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Liberal Opinions: My Life in the Stream of History Paperback – August 8, 2016
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About the Author
William A. Norris has been a practicing lawyer, political adviser and candidate, family man, naval corpsman, and — most famously — Ninth Circuit judge. He was born in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, and has long made Los Angeles his home with his wife Jane Jelenko.
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On another level, it’s the memoir of a civic activist, key to or heavily involved in important parts of the City’s civic life, whether serving as chair of the Police Commission when reform of the LAPD was much in the news, or helping lead the charge to start, from scratch, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). And if those accomplishments weren’t enough, during the same period he was heavily involved in the political life of the City and the State, whether helping Tom Bradley get elected as the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, serving on the State Board of Education or running for attorney general of California (sadly, he was defeated, because he would have been great at it).
In 1980, he was appointed by President Carter to a judgeship on the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, where he continued to push the law in progressive ways. That included writing a concurring opinion in 1989 in Watkins vs U.S. Army, a case in which the 9th Circuit reversed the army’s refusal to re-enlist a gay soldier who had served with honor merely because he was gay. Without getting too deeply into the legal weeds (well, OK, just a little), the majority based its ruling on the ground of equitable estoppel. Judge Norris’s concurrence argued that the reinstatement of the solider should instead be based on the government’s violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, a much broader approach. Although that argument didn’t carry the day with the majority in Watkins in 1989, it became an important argument in support of gay rights later on, including in Justice O’Connor’s concurrence in the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, a case which unlocked the door to the still-developing path to legal equality for gays.
But there’s a coda. After more seventeen years on the bench, Judge Norris retired from the 9th Circuit, returned to the active practice of law and went on to build the appellate department of a major national law firm.
Most lawyers would be satisfied with having accomplished only one of Judge Norris’s important career achievements. But somehow, he did them all.
Full disclosure: I was one of the “young lawyers” (now, these many years later, not so young) whom Bill Norris helped recruit to Tuttle and Taylor, his law firm at the time, and I’m briefly mentioned in the book. One of the things the Bill talks about is how hard he worked to mentor those young lawyers and give them the opportunity to shine (or try to). He was amazing in that regard.
I recall with some amusement that when I was a young lawyer on the Stanford University case that’s described in the book (where the University successfully stripped tenure from a faculty member for his alleged behavior during violent student protests that swept the campus), I told Bill that I thought the then-president of Stanford, Dick Lyman was, for a variety of reasons, on the wrong track in pursing the matter at all. Bill said, “Well, I think he should hear those arguments directly from you.” We then flew up to Palo Alto so that I, a first year associate, could tell the sitting president of Stanford that he was barking up the wrong tree. President Lyman listened politely to my arguments, quietly demurred and went on to pursue his chosen course. When, later I became a partner myself at Tuttle & Taylor, I sometimes asked myself whether I would have proffered such an opportunity to so young an associate in a major case. I kind of doubt it. But, then, Bill was, and is, different.
For anyone who interested in a life committed to our civic good ( especially at a time when it's being ripped apart!), this is a terrific book to read. It's also a wonderful book for young people to read. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." That is what Judge Norris has done and his book is a Baedeker for others to follow.