Judicial Profile: Maxine Chesney

With Chesney, you get a judge who likes to listen

, The Recorder



COURT: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California

BORN: Oct. 29, 1942

APPOINTED: 1995, by President Clinton

LAW SCHOOL: Boalt Hall School of Law

PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: San Francisco Superior Court, 1983-1995; San Francisco Municipal Court, 1979-1983

When you walk into Maxine Chesney's courtroom, you'll find a diminutive woman with coiffed, curly blonde hair. She doesn't come across as intimidating, and if you get your idea of judges from Hollywood, she's not the kind of person you'd expect to find behind the bench.

Yet she's been doing it for more than 20 years, first in San Francisco Superior Court and lately as a federal judge. Her experience shows -- she handles her courtroom well, has an easygoing manner and yet is not afraid to send a message to lawyers who she feels need to be straightened out.

For example, Chesney recently chastised one assistant U.S. attorney for a run of sloppy paperwork from his office. She did it gently, but the message was firm.

She also has one of the driest wits you will ever come across.

During another recent hearing, she suggested that a defendant enlist the services of a federal public defender who was in court because, Chesney said, the defender was quite good. "She got me overturned by the Ninth Circuit," Chesney offered as proof. The defender blushed bright red.

The defendant in the matter was Dennis Alexio, a heavyweight kickboxing champion who took second billing to Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1989 film "Kickboxer." The Hawaii resident was in San Francisco on bank fraud charges for bouncing child support checks.

Alexio infused his pro se briefs with Biblical passages and acted in a way that led Chesney to question whether he was competent to stand trial. Extra U.S. marshals were present, but Chesney never lost her cool or added to what could have been a tense situation.

When Alexio asked if the court was solvent, Chesney said: "You mean me personally?" When Alexio asked if this was an admiralty action, Chesney said she didn't see any boats. When he asked if the court were operating with clean hands, she said yes, then bid him adieu with a salutation from his home state: "Mahalo."

The incident shows a couple of things about Chesney. She is patient, and will engage lawyers on most questions. This also means her hearings can sometimes be lengthy. Though Chesney said she will set time limits on civil matters, she will not do so on criminal matters.

"I'm always willing to entertain an argument," Chesney said. "That's doesn't mean I'm going to be persuaded by it."

Chesney started her career as a prosecutor, during which she established the first special unit in the country dedicated to the comprehensive handling of sexual assault cases. She has worn the robe since 1979 and said she still enjoys the job.

"Every day is different. You can plan ahead, but you never know what's going to happen," she said. She added that she particularly enjoys working in the Northern District, with judges who have an array of experiences and interests.

As for in court, Chesney said, "I don't have any unusual expectations" of lawyers.

Several lawyers said they like appearing in front of Chesney -- one mentioned her sense of humor specifically -- while one said she can sometimes be curt.

Chesney is "very pleasant, businesslike but not stuffy," said Douglas Young of Farella Braun & Martel.

Young said he represented a criminal defendant whom he thought deserved a break due to extenuating circumstances. With the government's consent, Chesney was willing to give the defendant a lighter sentence than he was due under the guidelines.

"What I appreciated was that she was extremely well prepared, very empathetic and she listened to the lawyers," Young said.

One lawyer suggested that Chesney is cautious about finding the right law and applying it.

"She is a very careful judge in that she follows the law," said Dean Paik of Cohen & Paik. "She's not results-oriented."

Chesney has seen a few high-profile cases in her time on the bench. Most recently, she tossed the fruits of what she deemed an illegal search at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission office of Zula Jones, who was indicted as a part of a high-profile city corruption probe. Chesney was upheld by a fairly conservative panel of Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judges.

She also OK'd San Francisco's purchase of the Mt. Davidson cross, a huge religious symbol visible from most of the western part of the city.

As a state court judge, she held unconstitutional a California law requiring minors to obtain parental consent for abortions.

Asked if there was anything she would change about the legal system, Chesney said lawyers should return to the days when they weren't so aggressively competitive.

"I see lawyers on their best behavior, but I know that behind the scenes there seems to be an increasing lack of civility among the bar. I don't think it's anything I can change."

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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