UC Berkeley alumni may become federal judges

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The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved two UC Berkeley alumni Thursday to fill two of three vacant seats in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, headquartered in San Francisco.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein recommended attorney James Donato and judge Beth Freeman to the seats, both of whom were then nominated by President Barack Obama in June. They now await approval by the full Senate.

During a committee confirmation meeting Sept. 11, Feinstein reported that the Northern District of California typically handles a caseload 24 percent larger than the nation’s average, calling the three vacancies on the 14-member court in San Francisco “a judicial emergency.”

The Northern District of California is one of 94 district courts in the country. Cases from the district court are appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, from which cases can then be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As undergraduates at UC Berkeley, Donato majored in history and Freeman studied economics. Freeman is currently a presiding trial judge in the San Mateo County Superior Court. She has tried about 150 cases in her 12 years as judge. Donato works for a private law firm, concentrating his work on antitrust litigation and class action lawsuits.

“Being at Cal as an undergrad prepared me for everything I’ve done in life,” Donato said. After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1983, Donato enrolled in Harvard University’s graduate program in history.

While Donato said he was “inspired” by UC Berkeley’s history department, he recalled feeling “more withdrawn from the world” than he wanted to be during his graduate studies at Harvard. Settling for a yearlong master’s degree, he made the switch to law school and moved back to California — this time to study at Stanford University.

“Each (university) gave me a unique and special experience,” Donato said in an email. “But Cal was the most important place in my development as a lawyer and person.” He currently resides in Berkeley.

During his time as an attorney, Donato said, his pro bono cases with the Northern California Innocence Project have been the most rewarding. He has represented prisoners in cases involving claims of excessive force and prison condition issues, according to the questionnaire he submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Freeman, who declined to comment due to her pending appointment, jumped directly into Harvard Law School after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1976. During her years as an attorney, she represented American Indian tribal governments. She has served as president of her synagogue and currently works in her community in San Mateo County as a judge for high school mock trial competitions.

The nominations have been placed on the Senate’s Executive Calendar for Monday and await consideration by the full Senate.

Contact Kimberly Veklerov at [email protected].