The Education of Bill Lockyer
California Lawyer

The Education of Bill Lockyer

How an old-fashioned liberal (addressing striking retail workers in 1974) has come of age

March 2001

Of all the things that distinguish Attorney General Bill Lockyer from his predecessor, Dan Lungren, perhaps the most striking is the lack of fanfare he generates when he arrives at his Sacramento office. The 58-year-old Democrat, whose last job was president pro tem of the state Senate, drives to the state Department of Justice headquarters in a late-model Cadillac, which he parks himself. And when he gets out of his car he walks into a crowded elevator, just like all the other working stiffs.

Contrast that with the way Dan Lungren used to come to work: When his Ford Explorer van came within a few miles of headquarters, his chauffeur would radio ahead to the garage attendant, alerting him of the AG's imminent arrival. As the van pulled up to its designated parking spot, a steel curtain would descend behind it to protect the vehicle against unspecified hazards. Then, as an added security measure, Lungren would walk through a private entrance to one of the building's elevators and ride alone to the 17th floor.

This was all quite silly, from Lockyer's perspective. So when he became attorney general, one of the first things he did was to turn Lungren's former parking spot, dubbed the bat cave, into a four-week parking perk for anyone in the Sacramento office who is named employee of the month-a savvy, morale-boosting gesture if ever there was one.

Now, three years into his tenure, Lockyer may well be the closest thing that Gray Davis has to an heir apparent at the governor's mansion. Certainly a lot of well-placed Democrats think so. But if it happens, it won't be because Lockyer outshines anyone in the charisma department. In fact, the attorney general is a rather plump, pale-looking fellow with a soft voice, but he's a bona fide genius when it comes to political survival. And during the conservative years when George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson served as governor, Lockyer was able to move very skillfully to the political center without alienating his left-of-center supporters.

Lockyer now presents himself to the public as a liberal Democrat who supports the death penalty. He's a career legislator who runs a mammoth bureaucracy that includes a thousand lawyers working on 55,000 active cases at any given time. He's also a policy wonk, but one who knows how to cut a deal as well as anyone.

Ralph Nader once called him one of the best consumer legislators in the country, and as both an assemblyman and a state senator, Lockyer's capacity for hard work was legendary. Among his credits, he has sponsored bills on tort reform, workers compensation reform, and environmental protection. He's also known as the godfather of the state's "lemon law," which protects car buyers. He's even drawn praise from state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who describes him as the driving force behind the unification of the trial courts, among other things.

Forced by term limits to abandon his Senate seat in 1998, Lockyer ran for attorney general, defeating David Stirling, Lungren's top aide, by almost 10 percentage points. In the process he became the state's top lawyer without ever having practiced law.

My immodest goal is to be the best attorney general in modern history," he emailed his staff soon after assuming office. Of course, he added, "I probably should check in at the 'hubris counter' for such a ught."

As AG, Lockyer has startled judges by personally arguing cases in their courtrooms. He has also turned out to be surprisingly popular with the cops. But not everyone thinks so highly of him. Big oil companies certainly don't rank among his biggest fans, nor do the health care and insurance industries. And like so many other AGs, Lockyer has not escaped charges that he's played politics with the office.

None of his critics would speak on the record about this-in the clubby world of legislators and lobbyists, after all, today's foe may be tomorrow's friend-but a common complaint is how meek Lockyer has been about enforcing environmental standards at Indian-run casinos. And some would argue that this meekness is not unrelated to the sizable amounts of cash Indian tribes have given to Lockyer's political campaigns over the years. When the issue hit the newspapers last December, Lockyer and Davis did an Alphonse and Gaston routine, each saying the other was responsible for enforcing the relevant environmental laws. "Lockyer and the governor are doing a kind of tap dance around this," says one source. "I think it's a serious matter."

Meanwhile, Lockyer has put in time trying to help Davis negotiate a solution to the energy crisis and is attempting to overturn a decision by an arbitration panel awarding $88.5 million to lawyers who successfully eliminated a $300 fee for smog compliance on out-of-state vehicles. Before that, he got involved in the Riverside police shooting of Tyisha Miller, issued an opinion declaring former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush's Northridge earthquake settlements to be illegal, looked into the firings at a public radio station in Berkeley, studied oil-company mergers, investigated alleged price-fixing by oil companies, and ruled that drug searches of student backpacks when the student isn't present violate the U.S. and California Constitutions. In short, it's been a busy two and a half years.

