San Francisco public defender Niki Solis went from living life as an undocumented, stickball-playing “tomboy” in South Bronx to becoming a United States citizen, and now she is challenging an incumbent superior court judge for his seat.
Frustrated with the racism and bias she’s witnessed in her 22 years at the public defender’s office, Solis is running against Judge Jeffrey Ross in the June 5 San Francisco elections.
“I’m running because we need bail reform and criminal justice reform,” Solis said. “We need reform because we have disproportionate outcomes for people of color.”
Normally, superior court elections are uneventful as judges tend to be automatically re-elected every six years.
This year though, Solis along with three other long-time public defenders—Kwixuan Maloof, Phoenix Streets and Maria Evangelista—are running against incumbents appointed by republican governors.
“It’s time to stand up and make sure we have judges who reflect the values of our community,” said Solis, who is a LGBTQI mother of two.
Many have been critical of the move, saying it politicizes the bench. Judges are appointed to be neutral interpreters of the law, and some say running for election may inhibit their neutrality.
“The idea that we are politicizing the bench is one that is perhaps catchy for the opponents,” Solis said. “But the reality is that their appointments were done by politicians, so it is [already] politicized.”
Solis moved with her family from Belize to the South Bronx when she was only an infant.
“We came here in 1969 to the States. We were all undocumented,” she said. “My dad was a bookkeeper and my mom was a legal secretary—working class folks, just good people.”
She remembered the fear of being in the system as an undocumented teenager, after her sister was attacked in front of their house and the police didn’t take action.
“We were afraid of getting involved in the criminal justice system, even though we were victimized,” Solis said.
This experience and others like it helped shape Solis’ perspective and her future career as a public defender.
“It was definitely a neighborhood that was robust and culturally mixed and we had a great time, we used to have block parties and stuff,” Solis said. “But at the same time there was a lot of violence, a lot of wreckage, a lot of trauma.”
When she was 19, Solis transferred from Queens College to San Francisco State University. During this time, she received a call that changed the course of her life.
It was Solis’ brother, calling to tell her that his wife—even with legal help—couldn’t get into a rehab program. “She was looking at 10 years in prison because of her addiction,” Solis said.
After her conversation with her brother, Solis called the public defender’s office in San Francisco and asked to volunteer. They told her they only hired law students as interns.
“So I hung up the phone and I decided I was going to go to law school to be a public defender,” Solis said.
She took the Law School Admission Test (LSATS) and won a scholarship to attend U.C. Hastings in San Francisco, located walking distance from the public defender’s office. After graduating, Solis worked for juvenile hall as well as the adult court system.
“I saw the same kind of trauma that kids are going through that I went through, and I empathize with them,” Solis said. “I felt that the system wasn’t serving them well, because it wasn’t treating them in a way that addressed childhood trauma and it wasn’t treating them as the victims they were.”
Solis also witnessed young girls who had been sex trafficked and arrested while the adults who sold them to customers, went free.
“It definitely changed my career as far as seeing that we were doing things very wrong, in my opinion,” Solis said. “I saw that all too often money dictated outcomes and because of that, it disproportionately affected poor communities and people of color.”
Solis says she has witnessed enough injustice.
“I can no longer stand idly by and continue to watch the mass incarceration of people, the way it has been happening,” said Solis. “And it seems like it’s getting worse.”
In 2015, a San Francisco study by the Office of the Controller found that 70 percent of the average population San Francisco jails were people of color.
“The numbers do not represent the San Francisco that I moved here 30 years ago to live in,” said Solis. “It doesn’t represent the San Francisco . . . that was a beacon of equality.”
Story by: Sarah Lapidus