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Monday, April 21, 2008 | Thirty-two years ago, Jan Ira Goldsmith, a former New York City cab driver, graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law.
The years since can be carved into three distinct chapters of the city attorney candidate’s life: Goldsmith the private attorney, Goldsmith the legislator and politician and Goldsmith the Superior Court judge.
Now, the 57-year-old is attempting to write a fourth chapter in his career: Goldsmith the city attorney of San Diego. After almost a decade in his El Cajon courtroom, Goldsmith is attempting to resurrect a political career that seemed dead and buried at the end of the 1990s. In doing so, the former mayor of Poway and state legislator has consistently cited his career as a man of the law as evidence that he’s the best candidate to lead the City Attorney’s Office.
A look into Goldsmith’s three decades in the legal world revealed an accomplished and respected business lawyer, a hard-working legislator possibly best known for a bill to legalize owning pet ferrets, and a well-organized and fair judge who was not without his critics within the legal community.
It’s a long and storied career, one with a few twists, some bumps in the road and a couple of mishaps and embarrassments along the way. And it’s a career in which Goldsmith has tasted the public limelight and has tried his hand at making, implementing and applying the law.
Goldsmith moved to San Diego from his hometown of New York in 1973 to attend USD. After graduating and passing the California bar, he went to work for the business litigation firm Seltzer, Caplan, Wilkins & McMahon, now Seltzer, Caplan, McMahon & Vitek.
Bob Caplan, a founding partner of that firm, said he doesn’t really remember anything about Goldsmith’s time at his firm. But that’s hardly surprising, he said, since dozens of attorneys have passed through the firm since then.
But Caplan said he does know Goldsmith is and was “a very bright, articulate individual,” an assessment that was echoed by Mitch Lathrop, a lawyer who tried a complex financial litigation case against Goldsmith in the early 1980s and remains a friend and supporter of the city attorney candidate.
“He was a very capable, very bright trial lawyer and did an excellent job,” Lathrop said.
After four years at Seltzer Caplan, Goldsmith left to start his own firm with three other former Seltzer Caplan employees. They called the new firm Dorazio, Barnhorst, Goldsmith & Bonnar. Mike Dorazio, who helped found the firm, said Goldsmith joined the new firm shortly after he did.
The firm housed about 25 attorneys and 50 employees. Goldsmith managed teams of lawyers and worked on several pieces of complex business litigation. Dorazio said his partner was a natural leader who led by example. Particularly impressive was Goldsmith’s skill as a business litigator, Dorazio said.
“He was thorough and detail-oriented. He produced excellent results for the clients in his cases. He was a very effective supervisor of other attorneys,” Dorazio said.
Asked whether he thought Goldsmith would be able to manage a law firm of more than 140 employees, Dorazio was emphatic.
“I would think he’d be very effective,” Dorazio said. “I saw him in a more limited situation, with less people, and he was a very effective supervisor and, as a partner, he had management and administrative responsibilities at the firm, not just practicing law.”
Throughout his career in private practice, Goldsmith worked as a business litigator, a field he said would provide invaluable experience if he were to win election.
Because business litigation tends to be more complex and multi-faceted than other areas of the law, it provides an attorney with an excellent grounding to work as the city attorney, Goldsmith said. A business litigation lawyer has to understand a host of complicated concepts including real estate law, fiduciary duties and securities transactions, Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith worked on some high-profile financial fraud lawsuits, including doing work on the litigation that erupted from the collapse of the financial empire of C. Arnholt Smith, once one of California’s most wealthy men and a former owner of the Padres, who was found guilty of embezzlement in the late 1970s.
Goldsmith was involved in every stage of the litigation process, from taking depositions to conducting legal research, to presenting the case before the court as the chief litigator.
Goldsmith’s tenure at the firm lasted for about six years before Goldsmith split from the team to form his own small law firm in 1986.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Goldsmith said he also became an active mediator and arbitrator, handling an average of about two cases a month on a volunteer basis. Goldsmith said mediation involves the art of negotiation, something that is a vital skill for a city attorney.
“More so than anything else, the art of negotiation is invaluable, absolutely invaluable,” Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith said he has developed his negotiating skills over more than 30 years as a mediator and a judge. Goldsmith said one of the areas he specialized in during the 1980s and 1990s was the arbitration of securities litigation, a specialized and complex field of the law.
But retired Judge Larry Irving, who has been involved in securities mediation and arbitration since the 1970s, and who one local mediator described as “the godfather of San Diego securities mediation,” said he has never heard of Goldsmith doing mediation work.
“I’ve heard of him as a judge and a legislator, but if he was doing something in securities mediation, I never heard about it,” Irving said.
By the late 1980s, Goldsmith was winding down his career as a private attorney and was laying the foundations for a career in politics. In 1988, he was elected to the Poway City Council after bankrolling his election campaign with nearly $50,000 of his own money.
Goldsmith served on the City Council for four years, first as a councilman and then as the city’s first-ever elected mayor. The positions were part-time, and Goldsmith kept his legal practice on the back burner, eventually moving his small law firm up to Poway.
Bob Emery was a councilman at the time. He said he supported Goldsmith then and continues to support him now.
“He’s a very capable, intelligent person,” Emery said. “My only question is why in the hell he wants the job (of city attorney).”
Goldsmith’s tenure in Poway was marked by a relentless campaign to ease traffic congestion and preserve Poway’s lifestyle through slow development. Newspaper stories from the time portray him as a man with a grand mission for the small town, determined to introduce a light-rail system to Interstate 15 and make Poway one of the finest places to live in the country.
