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March 5 election pits prosecutor Jean Roland vs. Judge Patrick Thompson. Who are they?

Two people stand near one another before a court.
Judge Patrick Thompson and prosecutor Jean Roland are running against each other for a spot on the San Francisco Superior Court. | Source: Illustration by The Standard; photos by Jason Henry for The Standard and Gina Castro/The Standard

She is the child of immigrants from Korea who came to the United States for a new life. His parents migrated north from the Jim Crow South to Michigan.

She became a prosecutor for the San Francisco District Attorney in part as a reaction to her family experiencing a brutal home-invasion burglary. He was inspired as a child to enter law when a mentor exposed him to the profession’s intellectual challenges. 

These are just a few of the details of the lives of Assistant District Attorney Jean Roland, 49, and Judge Patrick Thompson, 56, who are facing each other in the March election for one of two open San Francisco Superior Court judge seats.

The election comes amid a simmering dispute over crime and public safety in San Francisco. Roland’s backers have cast the incumbent as a soft-on-crime judge, while Thompson’s backers defend his experience and track record, calling the challenge a politicized threat to the independence of the judiciary.

While their track records on and off the bench are central to understanding how they will act once elected, the biographies of each candidate shape who they are and how they see the law—especially because judicial ethics rules bar them from speaking specifically about how they might make rulings from the bench.

Jean Roland: Korea to San Francisco

In the mid-1970s, the Kang family left South Korea and came to the United States with Jean and her older brother. They were hard-working immigrants who made a new life for themselves in California by working at places like flea markets and a luggage store while learning English in night classes.

After landing in Sacramento when Roland was 1 year old, the family moved to San Francisco, where she grew up in the Sunset District. Her grandparents, who came to the States to help raise Roland, were her caretakers, and they tried to instill Korean values in her.

A family stands for a portrait.
Jean Myungjin Roland's mom holds Roland as a baby in a childhood family photo with her father and brother. | Source: Courtesy Jean Myungjin Roland

“I grew up in a very traditional family,” she said. “I was literally raised to be a good wife and mother. I didn’t have much of a voice of my own because of my gender.”

Her parents came together via an arranged marriage. When Roland was born, her family members cried because she was a girl. 

“For me, I’ve always wanted to do more” than assume the traditional role of a woman, she said in an interview with The Standard.

From an early age, her trajectory seemed certain. She attended Lowell High School and then studied at the University of California Berkeley, where she initially majored in rhetoric until a violent crime changed the course of her life: Her family members were the victims of a home invasion.

Roland got a call about the crime and headed across the bay from Berkeley. She arrived at the scene of the crime and ended up translating for her injured grandparents. One of the criminals had tied up her grandfather and beat him with the butt of a gun multiple times, causing him to lose consciousness.

“The assailants dragged her grandmother down the stairs and tied her to her husband, whom she thought was dead laying in a pool of his own blood,” Roland’s campaign website says.

But that traumatic event was not the only force pushing her toward a law career. 

“My mother studied law in Korea,” Roland said. “But, as a woman, she could not become a lawyer.”

Despite her traditional family values, Roland’s mother stressed to her that the law is important because it helps give a voice to the voiceless. 

Once Roland decided to pursue this path, she sought ways to get legal experience. While still in college, she went through the yellow pages and cold-called law firms. She was taken on by a woman-owned law firm in Emeryville, where she interned.  When Roland got there, she found an office full of women headed by Janet L. Dobrovolny.

“That was an inspiring moment,” Roland said. 

She then moved to Boston, where she attended law school and became interested in litigation to become a “voice for victims.”

After graduating in 2001, she came home and got her first job in the office of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. She argued her first trial—a DUI case—within days of getting the job and won the case.

An older man with glasses, in a suit, thoughtfully rests his chin on his hand. Two blurred figures are behind him.
San Francisco County District Attorney Terence Hallinan listens to the prosecution's rebuttal in closing arguments during a case in Los Angeles in 2002. | Source: Lance Iversen/AFP/Getty Images

Roland was among a cohort of attorneys hired by Hallinan from communities rarely represented in DA offices, according to former colleagues. 