As attorney general, though, nothing seems to give Lockyer more satisfaction than trying to draw distinctions between himself and Dan Lungren. In this vein he notes how he's established one of the largest civil rights offices in the country, after it had languished under his predecessor. He's also doubled the size of the unit working on elder abuse. "Dan Lungren used to brag that he never sued nursing homes," Lockyer says. "I don't understand feeling good about that. In 2000 we filed the first criminal prosecution of a nursing home operator in the state's history.

There are aspects of the office that had been neglected," he adds. "It's part of my job to breathe life into them."

Lockyer's top-floor office has enough dark wood and black leather to please a banker, but it's enlivened by some unexpected touches. The mandatory American flag stands near Lockyer's desk, but a smiling Day-of-the-Dead skeleton graces his worktable. A tray of police badges lies below a copy of Al Gore's Earth in the Balance. The only photo on Lockyer's desk is a shot of his daughter, Lisa, who is a lawyer for NASA. Twice divorced, Lockyer is now single.

Lockyer is an omnivorous reader, and the books in his office give some clues to his interests. Among his holdings are Politicians and Other Scoundrels, A Man for All Seasons, and Miss Manners Rescues Civilization. There's also a paperback copy of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.

Lockyer's aerie has a wonderful view, but being at the top of the Department of Justice hierarchy is a bit like being the little plastic groom on a wedding cake: Your importance is mainly symbolic. An incoming attorney general may rule over 5,300 DOJ employees, but he can fill only 7 staff slots without regard to civil service rules. California AGs, therefore, are a lot like British cabinet ministers. They are high-profile personalities who come and go while the mass of civil servants beneath them stay on indefinitely. And, at first, the staffers were no more excited about Lockyer than they were about Lungren. "I think there was some trepidation," says Gene Erbin, a former counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. "They thought he would be an unrepentant, uninformed politician. They were wrong."

Lockyer won some hearts with his personal style. He's not a backslapper, but he puts people at ease in a way his predecessor didn't. "That was a consistent complaint you heard about the Lungren years," says Lockyer. "That [he and his staff] came in like an occupying army, and the professional deputy AGs and others who worked in the department always distrusted them." Lockyer clearly worked hard to correct that. And giving away the bat cave was certainly a good start.

One veteran staffer says he especially likes Lockyer's hands-on management style: "When Dan Lungren wanted some information, he would ask his chief deputy, who would ask his deputy, and so on down the line. Then a memo would be written, which would have to be approved at each level as it went up, until it finally reached Lungren's desk." By contrast, when Lockyer has a question or comment, he'll just walk into someone's office or pick up the phone. "In the last two years," says this staffer, "Lockyer has wandered into my office three or four times, stopped me in the hallways to talk about a legal argument he was excited about, and called me up twice to ask about projects I've been working on."

Lockyer has also put his stamp on the department by finding and energizing career staffers who share his activist vision. "There are people in this building who were dying to work on significant public policy issues," says Nathan Barankin, Lockyer's communications director. "He has given them that chance."

Louis Verdugo, a senior assistant attorney general in charge of the statewide Civil Rights Enforcement Section, is one of them. Verdugo has spent 24 years with the department, the last 17 in civil rights. But his tiny unit was buried within the Charitable Trusts Section, and Verdugo spent most of the 1990s toiling in obscurity. All that changed when Lockyer took over. " Within eleven days of taking office, he announced the expansion of the unit and appointed me to head it," says Verdugo. "We've grown from two attorneys to eight and become one of the largest civil rights offices in the country. It was amazing how fast it happened.

Lockyer defines civil rights very broadly, to include social and economic justice," says Verdugo. "And he's given us a mandate to go outside the office. We've convinced groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights that we're willing to take on tougher issues-like the first-ever civil rights investigation of a police agency, the Riverside Police Department."The son of a roofer, Lockyer's father didn't expect him to go to college. But smarts, as well as political acumen, manifested early, when he organized the first Hayward Young Democrats club and entered UC Berkeley. At Cal, Lockyer studied political theory, including Thomas More and other utopian philosophers. He also fell in love with Shakespeare and for a brief period dreamed of becoming a Shakespeare scholar.

