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Deja Vu for Rights Lawyer : Peter Schey Is Jumping Into the Fight Against Prop. 187--Much Like the Battle He Helped Win for Texas Students

November 10, 1994|MATTHEW HELLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1982 decision on the right of illegal immigrant children to attend public schools, one of the civil rights attorneys who handled the case was in the jungles of Nicaragua.

"We were huddled 'round a two-way radio, listening to the BBC," recalls Peter Schey, who was part of a team investigating human rights abuses by Contra rebels. "When we heard the ruling, I whooped for joy."

In a decision affecting some 150,000 undocumented children in Texas, the high court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe that a state law barring them from free public education was unconstitutional. It was only the second case Schey had argued before the court.

A dozen years later, California's newly approved Proposition 187 promises to keep Schey--already fully occupied as an international human rights advocate, immigrant rights lawyer and operator of a shelter for homeless kids--busy for the foreseeable future.

On Wednesday, he filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the "Save Our State" initiative, which echoes the Texas law by targeting public school students who are not legal residents of the United States. Says Schey, who heads the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law: "The consequences (of the measure) would just be tragic."

During an unconventional 21-year career, which has spanned numerous liberal causes, Schey has represented Salvadoran political prisoners, Native Americans, Haitian refugees and an Indian guru. On Oct. 15, he accompanied Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to Haiti as the exiled president returned to power. ("The only other L.A. attorney on the trip was (Secretary of State) Warren Christopher," he notes wryly.)

In a casual setting, he can be low-key, even reticent. But in court, allies and opponents say, it's a different story. "Peter never stops," says Ralph Santiago Abascal, a doyen of public interest attorneys and general counsel for California Rural Legal Assistance in San Francisco. "He's always at your heels."

Bob Kendall, a Department of Justice lawyer who has opposed Schey on several cases, says he may appear "laid back and mellow," but that the gloves come off before a judge. "This little sweet, innocent tone leaves him and he becomes very aggressive." He adds with a laugh: "Sometimes he can overkill and the judge will say, 'Now, Mr. Schey, shut up.' "

A dapper man with wavy hair and blue eyes, Schey, 47, isn't given to introspection about his work. Asked why he pursues cases that require years of tortuous litigation and battles with bureaucrats, he says, "I don't quite know how to put it. I truly enjoy the work."

It's likely not for the money. Schey takes most cases pro bono; often, he says, he'll accept clients only if they have nowhere else to go. If he wins, he can apply for attorney's fees as part of the judgment, but that can mean another legal battle and the resulting fees are often below market rates.

To keep two other lawyers and a dozen staffers employed, the center handles a few private cases, accepts grants from foundations and charities, and stages an annual dinner that has honored human rights activists such as Aristide and actor Edward James Olmos.

Far from the Century City high-rises of the city's legal elite, Schey works out of a converted A-frame in the Westlake district, eschewing pin stripes in favor of khaki and denim.

It's clear that activism is part of Schey's heritage. His parents fled Germany in 1938--his father was Jewish and an anti-Nazi agitator--and moved to South Africa, where Schey was born. By his teens, he was protesting the country's apartheid policies. When he was 15, the family moved to San Francisco, partly for his own safety.

"They got particularly concerned when my picture appeared in a (newspaper) story about an anti-apartheid demonstration," he recalls in an interview.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he was arrested during a Vietnam War protest. And, when he was a part-time youth counselor at a community center in the Hunter's Point district in San Francisco, he was caught in the middle of a two-day riot.

The violence erupted on Sept. 27, 1966, after a white policeman shot and killed a black teen-ager. Schey, then only 19, rushed to the community center, which the rioters had turned into a virtual headquarters, and tried to restore calm. He was still there the following evening when National Guard troops opened fire on the center.

"That was pretty intense," Schey says matter-of-factly, recalling that he avoided the flying bullets by diving to the floor of his office.

After some frantic phone calls from the center to the mayor, the Guard withdrew and negotiations began that led to increased employment opportunities for minority youth.

Graduating with a psychology degree, Schey went on to California Western School of Law in San Diego, where, as a student, he handled cases of illegal immigrants at a legal aid clinic.

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