“Terence [Hallinan] was decades ahead of his time,” said longtime DA staffer Rani Singh. “That was part of the reason why many of us came. Jean is a product of that, many women of color are a product of that.” 

For Roland, having prosecutors who look like communities that are frequently targeted by crime can help convince people to come forward as witnesses.

“[Koreans] feel comfortable knowing that they have someone in the prosecution office who is like them,” she said in a Stanford Law School publication. “I think especially with the Asian community, especially a monolingual community, they don’t really want to get involved when it comes to legal issues, because whether it’s fear or immigration issues or because they don’t think anyone is going to understand the cultural sensitivities.”

three woman stand in front of a car.
Jean Myungjin Roland, left, poses with family members in a childhood photo. | Source: Courtesy Jean Myungjin Roland

The case that stands out for Roland during her time in the trial rotation was a home-invasion attack, much like the one her family experienced. A man broke into the home of a young woman when she was in bed, and he attacked her with a hammer. 

“This shadow appeared in her bedroom,” Roland said. 

The man strangled the woman and then struck her in the head with a hammer, Roland said. Taking the stand and facing her attacker was no easy task. Roland convinced her it was the best way to achieve justice. 

Troubled Waters 

While her career continued on an upward trajectory, Roland’s early years in the District Attorney’s Office coincided with legal and professional troubles for her prosecutor husband. Robert Roland was convicted of drug possession and imprisoned in 2005. He also failed to tell his superiors when his own drug dealers appeared in court for a case he was trying, leading to his disbarment.

The couple stayed together, marrying before his six-month stint in prison, and she later advocated for his reinstatement as a lawyer. The couple subsequently had two children. 

By the time Kamala Harris took over the DA’s Office, Roland had moved into management and established a reputation as a diligent, even-keeled attorney who made the right calls on tough cases, according to multiple colleagues.

Marshall Khine, who now works for the Department of Police Accountability, worked with Roland for nearly two decades and said that she lived up to her reputation of being “highly dedicated and hard-working” on behalf of victims.

Max Szabo, who served as a spokesperson for DA George Gascón when he was still in San Francisco, said that Roland combined her lived experience with a deep professionalism, which made her both compassionate and fair.  

“She’s managed the units overseeing kids in the justice system and violent crimes with child victims—so she’ll be surgical and seek alternatives when possible, but practical when someone poses a danger to our community,” Szabo said.

Julius DeGuia, chief of the criminal division at the DA’s Office, said Roland is a key player in the office whose work ethic is unquestioned. 

Roland not only heads the felony unit but also the hiring committee, and she has taken charge of recruiting law clerks to improve their case management system. 

“She tries to be a problem-solver,” DeGuia said.

Youth Crime

More recently, Roland has been in the unit charged with dealing with juvenile cases, which she headed for a number of years until a transfer under DA Brooke Jenkins. 

“I think we all share a common thought process of trying to cut off that prison pipeline,” Roland told Witness LA, a criminal justice publication.  “If we don’t do it when they’re younger, when they have a chance, it becomes harder and harder to do that as they reach adulthood.”

As head of the juvenile unit, Roland said, she has been collaborative with the defense and helped create a restorative justice program. But her counterpart at the Public Defender’s Office disagrees. 

Person in a "SF Public Defender" jacket raises a sign at a protest under a cloudy sky.
Lawyers and supporters of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office hold a protest in 2014. Current members of the Public Defender's Office contend Judge Jean Roland is not as collaborative as she claims. | Source: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/SF Chronicle/Gett Images

“As part of Jean Roland’s campaign platform, she has stated that she works collaboratively. Unfortunately, during her most recent stint in the juvenile unit, we did not find that to be the case,” said Emily Goldman, who oversees the juvenile unit for the Public Defender’s Office. 

