Pioneering law firm in San Francisco turns 50

By Isabel Alegria

Public Advocates Inc., the premier public interest law firm on the West Coast and among the nation’s premieres, kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration on Tuesday to honor its five-decade legacy as a champion of community rights. and low-income people of color in California.

Since opening in 1971, Public Advocates has charted a unique course as an innovative, not-for-profit law firm that has not only litigated in court, but utilized a wide range of advocacy tools, including administrative complaints, petitions and community activism to advance the interests of its clients.

“Initially, Public Advocates was squarely on the side of workers, people of color, women, the elderly and children. It relies on law and the power of community organization to ensure that the interests of the people have as much sway in the courtrooms, legislature and council chambers as those of the rich and powerful. said Guillermo Mayer, president and CEO of Public Advocates. “From integrating SF police and fire departments, to advocating for tenants’ rights in SOMA and Oakland and consumer rights in banking, insurance and telecommunications, to developing the formula for fairest school funding in the country, Public Advocates has been on the front line – not just fighting, but winning.

And the victories were significant. Among Public Advocates’ landmark victories is Serrano v. Priest, who eradicated the use of local property taxes to determine school funding levels, which heavily favored neighborhoods with affluent residents. Prior to the court ruling in the 1970s, vast disparities between wealthy areas like Beverly Hills and poorer ones like Baldwin Hills meant that affluent schools received more resources.

In another landmark education case, Williams v. California, the state reached an agreement with public defenders and co-counsel to provide the most basic necessities to public school children – textbooks, campus safe and healthy, qualified teachers, especially for English learners, and a system to hold school districts accountable. Public Advocates continues to monitor the settlement.

Years later, Public Advocates built on both cases with its role in developing the Local Control Funding Formula, a significant and historic shift to a simpler, more streamlined and equitable school funding system that aims to improve outcomes by providing increased and improved services each year to meet the educational needs of low-income students, English language learners and youth in foster care.

For decades, California public school administrators mistakenly assigned tens of thousands of black students to classes for the “educable mentally retarded,” based on flawed IQ tests. In a first-ever opinion, a court ruled in Larry P. v. Riles that the use of standard IQ tests to place black students in such classes was racially biased and invalid. In 1986, Public Advocates succeeded in ending the use of IQ tests for placement of black students in special education classes.

“The visionary founders of Public Advocates, Bob Gnaizda, Justice J. Anthony Klein, Sid Wolinsky and Peter Sitkin created a law firm that would have a profound impact, bringing benefits to countless Californians, especially our young people. “said Bob Olson, chairman of the Board of Governors of Public Attorneys. “Their legacy lives on to this day, fueling the groundbreaking work of Public Advocates’ expert staff in education, housing, climate justice and transportation.”

An example is Public Advocates’ advocacy in 2014 to establish a revenue stream for local bus service by allocating a portion of proceeds from the California Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to low-income communities. A few years later, Public Advocates built on the win to secure $400 million for transit operations in the SB 1 gas tax bill, doubling the transit assistance package from the state.

Over the past decade, Public Advocates has redoubled its commitment to working in partnership with community organizations throughout California, a cornerstone of its legal and advocacy approach since the earliest days of Public Advocates. Currently, Public Advocates works closely with groups such as Californians for Justice, PICO California, ACLUs of Northern and Southern California, Urban Habitat, Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Partnership for the Future of Learning, Students Making a Change, Housing Now! and ACCES.

During the pandemic, Public Advocates leveraged its partnerships with key allies in education and housing advocacy as eviction threats loomed and economic insecurity grew among students and their families, who had to struggling to follow distance education. Longtime partners have worked with Public Advocates to communicate the needs of affected communities to legislators. The effort yielded significant victories, including a moratorium on evictions and unprecedented new funding for schools.

And they also took the needs of children seriously. In 1985, Gnaizda represented two 7-year-old children in California who sued Pacific Bell for not disclosing to them that they would be charged $0.50 each time they dialed a line from Santa Claus.

During this 50th anniversary year, Public Advocates will commemorate the many people who have built its legacy over the years, as well as its legal and advocacy victories through a series of social media outlets and a dedicated website. The celebration ends with a gala scheduled for October 20, 2022 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

For more information, visit our dedicated website, here.