Lockyer earned a teaching credential after graduating in 1965, but he decided to go to work for Assemblyman Bob Crown of Alameda. When Crown was killed while jogging in 1973, Lockyer ran for the open seat and won. In 1982 he was elected to the state Senate.

In the Senate, Lockyer chaired the powerful Judiciary Committee while attending McGeorge School of Law at night. In 1989 he passed the bar exam on his first try. "Can you imagine what the headlines would have been if I had failed?" he mused at the time. " 'Chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee Flunks Bar!' "

In 1994 Lockyer put the votes together to succeed long-time president pro tem of the California Senate David Roberti. And though widely considered a glorified baby-sitting job, it gave Lockyer some much-needed executive experience.

Throughout his career Lockyer has displayed a zest for hard work. Bill Cavala, an election-law specialist who is a senior adviser to the assembly speaker, knows Lockyer well, having roomed with him at UC Berkeley in the 1960s and served with him in Sacramento in the '80s.

In both intellect and applied energy he's certainly one of the top four or five people in the state," Cavala says. "When I knew him in the 1980s he would sleep only four or five hours a night. His capacity for work was enormous. The Judiciary Committee used to meet on Tuesdays, and the Monday before, Bill would read not just the abstracts his staff prepared but every single line of every bill that would come before it."

Cavala is also a witness to another bit of Lockyer lore: his strange eating habits. Like famed lawyer David Boies, Lockyer hates vegetables. Cavala claims that even when they were students and ordered pizza, Lockyer would leave the vegetable toppings on his plate. And once, when the governor and lieutenant governor were both out of California and Lockyer, as president pro tem, was acting governor, he jokingly issued a press release indicating that he wanted to make pizza the state vegetable. But the missing vitamins and nutrients haven't slowed him down. He still works 16-hour days, seven days a week, and during his first year in office he made more than 130 airplane trips.

Lockyer officially lives in Hayward, but he usually doesn't spend more than one day a week there. The rest of the time he shuttles among the Department of Justice's six main offices around the state. "I bet you that he's having a ball," says Phil Isenberg, a Sacramento attorney and former legislator. "For Bill, being attorney general is like being a bull in tall clover."

Since taking office Lockyer has personally appeared in court several times, which is unusual for an AG. He first helped win a Lake Tahoe environmental ban on jet skis and two-stroke motors. ("It was the first time I'd been in federal court," admits Lockyer, "and I was terrified.") He lost a Bay Area hospital antitrust case, then won an appeal to the Ninth Circuit in a disability-rights case. The fourth occasion was in Hi-Voltage Wire Works Inc. v City of San Jose (2000) 24 C4th 537. This was Lockyer's first appearance before the state Supreme Court, and it's perhaps the most controversial thing he has done to date as attorney general.

The last time an attorney general appeared before the state's high court was in 1989, when John Van de Kamp was in charge. So most of the justices appointed by either Deukmejian or Wilson had never seen an AG in their court before. The drama was further enhanced by Lockyer's late arrival that day, after he got stuck in traffic.

At issue in Hi-Voltage was whether Proposition 209, which prohibits affirmative action in employment, contracting, and student admissions, also barred a San Jose minority-outreach ordinance for city projects. Lockyer argued in favor of the outreach program. To his chagrin the court struck down the ordinance on November 30.

In a recent interview, Dan Lungren, who refused to comment publicly on any other aspect of his successor's performance, couldn't resist the temptation to talk about Hi-Voltage. Lockyer, he says, clearly shirked his responsibilities in that case. "As attorney general," Lungren notes, "you're responsible for defending the state's statutes, whether you agree with the law or not. I was put in that position when I had to defend the blanket primary law, even though it hurt me politically. I was against it, but my office faithfully made every argument we could in its defense. That was my job."