Goldman said that referrals to avoid incarceration have declined under Roland’s watch, and common practices around document sharing have come to an end. Other defense attorneys also expressed critical views of Roland’s priorities. 

“Her main motivation is political acclaim,” defense attorney Eric Safire said. 

Roland refused to take part in the San Francisco Bar Association’s judicial review of candidates, making it more difficult to assess her track record. Candidates sit down before a committee of attorneys, who question them on a number of topics related to their careers and becoming judges. The association said in a statement that this was the first time in 15 years an incumbent or challenger has refused to cooperate. 

Roland’s opponent, Thompson, participated and was given a near-perfect score. 

Roland’s backers have put much of the blame for San Francisco’s recent crime woes on the recalled progressive DA Chesa Boudin and decisions by Thompson on the bench. But she also acknowledges that the root causes of crime are complicated.

Roland said that she’s had a front-row seat to crime trends in San Francisco over the last two decades, and the pandemic played a part in the current issues, which are mostly property-related.

“I do think that Covid had a role to play in public safety,” she said. “It’s not worse; it’s just different.”

Judge Patrick Thompson: Michigan to San Francisco

Judge Patrick Thompson’s parents were part of the Great Migration, the movement of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the Midwest, North and West. He grew up in western Michigan, in a very white and conservative region. 

His mother was a teacher, and his father had political ambitions that led him to be elected vice mayor of Muskegon Heights, west of Grand Rapids, before he was 30 years old. 

A vintage photo of two young children smiling; a girl in a red dress and a boy in a plaid shirt.
A family photo of Patrick Thompson, right, and his sister Dawan as children. Judge Patrick Thompson is running for San Francisco Superior Court judge in the March election. | Source: Courtesy Patrick Thompson

The family were activists. Thompson and his sister were the only two Black kids in their school, and his parents integrated their white neighborhood. As a kid, he met politicians and activists like Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. 

Thompson was a precocious child. At age 10, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer after he met a law student who was staying at his grandmother’s boarding house.

“He taught me to play chess, and I peppered him about what he was doing,” Thompson said. “I was just really fascinated by it.”

The fascination stuck. In sixth grade, he wrote a report declaring he would attend Yale. He instead started his higher education at the University of Michigan, where he majored in comparative literature, which led him to study abroad in France. During the summers, he worked a number of jobs, including in California as a door-to-door salesman of study guides. 

In 1989, Thompson entered Harvard Law School—not Yale, as predicted—but he didn’t enjoy the place.

A man stands on a stage before an audience.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick Thompson participates in a debate among the judicial candidates at the San Francisco County Fair building on Dec. 7. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“Harvard was terrible,” said Thompson, who said he was disgusted by the politics of the school. At the time, the school’s political landscape was so divisive it was dubbed "Beirut on the Charles."

After graduating from Harvard, he came to California and passed the bar in 1992. The storied San Francisco private law firm Pillsbury hired Thompson, who was interested in corporate law because of the “interesting intellectual questions” cases posed. It didn’t hurt that private law helped him pay off his loans.

“I was in a litigation group and loved practicing law,” Thompson said.

In his first year, he worked on a patent infringement case that led to a six-week jury trial. In the following years, Thompson worked on cases involving everything from telecommunication regulation and pharmaceuticals to class-action litigation and antitrust cases.

Four people stand together.
Judge Patrick Thompson, left, poses with family members. | Source: Courtesy Retain Judge Patrick Thompson

All of this meant he had to become an expert in multiple areas of the law. 

“You have to get in and sort of master what is going on,” said Sarah Flanagan, who worked with Thompson at Pillsbury. 

In one antitrust case, Flanagan said, Thompson had to get an employee to give a deposition. Thompson built trust and rapport with the person, who ended up helping with the case.

“It’s a scary situation for employees being questioned,” Flanagan said. “You want people to feel like you're giving them a fair shot.”

