Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 15, 2012

Two new judges value greater access to courts for all

Mary Greenwood and Allison Danner to be sworn in next week to Santa Clara County Superior Court

by Sue Dremann

When Allison Danner and Mary Greenwood are sworn in to the Santa Clara County Superior Court next week, they will bring extensive experience from opposite sides of the judicial system. Greenwood has been the county's longtime chief public defender; Danner has been a prosecutor — an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of California Criminal Division. California Gov. Jerry Brown announced their appointments on May 18.

Both women will leave the partisan roles behind when they don their judicial robes, but they are joining the bench at a critical time, they said. One challenge weighs heavily on their minds: The justice system faces budget cuts that could erode the quality of representation the public receives.

The cuts are coming at a time when more people than ever come to court without an attorney, Greenwood and Danner said.

"It is important to fund our system. Not just as a financial investment. It has importance for us as a society," Danner said. Justice relies on quality, whether through prosecutors, defense attorneys or judges.

Greenwood agreed.

"There is a concern from the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court down on what cutbacks will mean to service of the court to the public," she said.

Santa Clara County has always been fiscally responsible, Greenwood said. But when the cuts are as deep as has been trending "you start worrying about what is offered to the public," she added.

Danner, 41, a Palo Alto resident, has made a career in the federal courts. She is a scholar on international criminal, terrorist and war tribunals who has written extensively on the subject.

She attended Walter Hays and Garland elementary schools and Castilleja School in Palo Alto, and she has a law degree from Stanford University. Becoming a judge in her home county seemed "a wonderful opportunity for public service in a role I think is very inspiring," she said.

Preserving a quality judicial system on the local level, judges provide a foundation that can have implications on a wider scale. In her study of international law, countries where despotic and criminal acts have occurred are where there has been a breakdown in the rule of law, she said.

In countries where the rule of law doesn't exist, there is no mechanism for ordinary people to get access to a hearing of their grievances, she said.

"It's such a gift for us — and at such a national level — to have a strong rule of law. (But) the rule of law starts locally. To have a fair process, that is the heart of law, and that's where a Superior Court judge has a role to play — at the local level," she said.

A judge's role is to help people solve problems they can't solve on their own through the legal system, she added.

She said she has a strong interest in criminal law and cares very much about public safety. But equally important is a fair and open legal process — one that reflects the values of the community. That is especially important when accusing someone of a crime, she said.

Greenwood agreed. She has worked in the county's public defender's office for 30 years, serving as chief public defender since 2005. She intended to be a college professor, but when she graduated from Grinnell College, a liberal arts college in Iowa, few jobs in her field were available, she said. On an adviser's recommendation, she attended Hastings College of the Law.

The decision to become a public defender drew some quizzical responses from law-enforcement family members. But Greenwood had a strong sense of wanting to represent people in trouble, she said.

"People feel a draw to one side or the other. It is sort of intrinsic in them," she said.

Greenwood, 55, said her public-defender experience will be helpful on the bench.

"I'm very conversant with the process of litigation and the different rules between civil and criminal law. I feel a great sense of ease in the courtroom. It's very familiar territory. But I'll be the neutral. That's the nature of the judge's role," she said.

"In criminal and particularly now in civil arenas, many people are unrepresented litigants — especially in family law and civil harassment cases. You deal with people in trouble and who are under a great deal of stress. I can speak to people in those situations," she said.

Greenwood will fill the vacancy of retiring judge Alfonso Fernandez. But her husband, Judge Edward J. Davila, inspires her in her new job, she said. Davila was a Superior Court judge, and he is now on the U.S. District Court. (Danner will fill his Superior Court vacancy.)

"He would not say this, but it's his reputation — his great demeanor," she said. "He is very patient and very considerate of all of the parties who come before him, and he oversees the proceedings in ways that bring out the best in people," Greenwood said.

As both new judges pack up their belongings and finish up their cases, there is one task they'll need to complete before taking the bench: go shopping.

As of last week Danner hadn't yet purchased her judge's robe, she said.

Under state law she must purchase the garment herself, and it's pricey. Robes cost between $110 and about $400. They come in polyester, wool, crepe and 100 percent silk and have names such as "Coupe deVille," "Brocade" and "Peachskin," according to vendors.

Danner said she doesn't expect to find a retail judge's store.

"I think you buy them online," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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