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James was a Trial Attorney at Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. (FDSDI) from 2007 to 2020. FDSDI is one of the most respected public defender offices in the nation, recruiting new lawyers from the best law schools from coast to coast. James trained and mentored these attorneys for more than a decade. In 2019, Harvard Law School choose James as a Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow for being an exemplary public interest lawyer and mentor.
James was raised in a home with the core values of hard-work, integrity, decency, and a healthy helping of humor. He has practiced these values every day as a lawyer. He was educated in the public schools of Flagstaff, Arizona. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He put this degree to use for a couple of years at the Federal Reserve Board, delivering his economic analysis to the office of Chairperson Alan Greenspan. But, James wanted a career of service where the benefits of this work were more tangible. So, James enrolled and earned his Juris Doctorate at UC Berkeley, School of Law. He was the president of his graduating law school class, which earned him the opportunity to speak during the graduation ceremony along with his personal hero and legal luminary Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.
James finds great joy in the courtroom challenging opposing counsel and judges, defending his clients, and trying cases. He has handled thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases over the course of his career, from simple misdemeanors to felonies punishable by death. He has tried over twenty jury trials in criminal cases, avoiding conviction in a third of them.
Additionally, James has had remarkable success in his appellate practice, including arguing seven times total before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and California Courts of Appeal.
James has lived in San Diego since 2007. Originally, he is from Northern Arizona. In the United States, he has lived in Oregon, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. James has traveled to many countries. But, he has a special place in his heart for Mexico. He has lived in Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico. Also, he enjoys traveling to visit his family members who live throughout Mexico.
In his free time, James enjoys road trips, hiking, and exploring San Diego County with his young family and three-legged dog.
James believes in the value of taking cases to trial. It keeps the justice system fair, impartial, and transparent.
James enjoys the intellectual challenge of appellate practice. James's experience includes:
James spent more than a decade at Federal Defenders defending thousands of individuals against criminal charges. These charges ranged from simple misdemeanors to crimes punishable by death.
James took on many leadership roles including:
Director of New Arraignments
It was James's responsibility to ensure that Federal Defenders effectively represented nearly every criminal defendant in the Southern District of California arraigned in San Diego. Within the Federal Defenders office, James coordinated attorneys and investigators to staff the arraignments process. Outside of the office, James coordinated with United States Pretrial Services and the United States Marshals to ensure the arraignment process functioned efficiently.
Trial Team Leader of the Streamline Unit
James was responsible for coordinating the representation of all of the defendants represented by Federal Defenders who were prosecuted as part of Operation Streamline. Operation Streamline is a joint initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, that adopts a "zero-tolerance" approach to unauthorized border-crossing by criminally prosecuting those perpetrating it. In 2018, Operation Streamline was brought to San Diego as part of the nationwide immigration crackdown. This crackdown is what caused nationwide headlines about child separation at the border.
Harvard Law School, Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow (October 2019)
Defending a Federal Criminal Case (2016), Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc.
Defending a Federal Criminal Case (2010), Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc.,
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, Berkeley La Raza Law Journal
James has been interviewed by, and has had the story of his clients and their cases told in The New York Times, the L.A. Times, local news publications, NPR Weekend and Morning Editions, Public Radio International, and The New York Times podcast The Daily.
James has been a number of lawyer organizations over the years, including:
Career services / mentoring
UC Berkeley, School of Law
Career services mentoring
Moot Court Competition
San Diego Cooperative Preschool
Board of directors
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law
Reed College, Portland, Oregon
The Law Office of James M. Chavez
180 Broadway, Suite 1800, San Diego, California 92101
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