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Public interest career driven by high ideals, imagination

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Robert Gnaizda

After five years as a trial tax attorney, Robert Gnaizda set his legal sights on helping those for whom justice and equality are too often a distant dream, and he has never looked back. In 1966, the then-30-year-old Yale Law grad co-founded California Rural Legal Assistance, which fights for economic justice and human rights on behalf of California’s rural poor. In 1971, he co-founded Public Advocates of San Francis-co, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization for the poor, minorities and the underserved. And in 1993, he co-founded the Greenlining Institute, which aims to empower minorities and the disadvantaged through economic and leadership development, civil rights and anti-redlining activities. All three organizations are still active, major forces in the legal services community.

In recognition of his commitment and significant work in extending legal services to the poor, Gnaizda, 73, is the recipient of the 2009 Loren Miller Legal Services Award, the State Bar’s most prestigious honor.

Gnaizda “is the most imaginative public interest lawyer in the United States,” says State Bar President-elect Howard Miller, who has known Gnaizda for 40 years and will be sworn in as the 2009-10 president at this month’s annual meeting in San Diego. “He has an instinct that makes dramatic change in people’s lives.”

“I’m very appreciative,” Gnaizda said of the award. “I’m looking forward to both thanking the bar and making some suggestions, because I’m always going to use an award as a platform.”

Gnaizda “has had an enormous impact,” says Anthony Kline, presiding justice of the First District Court of Appeal in Northern California who is also one of the founders of Public Advocates. Sid Wolinsky, co-founder and director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates, concurs. Gnaizda, Wolinsky says, “probably has more ideas per hour than most of us have in a year … Bob always seemed to have a knack for the right idea at the right time.”

Those ideas have helped immigrant farm workers to become members of established unions, African Americans to become firefighters, women and minorities to become police officers and to be eligible for banking industry promotions. His ideas — along with the actions he follows up with — have resulted in promoting voting rights, expanding the pool of eligible food stamp recipients, mandating free school breakfasts for qualified recipients, distributing surplus government cheese to the poor, redirecting corporate philanthropy to underserved communities and opening up small business lending and banking to those who had been shut out. In one of the most publicized cases in which he was involved, the California Supreme Court ruled in Serrano v. Priest that school funding throughout the state should be more equalized and should not be based on the wealth of a district.

Kline says Gnaizda’s influence is not limited to policy changes. “I’m talking about the young lawyers and legal interns and law students that he worked with — the impact that he has had on them. He has always paid attention to the need to train and inspire younger people to maintain the struggle to which his life has been committed.”

In its 43 years, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) has grown to serve more than 40,000 low-income rural Californians a year. It is the largest, nonprofit farm workers legal assistance organization in the United States.

Gnaizda and others started Public Advocates, one of the nation’s first public interest law firms to focus exclusively on minority rights, with a $3 million grant from the Ford Foundation. He was senior partner and litigator there from 1971 to 1974 and from 1977 to 1993.

In 1993, he co-founded the Green-lining Institute and served as policy director and general counsel. He resigned last year but continues to work part-time as a consultant. The institute includes 38 organizations that work to improve life for low-income and minority communities in California. It has created partnerships between community organizations and banks, utilities, insurance and telecommunications companies that have resulted in home mortgages and business loans for low-income people, contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses and philanthropy dollars for poor communities.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of the Northern District of California says the concept of the institute “was just brilliant.” Seeing that members of poor communities were routinely denied business and home loans, Gnaizda “set up an organization that really dealt with the problem and he dealt with it in the best kind of way” — by involving the banks and other institutions that have control over the money. “He thinks of the whole problem and he comes up with the solution. It helps that he’s not a shy person.”

“He thinks like a great lawyer should,” says incoming bar President Miller. Gnaizda’s got an impeccable “strategic sense” in which he approaches a problem from different angles with the goal of getting “immediate and efficient results.”

Gnaizda, who did his undergraduate work at Columbia University before moving to Yale Law School, says he’s “not ideological,” and believes that attribute accounts for at least some of his success. “I don’t see the other side as evil — just wrong,” he says. “I always try to see the other side.” In Mississippi, where he went in 1965 to challenge the doctrine that the vote could be denied to blacks, he saw each one of the six, white lawyers who opposed him “as a decent person in everything except their relationships with African Americans.” He also doesn’t disdain incomplete victories. “I’m quite happy representing the poor and underserved and minorities to accept 80 percent today rather than fight for 12 years for what might be a crumb, although you could theoretically have won a great moral victory.”

Because of his willingness to negotiate with the other side, he has not focused on straight litigation throughout his career. “I focused on lots of leveraged administrative actions that give far more power to the people, and that is glorious.” For example, the Greenlining Institute succeeded in tripling corporate philanthropy to the poor, putting minorities on boards and getting Bank of America to make a $1.5 trillion commitment to community reinvestment by forcing the Federal Reserve Bank to hold public hearings on the bank’s acquisition of Countrywide Financial Corporation. “That’s just an example of things you could not get through the courts.” A merger is the CEO’s idea “so he’s personally committed,” Gnaizda says. Plus, delays in finalizing the merger can cost millions of dollars a day and opposition causes delays.

“What I am proud of is I try to implement my ideas,” says Gnaizda.

Kline likes to tell the story of the Mexican American Population Com-mission. During Public Advocates days, Gnaizda had printed up a letterhead with the name Mexican American Population Commission. “This didn’t exist really except that it had a letterhead and it had the names of an awful lot of prominent people from the Latino community,” Kline said. On the letterhead, Gnaizda wrote a letter to the Census Bureau that it was grossly understating the number of Latinos in California and some other states and, as a result, Latinos were suffering discrimination by not getting federal funds to which they were entitled. “To my amazement and frankly, I think to his astonishment as well, they changed the whole formulation as a result of nothing more than a letter on behalf of an organization really as far as I know didn’t exist … He got the federal government, when Nixon was president, to significantly change the way the census was taken.”

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