David Stirling, who lost to Lockyer in 1998 and is now a vice president of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank, echoed Lungren's sentiment in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. "Why," he asked, "did the Attorney General shy away from enforcing the law enacted by the people and instead take the exceptional step of personally appearing before the Court to argue that San Jose should be allowed to avoid the will of the people?"

Indian gaming is also an issue that could yet blow up in Lockyer's face, if only because he's the logical enforcer of the state-tribal compact that Governor Davis and the state's gambling tribes hastily agreed on last year. The compact recognizes the legality of 40 existing casinos and authorizes 22 additional tribes to go into gambling. But disagreements later broke out over such key provisions in the compact as how many slot machines it allows and what environmental standards casino projects have to meet.

In the San Diego area, where nine casinos are projected to begin construction, a review last year by Lockyer's office found that the Rincon and San Pasqual tribes weren't following the compact's environmental guidelines. Worried about such issues as water contamination and groundwater depletion, San Diego authorities asked the attorney general to intervene. To their surprise, he refused.

In his brush-off letter, Lockyer wrote that as attorney general he didn't have "independent authority ... to enforce the compact." Then he tossed the ball back to Davis. "The determination of whether the compact has been breached, and whether enforcement action is appropriate," he wrote, "are questions that lie within the province of the governor's office."

Dan Boatwright, who served with Lockyer in the Assembly and the Senate and is now a lobbyist for the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs, chooses to take a benign view of Lockyer's position. "I think this goes back to Bill's understanding of social issues," he says. "The Indians for a long time were third-class citizens, the poorest of the poor. And now that they have gaming, they're helping themselves. Bill's attitude is, 'Hey, let's let them have their day in the sun.' "

"He has a very pragmatic social conscience," Boatwright adds. "He cares for the people that we as Democrats should care about: the aged, the blind, the disabled, children, and the people on the lowest rung of the ladder who can't take care of themselves. I think he's doing a great job as attorney general, and someday I fully expect Bill to be governor."

When Lockyer hears such talk he acts as if the notion neither displeases nor preoccupies him. "Dianne Feinstein," he says, "has a rule I really like: People in politics ought to focus on their current job, not their future one. Because when you look at the next one, you neglect your current responsibilities, and you start to get risk-adverse and spend time focusing on the next job, not the current one." When you're looking up the ladder all the time, he adds, you miss the rung you're on.

It's a noble sentiment but not a very believable one. After all, if there's one thing that Dan Lungren, John Van de Kamp, and George Deukmejian have in common, it's that they all saw the AG's job as a stepping stone to the governorship. And, as most Sacramento watchers would agree, there's no way Lockyer can ever be a serious contender if he thinks purely as an AG.

"One of the most important things you can do in any of the constitutional offices is not make huge mistakes," says McGeorge law professor Clark Kelso, reflecting on Lockyer's chances of being governor one day. "So far, Lockyer has played his hand well. He's avoided running headlong into politically divisive issues. He didn't overreact last summer to some of the death-penalty concerns that were raised around the country, recognizing that the California public is still very much in favor of the death penalty." On the other hand, on something like medical marijuana, Lockyer seems to have carved out a sensible middle ground between what the electorate wants and what the feds demand.

"He's not going around tilting at windmills," says Kelso. "He's not out there stumping on issues where he would be out in front of where the law is, or what the department should be doing. Bill has done everything you need to do in that office to prepare a foundation for whatever comes next."

William Rodarmor is a freelance writer and translator who lives in Berkeley. An inactive member of the bar, he has written for CALIFORNIA LAWYER on medical malpractice and the RICO statute.

1998 AG's RaceLockyer's Top Ten contributors

1. Democratic State Central Committee of California, Sacramento, California, $604,150

2. Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach LLP, New York, New York, $150,000

3. E. & .J Gallo Winery, Modesto, California, $100,000

4. Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, San Francisco, California, $100,000

5. Zenith Insurance Company, Woodland Hills, California, $85,090

6. California State Council of Service Employees, Sacramento, California, $85,000

7. Girardi and Keese, Los Angeles, California, $85,000

8. California Professional Firefighters, Sacramento, California, $81,112

9. Southern California District Council of Carpenters Political Action Fund, Los Angeles, California, $80,025

10. Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, Central District, Oakland, California, $80,000

Source: California Voter Foundation (

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