1979 MCBA President: Jerry Ackeret
Jul 01, 2015
The ten years immediately before my term as President of the Marin County Bar Association was a period of significant transformation for Marin County and members of our Bar Association.
In 1969, the County Courts moved out of the regal, but small and tired, two-story courthouse located in downtown San Rafael, and into the magnificent, new Marin Civic Center. That move signaled that Marin County, and the practice of law in this County, had transformed from a sleepy rural status into full participation in the greater Bay Area metropolis.
The euphoria that local lawyers experienced as they had the fresh privilege of practicing their skills in the Civic Center was almost immediately interrupted. First, in August 1970, guns were smuggled into a Courtroom and a hostage taking situation resulted in a massive shootout in the center archway of the Civic Center. Judge Harold Haley died in the shootout. Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas was critically wounded. A juror was also wounded. Three of the abductors were killed.
Second, in October 1970, a bomb exploded in a Men’s Room on the Court Floor, blowing out a wall into the adjacent courtroom. Fortunately, both rooms were empty at the time of the explosion. The Weathermen, a clandestine group with the announced goal of overthrowing the United States government, took credit for the bombing.
The hallways and entrances of the beautifully new Marin Civic Center were suddenly cluttered with metal detectors and armed Sheriff’s Deputies. Searches of briefcases and pat down searches of “suspicious looking characters” became a part of daily life for Marin lawyers. Most lawyers at that time were men and they often sported long hair and drooping moustaches that were fashionable in those days. These lawyers were frequently called aside for a personal search.
A few months before I became President of the Marin Bar, the San Quentin Six Trial had concluded after 17 months of trial proceedings. Jury deliberations lasted for 24 days, and 48 separate verdicts were rendered. The trial transcript consists of 28,000 pages. Terms like “the Civic Center Shootout,” “the Soledad Brothers,” “the San Quentin Six,” “the Symbionese Liberation Army,” and the “Weathermen” punched their way into the thoughts and vocabularies of the members of our Bar Association.
As I proudly assumed the office of President of the Marin Bar, I was a brash 39 year-old. I believed that I was extremely smart and a very good attorney. A few years later, I discovered that my intelligence and professional skills could actually improve with experience, reflection, and the passage of time.
Jerry Brown was Governor of California in 1979. I believe he may have recently made a similar discovery.
The United States’ participation in the Vietnam War had concluded in 1976. Many of the young men returning from that War were deeply disturbed and they often ran afoul of the legal system. The phrase “post traumatic stress disorder” may have been a clinical term at that time, but it was not part of the vernacular. The criminal calendar was crowded with recently discharged veterans dressed in orange jumpsuits. These young men made up a significant percentage of the clients of a typical Marin County lawyer.
The lawyers in Marin did not “specialize” to the degree common today. Almost every lawyer offered his or her services in several areas of law. A lawyer thought he or she could competently provide legal advice regarding criminal matters, dissolution of marriage, bankruptcy, personal injury, business transactions, real estate, estate planning, and just about everything else. Part of the lawyers’ motivation, for providing such a variety of legal services was that the lawyers wanted to pay their bills and eat.
Even though Marin County had joined the greater Bay Area metropolis, the rough and tumble style of practice continued. In 1979, a Marin lawyer was more likely to use the word “meditation” than “mediation”. Because of these tumultuous, often disturbing, times, I developed a perspective that the local lawyers wanted the world and Marin County to be quiet for just a little while. My strategy, as President of the Marin Bar, was to try to avoid major issues. Despite my brashness, I did not want to “rock the boat.”
The lawyers attending our Association lunches might have discussed the fact that water rationing, the result of a severe drought in 1976 and 1977, had recently concluded in Marin. Luxuries such a long hot showers and the regular flushing of toilets had returned to our daily lives.
Water was no longer rationed, but gasoline was rationed because of a sudden shortage of Middle Eastern oil. Lawyers could purchase gas for their vehicles either on odd-numbered dates if the last number on their automobile license plate was odd, and conversely on even-numbered if the plate number was even. There were long lines of cars winding out of gas stations and down the street. A one-half hour wait in line to purchase gas was not unusual.
In 1979, only a very small percentage of lawyers would have purchased gasoline for a vehicle that had been manufactured in Germany with the possible exception of an occasional Volkswagen bus.
Much as today, the Bar Association lunches usually featured a speaker. It was intended that the speaker be entertaining or informative – hopefully, both.
Sam Gardiner (the first President of the Marin Bar Association in 1937) was a retired Superior Court Judge in 1979, and often attended the monthly lunch. Like many Judges, Sam considered himself an expert on almost everything, and he may have been right! Once, the scheduled speaker for our Bar lunch failed to show up. Without any invitation whatsoever, Sam went to the podium and provided the audience with a 45-minute lecture on Iran and Iranian politics. Even though the newspapers carried stories regarding the recent overthrow of the Shah and the assumption of absolute power in Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini, few of us knew anything about Iran. After Sam’s lecture, some of us may have been able to locate that country on a map.
Margo St. James was one of the most interesting speakers during my term as President. A former prostitute, she was attempting to organize a labor union for prostitutes that she had named COYOTE (Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics). An earlier version of the Union’s name had been WHO (Whores, Housewives, and Others, “Others” was intended to indicate lesbians).
It was expected that Ms. St. James would speak about the legal issues arising from her unionizing efforts. Instead, she elected to describe, in great detail, an evening’s work shift by a prostitute. And, I mean detail! Instead of being entertaining or informative, it appeared to be Ms. St. James’ ambition to make her audience very uncomfortable. She was a complete success. To the best of my knowledge, Ms. St. James was not asked to return as a speaker.
Ever since the Bar Association created a budget line item to employ a person to run its office, that employee had always been called a Secretary. She (and it always had been a she) ran the office, made independent business decisions on the behalf of our Association, and most of the time acted without any direct supervision. In 1979, we changed her title to Executive Director and gave her a substantial raise. Jeannette Stewart continued as an employee of the Bar Association for several more years. My, change a title from “Secretary” to “Executive Director!” How progressive we were!
Slightly off the beaten path, the Bar Association produced a two-hour television program, on a local public broadcasting station, on Law Day, May 1, 1979. The program included panel discussions featuring local lawyers and judges; a call-in from the general public to a bank of lawyers answering telephones and providing free legal advice to the callers; and, a film clip of “man-on-the street” interviews on a sidewalk outside the Civic Center. The interviewer asked passersby what they thought of our legal system. Guess who the interviewer was...me.
In subsequent years, I have often thought, “Jerry, you were President of the Marin Bar Association! Why didn’t you seize the opportunity and lead the Bar into doing something significant?” However, looking back on those times from the perspective of three plus decades, I believe that staying calm and quiet was best for all of us.