For four years, Goldsmith tackled local issues like placing limits on the playing of loud boom boxes in residential areas and cleaning up of a Poway creek that had become a dumping ground for residents’ trash.
But Goldsmith had bigger plans for his political career.
In 1992, he ran a hard-fought campaign for a state Assembly seat against anti-abortion activist Connie Youngkin. He won, thanks in part to an endorsement from then-Gov. Pete Wilson and $75,000 of his own money. An article in The San Diego Union Tribune by then-reporter Gerry Braun headlined “Goldsmith says he shed liberal views,” Braun described one of the tactics Goldsmith employed during the campaign:
“Attempting to head off attacks from a rival state Assembly candidate, Poway Mayor Jan Goldsmith has distributed a campaign brochure that discusses his past involvement with the American Civil Liberties Union and his youthful flirtation with ‘some pretty liberal views.’”
Dan Walters, a veteran journalist with the Sacramento Bee who has long covered Sacramento politics, said Goldsmith was something of an “odd duck,” during his six years as an assemblyman.
“He was a bit of a loner, the odd man out,” Walters said.
Walters said Goldsmith’s tenure at the Assembly will only be remembered for a bill he authored on the decriminalization of the ownership of ferrets as pets. That bill caused a stir in the media at the time, especially when Goldsmith was subjected to an embarrassing remark from Willie Brown, a gregarious and popular fellow legislator famous for his snazzy attire and lavish lifestyle.
“That bill is deader than that thing on his head,” Brown quipped about Goldsmith’s new hairpiece.
Nearly two decades later, Brown said in an interview that he regrets ever making the remark. “That was an unkind thing to say,” he said.
Walters said the comment reverberated around the legislature and signaled the beginning of the end of Goldsmith’s political career.
“He never lived that down,” Walters said.
Jim Brulte, a former Republican state Assembly leader and state senator who now runs a lobbying firm, said Goldsmith was a valued, determined and intelligent legislator.
“Anyone who says the only thing Jan Goldsmith did was that ferret bill is either horribly uninformed or an idiot,” Brulte said.
Praise for Goldsmith’s legislative career also came from the other side of the Assembly aisle. Luis Caldera, a former Democratic assemblyman who served with Goldsmith, said Goldsmith was an effective, approachable legislator with an open mind.
“Like many people who come from local government who’ve had to wrestle with and deal with the challenges local government has, and how laws that get created actually get implemented in practice, he was willing to engage intellectually if there was a particular issue that someone wanted to legislate about,” said Caldera, who is now a professor of law at the University of New Mexico. “He was the kind of person that you could work with.”
For his part, Goldsmith refuted Walters’ assessment of his career in a different way.
“On May 22, 1998, the Sacramento Bee editorial board endorsed me for treasurer,” Goldsmith said. “His newspaper, his editorial board.”
Certainly, Goldsmith was not only involved with helping ferret owners during his six years on the assembly.
In 1993, a member of his staff filmed school buses from East County’s Mountain Empire School District picking up dozens of children at the border with Mexico and busing them to school on the United States side of the border.
The district eventually admitted that it was swelling its ranks with children who resided in Mexico in order to win greater funding from the state.
The resulting public furor culminated in legislation introduced by Goldsmith that increased penalties for residency fraud at American schools. And Goldsmith also introduced numerous bills on juvenile justice, summary judgment and enactment of criminal statutes, as well as legislation aimed at getting tough with graffiti vandals.
On November 1, 1996, a story in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, discussed Goldsmith’s legislative career, which was by then four years old:
“Assemblyman Goldsmith has a reputation behind the scenes as being one of the few tough-on-crime, lock ’em up advocates who is willing to tackle the less popular and infinitely more complex problem of preventative measures, i.e., early intervention for high-risk youth.”
But Goldsmith’s career in politics was cut short in June 1998 when he lost a hard-fought campaign to be state treasurer against a fellow assemblyman, Curt Pringle, who is now mayor of Anaheim. Six months later, Goldsmith was appointed as a Superior Court judge by Gov. Wilson and soon after, his name began to disappear from the pages of the local newspaper.
Goldsmith joined his wife, Christine, in the El Cajon Superior Court, where he served until he announced his leave of absence to run for city attorney in December 2007.
Lawyers who have appeared before Goldsmith in his courtroom were either effusive in their praise or reticent to speak on the record about their opinions of the judge.
Three local defense attorneys who spoke on condition of anonymity because they may have to bring cases in front of Goldsmith in the future criticized his abilities as a judge, categorizing him as slow, risk-averse and overly conscious of the public’s perception of him. They described him as an “intellectual lightweight.”
But several local lawyers would talk on the record about Goldsmith’s work on the bench. Calls placed to a selection of El Cajon defense attorneys were answered by four lawyers who gushed about Goldsmith’s abilities, temperament and knowledge of the law.
“I’ve always found that he’s an excellent judge,” said Thomas Buchenau, an El Cajon criminal defense attorney.
And Goldsmith said that any criticism about his career as a judge should not outweigh the experience he has gleaned over almost a decade on the bench. He has sentenced men to death, he said, he has worked on complex, lengthy business lawsuits and he has always been fair, impartial and apolitical.
It’s that impartiality and a desire to rid the City Attorney’s Office of divisiveness or political partisanship that Goldsmith said he hopes to bring if he is elected.
“It’s about the law,” he has said many times since announcing his candidacy. “This is about electing a lawyer. I don’t want to be mayor.”
Correction: The original version of this story stated that the Sacramento Bee endorsed Jan Goldsmith for the California State Legislature. The Bee actually endorsed Goldsmith for California State Treasurer. We regret the error.