Warren Christopher vs. Taxpayers, Schoolchildren, et al.

It’s always interesting to learn how Cabinet secretaries spend their time once they leave public service. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, former Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher is spending it harassing low-income California schoolchildren who have the gall to participate in a class-action suit alleging that the deficit of textbooks and working toilets, and the surplus of rats, in public schools located in poor neighborhoods, prevent the state from fulfilling its (state) constitutional duty to provide equal access to public education. Well, OK, Christopher isn’t harassing these children personally. But according to a Page 1 story by Nanette Asimov and Lance Williams in the Sept. 2 Chronicle, it was Christopher who persuaded California Gov. Gray Davis to hire Christopher’s law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, to defend the state against the class-action suit, which was filed by the ACLU. According to the Chronicle, Davis’ decision to go with O’Melveny rather than have the state attorney general’s office handle the case tripled the amount of money California will spend on the lawsuit. Three days later, the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper held in much higher esteem than the Chronicle, has yet to follow up.

One hardly knows where to begin. Did Christopher really persuade Davis to hire O’Melveny? The Chronicle has it on hearsay. State Deputy Attorney General Rick Tullis (who heads a union for attorneys employed by the state) told the Chronicle that “he was told” Christopher made a pitch to Davis. It’s not clear whether he was told this by someone in the governor’s office or someone in the attorney general’s office. Chatterbox would be remiss if he failed to note that Gov. Davis’ spokeswoman, Hillary McLean, denied to Chatterbox that Christopher made the initial contact. She then added the following caveat: “Does the governor know Warren Christopher? Yes he does. Do they discuss the case? Highly unlikely.” Has Davis’ office flat-out denied that Davis has discussed this case with Christopher? Absolutely not. (Christopher, for his part, declined to speak to Chatterbox, referring him instead to McLean.)

Is O’Melveny really tripling the cost of defending California in the lawsuit? The Chronicle cites a memo to the governor’s office dated June 22, 2000, from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. According to the Chronicle, Lockyer advised against hiring a private firm, saying his office could do it for $6 million. O’Melveny has already collected nearly half that. (It bills $325 per hour, and the Chronicle can’t resist noting that whenever Los Angeles-based O’Melveny lawyers on the case come to San Francisco, they stay at the Park Hyatt, “where the lowest corporate rate is $285 per night.”) Meanwhile, the case hasn’t even come to trial. So “tripling” actually sounds a bit conservative. (Chatterbox has not yet obtained a copy of Lockyer’s memo, but he will post a link to it when he does.) McLean maintains that the “very fine lawyers” Lockyer offered up from his office to defend the state weren’t going to be available quickly enough. She also says that the state needed O’Melveny to counter the assistance the ACLU was getting from the high-powered private legal firm Morrison & Foerster.

Does the state of California offer unequal education to rich and poor? Well, duh. Of course it does, just like every other state in the union. It has been struggling for many years with how to remedy this situation. A three-decade-old decision by California’s Supreme Court ( Serrano v. Priest) mandating that the state equalize spending in school districts failed to do much good, possibly because it was followed almost immediately by a severe budget squeeze brought on by Proposition 13. (Click here for a chronology.) Even State Superintendent of Education Delaine Eastin (a defendant in the lawsuit) has publicly stated that “we have crummy, run-down facilities housing a third of our students.” According to the Chronicle, the O’Melveny lawyers are combating this seemingly irrefutable claim in time-honored fashion. “Did the mouse droppings you saw on the floor affect your ability to learn in U.S. history at all?” one O’Melveny lawyer asked a 17-year-old. “You got an A, even though there were a number of unfair conditions in this class, right?” The state has also assembled a tendentious list of alleged refutations to the ACLU’s allegations concerning poor conditions in individual schools. These refutations usually come from the principals who run the schools (who of course have every reason to downplay any complaints brought by students or parents). Indeed, the state’s pathetic inability to counter the ACLU’s accusations with any effectiveness point to one possible motive for hiring O’Melveny: It allows Gov. Davis to disassociate himself from the arguments being made in his state’s name.