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Killer, Junkie, Liar, Thief... 

... so why not lawyer? How our political elite tried and failed to get a law license for sister-killing Eben Gossage.

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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In testifying on Eben Gossage's behalf, San Francisco politicians described Eben in Paulist terms, portraying him as a character who has risen from the ashes of moral turbidity to the commanding heights of goodness. Bierman has touted Eben's commitment to the environment, and his visits to an elderly mutual friend. Others who spoke to me described his new verve for social activism in the tradition of his father. In fact, in his state Bar case, Eben said that he wanted a Bar card so he could practice environmental law.

And it is in his purported environmental activism that Eben Gossage may best illustrate the Joseph Conrad universe that his father was a spokesman for, and that San Francisco is the center of, a universe where bad is good and right is wrong and the moral compass spins like a propeller whenever the political winds blow in a certain way.

In 1996, you see, Eben formed a nonprofit called the Corporation for Clean Air, named himself as president, and then hired attorneys. He formed the corporation to exploit Proposition 65, a measure, approved by voters in 1987, that allows private citizens to file environmental lawsuits on the public's behalf.

In a field of environmental law rife with spurious lawsuits, Eben Gossage's nonprofit corporation has become famous. One such suit, filed against Bekins Van Moving and Storage Inc. and 24 co-defendants, claimed that movers, shuttle bus operators, and other businesses that use diesel trucks had harmed the public by not attaching stickers to their vehicles to warn of the dangers of diesel smoke. It is the only Proposition 65 lawsuit of its time that attorneys who specialize in this kind of law can recall being summarily dismissed by a judge. Eben's theory -- that truck operators should be liable for environmental health damage -- was unsupportable by facts, the judge said. The suit was so meritless, in fact, that the state attorney general filed an unsolicited eight-page letter laying out the factual grounds for dismissal of the suit.

San Francisco's political machine didn't stop at pulling every possible political string to try to get a law license for a killer, junkie, liar, and thief. State Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton actually helped change the way judges on the State Bar Court are chosen, part of an apparent fit of pique over one judge's determination that Eben Gossage was morally unfit to practice law.

Although the State Bar Court initially approved Eben's license applica-tion, with just one dissenting opinion out of the court's five judges, the state Bar Association appealed this decision to the California Supreme Court, which ultimately rejected his application for admission to the Bar. There are some people, it seems, whom even lawyers won't allow in their club.

In addition to his written support for Eben's application for a Bar card, Burton pushed a bill through the Legislature that eliminates the post of the State Bar Court judge who wrote the dissenting opinion (eventually endorsed by the Supreme Court) that Eben should not get a bar card. The legislation eliminates the post of non-lawyer judge Kent Norian, while turning several more Bar Court seats into political appointments. This is a disaster for the separation of judicial powers in California. Eliminating Norian's non-lawyer position on the bench will enhance the Bar's reputation as a club of lawyers judging other lawyers.

Where all judges admitting California lawyers into the Bar used to be appointed by the Supreme Court, thanks to Burton's legislation three of them will be appointed -- and reappointed -- by the governor and the Legislature. In effect, this will turn the Bar Court, which also hears disciplinary cases against lawyers, into a political cudgel, wielded by the party that controls the Legislature and governorship against any uppity lawyer in California.

As a result, the Gossage case's legacy will be one of increased political corruption in Sacramento, says Robert Fellmeth, director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego Law School.

"Combine the reappointment power with the fact there are lawyers everywhere seeking favors, and the fact there are no campaign contribution limits whatsoever, then you add to that the fact that the speaker of the Assembly and the president pro tempore engage regularly in ex parte contacts with special interests as part of their job, and you have a recipe for corruption," Fellmeth tells me. "One of the things you want to do when you're in a political battle is get your opponent in trouble. Candidates love to accuse their opponents of ethical breaches, and the practice of law is fraught with ethical breaches."

Burton won't comment on the Gossage case. Eben's attorney, Ephraim Margolin, didn't return my call. But in an interview with the legal publication The Recorder, Margolin seemed to affirm critics' assertion that the Gossage case inspired Burton's meddling in the Bar selection process: "Burton saw the Bar operating from the inside," said Margolin. "It's possible that he left with strong feelings that things aren't as they should be."

And it's possible that Burton left the Gossage affair with a strong desire to manipulate the judicial system, so it would be easier the next time he wanted to help a political ally.

So San Francisco, California politics and San Francisco, California lawyering will become just a little bit more like the advertising that Howard Luck Gossage so fondly despised: fields dedicated to presenting things as they aren't, "as curiously innocent of the shape of evil as a ten-year-old."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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