Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006 | When something big goes wrong in society today, lawyers are usually the first ones to be blamed. In some cases – cover-ups leading to the Enron collapse and memos justifying the torture of “enemy combatants” – the legal profession deserves heavy criticism.
But we should not forget that lawyers have done many great things in defense of democracy. Cases like Brown v. Board of Education immediately come to mind.
In our work, we often require the assistance of public-interest lawyers – lawyers who are willing to take cases for reasons of justice rather than profit. That’s why we were very troubled to read voiceofsandiego.org’s recent article, “Enviros Seek Green as Part of Condo Settlements,” in which a local public-interest attorney was accused by big-money development interests of “nothing short of extortion.” The attorney, Cory Briggs, has sued the city of San Diego and numerous developers on behalf of citizen groups to challenge the lack of environmental review for nearly 30,000 condo conversions in the city since 2004. Because the challenge is still making its way through the courts, nobody knows exactly how things will turn out.
What we do know is that personal attacks on public-interest lawyers is a threat to democracy, especially to protecting the rights of those in society who cannot otherwise afford high-priced lawyers, lobbyists, and other consultants who are paid to manipulate the political system for their own private gain. The corrupting influence of money on politics is well known in our community – think Randy “Duke” Cunningham – and shows no signs of going away. Developers, big corporations, and other profit-seeking interests “invest” millions of dollars in elections to ensure that profitable outcomes for them are achieved by “their” candidates.
That seems to be the case with condo conversions in San Diego. On behalf of his clients, Briggs has sued to force the city to study the environmental impacts of condo conversions. Interestingly, politicians who have accepted substantial sums of money from developers consistently refuse to study a problem that they routinely admit needs to be studied.
They say they want to study conversions in order to protect the average citizen, but their repeated votes against the study sought only to protect developer profits while harming the thousands upon thousands of families affected by condo conversions.
Since the developers and politicians are having no luck in getting Briggs and his clients to go away, they recently adopted the tactic of accusing him of extortion because of a few settlements – so few, your article reported, that it affects only about 1 percent of the conversions. Anyone who knows how litigation works will confirm that settlements are a legitimate part of the process; indeed, the few settlements you reported involved good things for the public like “onsite affordable housing, several parking lots and construction upgrades.” And anyone who has worked with Briggs on other public-interest cases will confirm that he takes them for two reasons only: he thinks he can win them, and he believes that the cause is just.
Of course, Briggs is hardly alone in seeking justice on behalf of the public. There are many fine lawyers in our community and around the country who try day in and day out to achieve justice for the public. Sure, some of them make legal arguments that fail in the end, and Briggs’s efforts to obtain a study of condo conversions may meet a similar fate. But losing fair and square is a risk that public-interest lawyers willingly face. They should not have to face attacks on their sincerity and motives in giving a voice to those who cannot afford to buy a politician’s ear. Mud-slinging is deplorable enough in political campaigns. It is even worse when it happens in the courtroom.
More than 170 years ago, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States to report on the workings of our government. Today, with so many of our politicians corrupted by money from developers and other profit-seekers, de Tocqueville’s observation about lawyers remains as true today as it was back then: “In visiting the Americans and studying their laws, we perceive that the authority they have intrusted [sic] to members of the legal profession, and the influence which these individuals exercise in the government, is the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy.” Perhaps one day our democracy will be reformed so that politicians look out for the best interests of the citizens rather than for the profits of campaign contributors. Until that happens, lawyers who are willing to take on big campaign contributors and the politicians beholden to them will continue to be the last line of defense between the rights of average citizens and the corrupting influence of money on our democratic institutions.
Center for Policy Initiatives
Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization
Russell Dehnel, Ph.D.
Center for Social Advocacy
San Diego Disability Coalition
San Diego Audubon Society
Border Power Plant Working Group
San Diego Coastkeeper
Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association
The Caring Council