Beth Labson Freeman
At their root, Judge Beth Labson Freeman believes all court cases are about people.
The dispute might be civil, it might be criminal. The case might be a restraining order against a bullying teenager or a contract dispute between two businesses. But boiled down, the newest judge on the federal bench sees her job as the final decision maker for parties who can’t reach their own conclusion.
“The heart of what I’m doing is helping people to resolve their situations,” Freeman said.
After 13 years doing just that in San Mateo County Superior Court, Freeman is taking that skill to the U.S. District Court in San Jose where she said the federal law may be different but the lessons honed locally are still applicable.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Freeman Tuesday with a 91-7 vote and also confirmed San Francisco lawyer James Donato 90-5. Donato, 53, is a partner in the firm Shearman & Sterling. Freeman is the first San Mateo County judge named to a federal judge seat.
Freeman stepped down from the Superior Court effective immediately following the vote and hopes to be installed in her new position quickly once the president makes the appointment official.
The seat has sat vacant for two years since U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel moved from San Jose to direct the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. The seats were empty so long the Judicial Conference of United States declared them “judicial emergencies.”
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who recommended both Freeman and Donato for the lifetime appointments, said in a prepared statement after the confirmation vote that both bring “strong qualifications” and “extremely important experience” to the Northern District.
Harvard Law School graduate Freeman, 60, said she was “very pleased” to be approved, particularly the unanimous support of the judicial committee. The appointment closes “a big, significant chapter” in her life, she said, while opening up new opportunities. No one particular case stands out as a favorite for Freeman but said, looking back, what she’ll always appreciate is being part of the solution for individuals who frankly don’t want to be in court.
“Court is my life but it’s not my litigants’ life,” Freeman said.
Freeman has a bachelor’s of arts from the University of California at Berkeley and earned her law degree in 1979. After four years in private practice, she joined the San Mateo County Counsel’s Office in 1988 where she stayed until 2001 when former governor Gray Davis appointed her to San Mateo County Superior Court.
She served as presiding judge in 2011 to 2012 as the court continued absorbing statewide cuts through challenging local cuts of resources and services. Freeman proved herself not only an excellent judge but also an exceptional leader for the court, said Court Executive Officer John Fitton.
“Judge Freeman has exceptional skills as a judge and also a unique ability to understand complex administrative areas that go beyond the judicial branch,” Fitton said.
Freeman served statewide in 2011 on the Trial Court Budget Working Group and on a 2013 judicial committee developing court funding.
Presiding Judge Robert Foiles also praised Freeman’s “keen intellect” and quick ability to discern issues — both skills he saw firsthand as her assistant presiding judge as they tackled the budget and other administrative tasks.
On a personal level, Foiles describes her as witty, funny and fun to work with.
Both Fitton and Foiles said Freeman’s abilities will serve her well in her new role.
Had things turned out different, the role Freeman might be serving instead is that of politician. Freeman, who moved to the Bay Area at age 14 after a childhood in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, actually delayed going to college so that she could run for state Assembly at age 18. She lost the election to the Republican incumbent but not her desire for politics.
Freeman had expected law to be a stepping stone into public office but said she “veered away pretty quickly” from that goal and ended up enjoying legal work on its own. She thinks sometimes of what might have been but never with regret.
Her early legal career included time with a Washington, D.C., law firm before she and her husband returned to the Bay Area. She worked for a San Francisco firm before joining the County Counsel’s Office. Together with the time as a Superior Court judge, Freeman said she’s spent more than 30 years in the county courthouse. And now, in her new position, a slight shift further south.
Freeman said her husband and two grown children are pretty excited by the appointment and “pretty proud of mom.” Neither followed in their parents’ legal footsteps, though.
“I guess they decided the family had enough lawyers,” she joked.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102