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Judges and Judiciary

Mar. 29, 2024

San Francisco judge faces death threats over lenient sentence for stabbing

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins attended a protest outside the courthouse and criticized Judge Kay Tsenin's sentencing of a man who stabbed a 94-year-old woman, but the prosecutor denounced threats.

Judge Kay Tsenin

The president of the Bar Association of San Francisco said Thursday that recent death threats made against retired assigned Judge Kay Tsenin are "our worst fears realized" as fall-out continues from her decision to allow mental health treatment rather than prison for a man with a long criminal history who pleaded guilty to stabbing a 94-year-old Asian American woman in June 2021.

The stabbing was one of several attacks on Asian Americans in San Francisco and other parts of the nation that sparked the campaign Stop Asian Hate.

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins attended a protest outside the courthouse and criticized Tsenin's decision in a March 15 tweet writing, "Not only was this victim denied justice, but all San Franciscans were left less safe today due to this reckless decision."

Brooke Jenkins

Tsenin continued another hearing in the case to April 12, where Jenkins' prosecutors will attempt to challenge the judge's decision to send the defendant, Daniel Cauich, to drug and mental rehabilitation. A deputy district attorney vigorously opposed the judge's decision when she indicated her intent, according to news reports.

A spokeswoman for the San Francisco Superior Court did not answer whether the next hearing would be remote but noted that Tsenin is a retired judge working on assignment under the Temporary Assigned Judges Program.

BASF said Tsenin had not come to the courthouse after her decision made headlines and sparked public protests

In a phone interview Thursday, Teresa L. Johnson, president of the bar association and partner at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, spoke about the effects of threats against judges on the justice system.

"In terms of the significance here, I think the big thing for us as the bar association is that effectively it's like some of our worst fears being realized about the challenges to judges' decisions and threats to the independence of the judiciary," Johnson said.

BASF issued a statement Wednesday accusing the district attorney of "contributing to an atmosphere of hostility toward local judges."

Johnson confirmed that Tsenin had received death threats saying Thursday, "My understanding from Judge Tsenin and folks at the bar association who are in contact with her is that she did receive them and that they appeared to have been prompted by the result of the decision in this in this case involving the defendant, Mr. Cauich."

Jenkins has publicly denounced the threats of violence against the judge, saying in a statement to news media this week, "Although we may disagree with decisions and rulings judges make, like in this case or in the Supreme Court's gutting of Roe v. Wade, death threats, which occurred in these two situations, are wholly unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

Jenkins' office did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Members of the legal community throughout the state have also expressed concern about the safety of judges in response to the situation surrounding Tsenin.

In an email Thursday, Erica R. Yew, president of the California Judges Association and a current Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, wrote in an email: "The beauty of our country is that we have freedom of expression. We do want to ensure, however, that this freedom of expression does not foment or encourage violence. ... We know there are countries where judges' lives are threatened, or even taken, because that country's system has become unstable. Judges and our stable system of justice have been described as the last line of protection for a democracy. We all need to coalesce around an approach that is non-violent and that respects the rule of law while making room for our important right of freedom of expression."

In 2018, a Santa Clara County judge, Aaron Persky, was recalled after similar public outrage over his decision two years earlier to sentence Stanford University student Brock Turner to six months in jail for the sexual assault and attempted rape of an unconscious woman. It was Tsenin, on assignment in Santa Clara County, who ruled against Persky in his attempt to keep the registrar of voters from certifying his recall. She also ordered him to pay attorney fees to the lawyers who opposed his efforts.

Blaine Corren, a public affairs analyst for the Judicial Council of California, wrote in an email Thursday, "The ability of judicial officers to safely preside over court proceedings, maintain order, and facilitate equal access to justice for all involved is critical to our justice system. Matters relating to judicial officer security primarily fall under the purview of our law enforcement partners - sheriffs, marshals, and/or officers of the California Highway Patrol."

In an email Thursday, San Francisco Superior Court Executive Officer Brandon E. Riley said, "The court is collaborating with law enforcement and has taken all the necessary precautions to keep judges, court staff and the public safe."

During Thursday's interview Johnson mentioned posters appearing in the Tenderloin District last fall criticizing judges by name for allegedly being too lenient in sentencing and contributing to the city's crime problem. Those arguments were also made by people campaigning to unseat two incumbents, who were re-elected on March 5,

"My sense is that judges are concerned. And this is not a new thing," Johnson said

At the time then-bar association president Vidya Prabhakaran wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, "Stop making judges the scapegoats for San Francisco's problems."

Prabhakaran is a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.


Wisdom Howell

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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