Other former colleagues describe Thompson as a dogged advocate with an old-school personal touch and temperament that builds trust. 

“He’ll fight you to the death on cases,” said Allan Low, who worked with Thompson for several years at Perkins Coie law firm. 

David Zimmer, who worked with Thompson for several years at Goodwin, said the older lawyer was a welcoming and thoughtful mentor who took the time to talk out cases. In a long drive to the Central Valley, where Thompson was set to argue a complicated mortgage case, the pair sparred about how to best litigate the issues once they got to court. 

“He wanted to be challenged,” Zimmer said. “He wanted to be pushed and understand the issues as well as he could.”

In March 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Thompson to a judge seat in San Francisco, where his first assignment was to preside over traffic court. Thompson said he was prepared for the steep learning curve moving from civil to criminal law. However, many aspects of legal practice—from picking juries to presenting evidence and questioning witnesses—are the same in criminal and civil cases. 

In January 2023, Thompson was assigned to oversee preliminary hearings, which decide if criminal cases go to trial based on the evidence presented. This work has led his critics to target him as a judge who lets suspected criminals walk. 

A man sits at a table talking to an audience.
Judge Patrick Thompson of the Superior Court of San Francisco participates in a debate between the judges and their challengers at the San Francisco County Fair building on Dec. 7. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

In November, Frank Noto, head of the organization Stop Crime Action, sent the group’s followers a message attacking Thompson and fellow Superior Court Judge Michael Begert. 

“Judge Begert and Thompson are by far the worst judges on the Superior Court and have a demonstrated track record of releasing serious and dangerous offenders back into the public,” Noto wrote, pointing out a few cases where he says Thompson released repeat defendants awaiting trial. 

Thompson pushed back at these allegations, saying he and Begert—who is also being challenged in the March 5 election—are being unfairly turned into scapegoats for the city’s crime issues.  

“I acknowledge that there’s a significant narrative around fear in San Francisco,” Thompson said. “I think there’s a lot of frustration that we don’t seem to have a ready solution to them.”

A man walks by a wall with an inscribed seal marked "Hall of Justice" and text on dedication by San Francisco's people.
A person passes the Hall of Justice at Superior Court on Jan. 31, 2022. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Thompson rarely deals with detentions, and when he’s made rulings around sentences that result in a release, they have been based on plea deals that involved the prosecution and the defense, he said. 

“That doesn’t fit the narrative that it's my fault there is crime,” Thompson said, adding that his role in preliminary hearings doesn’t often involve releases. 

To detain a defendant before trial, prosecutors are required to file a detention motion arguing why the defendant would be a threat to public health if released. Judges must take into account such arguments when deciding upon release, but they must also consider a person’s ability to pay if a lesser measure, such as bail, has been put in place as an attempt to keep them in jail. 

The San Francisco Bar Association’s judicial candidate review gave Thompson a “well qualified” grade, which is just one below its highest level of review. 

Numerous attorneys contacted by The Standard vouched for Thompson’s professionalism, fairness and qualifications to remain a judge. 

Elizabeth Hilton, a former deputy public defender, said that Thompson is fair even when he’s ruled against her clients. In one instance, she said, her client was charged with a felony for stealing a bag. When she asked for the charge to be reduced to a misdemeanor, Thompson denied her motion. 

Key witness Kristin Onorato enters a courtoom at the Hall of Justice.
People enter a courtroom at the Hall of Justice's Dept. 16 on Dec. 7, 2023. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

But when the preliminary hearing came along and the prosecution failed to bring a witness to testify to the bag’s value, Thompson allowed for the charge to be reduced. 

“He hasn’t always ruled my way,” Hilton said, “but I usually agree with his logic. He follows the law.”

Correction: This story was updated with the correct first name for Perkins Coie attorney Allan Low and the proper spellings of San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan's and District Attorney's Office staffer Rani Singh's names.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at jonah@sfstandard.com