YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Activism Defines S.F. City Attorney's Office

Drive to legalize gay marriage is the latest in a list of causes that includes a $12-billion victory over tobacco industry.

March 23, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — If this city prevails in its quest to legalize same-sex marriage, it won't be the first time San Francisco's elected city attorney has shaped the law.

Behind the scenes of the same-sex marriage phenomenon is an unconventional public law office that has earned a nationwide reputation for its aggressive legal tactics.

While other municipal lawyers stuck to bread-and-butter duties -- defending their clients and protecting them from liability -- former San Francisco City Atty. Louise Renne took the offense: Before any other city or state had done so, she sued the tobacco industry, netting $12 billion in a settlement split evenly between the state and local governments.

Then came a lawsuit against Bank of America for allegedly mishandling hundreds of millions of dollars in municipal bond proceeds, a suit against the gun industry for allegedly contributing to violence, and more. In some cases other cities joined in, benefiting from San Francisco's legal moxie.

"If I had to rank cities in aggressiveness on affirmative litigation, I would clearly put San Francisco at the top," said Henry Underhill Jr., executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Assn.

Critics deride the legal actions as a waste of taxpayer dollars that gives San Francisco improper sway over businesses and consumers in other states.

"These lawsuits are ... an attempt to circumvent the constitutionally prescribed legislative process in order to regulate industry through litigation," said Lawrence Keane, general counsel of the Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, a defendant in the gun litigation, which was joined by 11 other California cities.

Added lawyer Robert Tyler, who has challenged the city on gay marriage and rights for domestic partners: "City attorneys' offices

But in San Francisco, activism is a tradition. Working with left-leaning city officials, and answering to the city's overwhelmingly liberal voters, the office of the city attorney has redefined its role and influenced others around the country.

The city, for example, approved the country's first law requiring city contractors to offer employees' domestic partners the same benefits granted the spouses of married workers. The city's successful defense of the law prompted cities across the country -- including Los Angeles -- to craft similar ordinances.

Legal Fight in Spotlight

These days, San Francisco's city attorney's office is again at the center of a legal fight with national implications -- this time under Renne's successor, Dennis Herrera.

True, it was Mayor Gavin Newsom who vowed to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But it was Herrera who gave him the green light, putting Chief Deputy City Atty. Therese Stewart on the case to devise a strategy that, if successful, would legalize gay marriage across California.

The move came less than two years after Herrera's office drafted a similar opinion that domestic partners should be treated the same as married spouses -- and spared steep property tax assessments on the death of a partner.

"Doing what we can do to ensure civil rights for everyone is not something we are going to back away from," said Herrera, 41, who was elected in 2001 with support from Renne and the gay and lesbian community.

His office filed briefs Thursday with the California Supreme Court asking the court to refrain from deciding whether Newsom was entitled to break state laws defining marriage as heterosexual until the constitutionality of those laws is resolved. Herrera has filed suit against the state in San Francisco Superior Court challenging those statutes as unconstitutional.

"The sheer sensitivity of it may have driven most lawyers to say, 'You shouldn't do it,' " said Jon B. Streeter, president of the Bar Assn. of San Francisco, whose board recently voted to support the city's position. "It would have been easy to say, 'No.' "

In its big-ticket consumer lawsuits, the city has not always prevailed: A suit against lead paint manufacturers was thrown out last year by a Superior Court judge who ruled that the statute of limitations on the claims had expired.

The attempt to stem gun violence -- which cost San Francisco $1 million to litigate -- also suffered a defeat when gun manufacturers were dismissed from the suit. In a settlement, gun distributors paid only $70,000 to the dozen cities and counties that had ultimately joined as plaintiffs, although they and gun dealers agreed to certain restrictions on sales and better training to prevent firearm sales to criminals.

A year after Renne took office in 1986, she signaled her unconventional intentions.

The exclusive Olympic Club leased land from the city for three holes of its golf course. It also limited membership to white men. Renne sued, and the club changed its ways.

The Stakes Get Higher

By the mid-1990s, she was playing for higher stakes, most notably with the city's strike against tobacco companies.

Los Angeles Times Articles