the approach that permits compassionate treatment of sellers on our streets,” he said. 

The two challengers attempted to set themselves apart from their incumbent opponents by hammering on the drug crisis and accountability on the bench. 

“Like you, I am concerned about public safety on our streets,” Zecher said “I believe our public safety is compromised.”

Zecher, who tried to characterize all incumbent judges as though they are above elections, said he decided to run for the bench after hearing District Attorney Brooke Jenkins blame the city’s street crime issues on judges. 

A man in a suit speaks into a mic.
Albert “Chip” Zecher, a corporate lawyer and board member at UC Law San Francisco, listens as other candidates speak during the forum. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Roland focused on her years as a prosecutor and the reason why she became a prosecutor: Her grandparents were the victims of a violent home invasion.

“I believe that judges should not be ruled by political whims, but public safety is not a political whim,” Roland said in response to a question.

The brief fireworks in the debate were mostly between Zecher and Begert.

In one exchange, Zecher attacked Begert for saying he only follows the advice of drug treatment experts when it comes to keeping defendants in treatment court—a statement that made it sound like he disregarded input from other stakeholders. Begert said he misspoke and takes multiple factors into consideration when making his decisions. 

The pair also sniped at one another about funding, with Zecher asking Begert to forgo political action committee funds from groups outside of San Francisco. Begert responded by saying that his campaign has far less cash than Zecher’s.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at