Judicial Profile: Abby Abinanti

Abinanti's goal: to help youth who come before her

, The Recorder



Court: San Francisco Superior Court commissioner

Appointed: June 1994

Date of Birth: Nov. 16, 1947

Law School: University of New Mexico School of Law

Prior Judicial Experience: Yurok Tribal Court

A 12-year-old accused of prostitution is almost swallowed up by the chair she is sitting in as San Francisco Superior Court Commissioner Abby Abinanti reads her probation report.

The judge notes the child is from Alameda County, which means her case is probably going to become that county's problem.

"You intend to send her back?" Abinanti asks the juvenile probation officer. "Have you found a place to send her?"

The answer is, not yet.

"Try to find a place," the commissioner says, ordering the child to remain in San Francisco custody while the two counties work out where to place her.

Abinanti says she has just one goal: to help the kids who come before her.

"Like today, we have a prostitute who's in the fifth grade," Abinanti said. "Where am I supposed to send this kid?"

Abinanti is presiding over the detention calendar at the Youth Guidance Center, where she must decide what to do with youthful offenders, many of whom have nowhere to go.

Her job is probably one of the most difficult for a judge, since she often deals with pre-teens whose families have turned their backs on them.

She must punish the child for his or her crime, while looking into the future to decide how to keep the youngster from becoming a habitual criminal. Abinanti laments the limited resources available to her.

"The most difficult part of being out here is that people really don't understand juvenile law that well," Abinanti says in an interview. "The city, the county, the state are allowed to neglect children, because they're so invisible. It's painful to watch."

Abinanti is a Yurok. (She says to call her a Yurok Indian is redundant.) And she uses Indian and Native American interchangeably.

Although born in San Francisco, she was raised on a reservation in Humboldt County, and she began her judicial career as a tribal judge in that county.

"I did a lot of Indian law," she said. "I did a lot of training in tribal courts all over the country, training judges from other tribes."

When Abinanti sits on the bench, she seldom smiles and maintains a severe, no-nonsense expression.

"I think her demeanor is austere and she runs a very procedure- and rule-oriented courtroom," said defense attorney David Simerly. "There's nothing wrong with that. It's just something you have to get used to."

"There's none or little banter that goes on [in court,]" added Simerly. "It's OK as long as I know what I'm dealing with."

George Lazarus is another defense attorney who practices at YGC and has watched Abinanti. He sees a stern but guiding hand.

"She can be demanding at times," Lazarus said. "But she's done a tremendous job of holding people -- lawyers, probation officers, families -- accountable."

When asked if she agreed that she possessed an "austere demeanor," Abinanti thought for a moment, then didn't deny it.

"I don't let [lawyers] eat their oatmeal and drink coffee and that kind of stuff that they used to do [in the courtroom]," she responded.

"It is my job to make [the courtroom] conform to what I've been taught is a court of law," she said. "That does not include a lot of behavior that went on previously. People had gotten too relaxed and too informal."

Abinanti gives general high marks to the lawyers who practice before her, but she thinks some of their work is misdirected toward only proving innocence rather than seeking forward-looking solutions to delinquency.

"They pour all their resources into that, as opposed to pouring their resources into ... where this person should be sent to be rehabilitated," she said.

Abinanti said more and more immigrant children are coming before her charged with selling drugs. She says she is often at a loss about what to do with them.

"They're like road kill," she said, meaning they're forgotten and unwanted. "Clearly it's to make money to send home."

She says there is no clear-cut sentence for them, since their families are fearful of coming to court to take them home because of their own immigration issues.

"Often they'll just leave the kid here until I send the kid back to his country of origin," she said.

Assistant District Attorney Franklin Yee has the difficult job of prosecuting young offenders for crimes before a judge who appears more interested in their welfare and future.

"I think if there's a doubt, she'll resolve it in the favor of the defendant," Yee said, who conceded his office can sometimes clash with her.

"It's usually if our office has taken one position, because we think the law supports our position, then she'll take an opposite position," he said.

"That's frustrating," he added. "Then a couple of times I learned that her position was right, and we were wrong."

Abinanti recalls the days when there were truancy officers tracking children who were not in the classroom but roamed the streets.

"If children are not in school, they're in trouble," she said. "They're either in trouble immediately or in trouble tomorrow, because they have no education. It's heartbreaking."

You can order past judicial profiles of more than 100 Bay Area judges at www.therecorder.com/profiles.html or by calling 415-749-5523.

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