MODESTO — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, no stranger to political largess from the Gallo wine empire here, has nominated for federal judge a longtime Modesto attorney who is related to the Gallos by marriage.
If the nomination of Frank Damrell Jr., 58, passes White House and Senate muster, it would be the third time in recent years that a high profile attorney with professional or personal ties to the Gallos has been named to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
It is this court, with seven judges in Sacramento and Fresno, that most often hears lawsuits involving Gallo trademark and contract disputes.
Damrell's supporters say the respected attorney and longtime financial contributor to the Democratic Party is a perfect choice for the federal bench, a Yale Law School graduate with criminal and civil law experience who holds moderate views.
Critics of the nomination say they are troubled that another candidate for federal judge in the Central Valley enjoys close ties to the powerful wine barons, one of the nation's biggest private donors to Feinstein and other politicians. They point out that Damrell would sit on the court's Sacramento bench, which has jurisdiction in several counties where the Gallos have extensive business dealings.
Damrell, a college roommate of former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., is related to the Gallos through his sister Marie's marriage to Bob Gallo, a president of the winery and Julio Gallo's oldest son. Besides his family ties, Damrell has served as legal counsel to the winery, one of the largest privately owned consumer product companies in America.
"Because the Gallos are my family and my clients, I'll recuse myself from any cases involving their business dealings," Damrell said. "The bottom line is there's no benefit to the Gallos if I'm selected."
But others disagree, saying that Gallo's interests throughout the state are so vast and varied that if Damrell handles any water or environmental cases on the court, his rulings could affect the winery.
"Even if he intends to recuse himself on specific Gallo-related cases, the spectrum of issues that are likely to come before a judge in the Central Valley will inevitably have consequences for Gallo winery and its plans for the future," said Ellen Hawkes, author of "Blood and Wine," regarded as a definitive account of the Gallo wine empire.
In a letter to Feinstein in January, Ernest Gallo made his preference clear. "I have known Mr. Damrell for many years. I greatly value his abilities as an attorney and have found his judgment and integrity to be of the highest order," wrote the 88-year-old chairman of E & J Gallo Winery. "I believe he would be an outstanding choice for this most important office."
Hawkes said it was hard to overestimate the sway of Gallo's letter. "Ernest does not write letters of recommendation lightly. The letter may be short but the effect may be quite long."
Gallo's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Damrell said the kinship should have no bearing on his worthiness to fill one of 94 federal court vacancies nationwide. "I have great respect for Ernest Gallo. I wouldn't have asked him for his assistance if I didn't," he said.
"But I think it is demeaning to me to suggest that one person is controlling my destiny. It totally ignores what kind of lawyer I am and the broad support I have from both sides of the political fence."
A spokesman for Feinstein said Damrell was selected from a final list of four candidates because of his impressive legal credentials. The spokesman said the nomination was in no way tied to the $32,000 in contributions to Feinstein by Gallo family members and the company since 1991.
"As far as his relationship with the Gallos, that had absolutely nothing to do with the appointment," said Bill Chandler, who oversaw the judicial selection process for Feinstein. "Frank Damrell is not a one-issue lawyer but someone who has an incredibly varied mix of civil and criminal experience that makes him an outstanding nominee."
Damrell may boast all the right stuff to be named a federal judge, and certainly the letters on his behalf--from California Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to San Francisco 49ers President Carmen Policy--speak of his distinguished years as a local and state prosecutor before building his own top law practice in Modesto.
But it has long been suggested in the legal community here that for any attorney coveting a federal judgeship in the Central Valley, one endorsement stands taller than the rest: a thumbs up from the Gallos.
The Gallo family is the largest corporate donor to congressional candidates in California and ranks in the top 20 nationwide. The single largest financial backer of Bob Dole during his long career in the U.S. Senate, the Gallos now rank fifth on the list of all-time donors to President Clinton.