Community Partnership

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams and His Team Tackle Big Issues with Help From Stanford Law Students

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James R. Williams was not even a year out of law school when he argued the landmark case California Redevelopment Association v. Ana Matosantos before the state’s highest court as a Social Justice and Impact Litigation Fellow with Santa Clara County’s Office of the County Counsel.

The California Legislature had adopted measures intended to stabilize school funding by reducing or eliminating the diversion of property tax revenues from school districts to the state’s community redevelopment agencies—a move that was quickly challenged. The California Supreme Court’s decision in December 2011 upheld the measure, unleashing shockwaves through the state’s real estate world and dismantling some 425 redevelopment agencies in California.

“The county was losing a lot of money and that’s why we intervened in the case. We were the only entity that took this position. And much to the surprise of many, we prevailed,” says Williams, JD ’10. “It was a very positive decision for schools and counties because of how they’re funded. And it was an incredible body of work for me, as a junior attorney.”

The Fellowship turned into a 12-year career for Williams, who now heads the county’s legal department. As county counsel, Williams serves as the chief legal advisor to the Board of Supervisors, the county executive, and other elected officials and department heads within the county, overseeing a team of 250 attorneys and staff who have helped to shape national policy on critical issues ranging from immigration and bail reform to the opioid crisis and corporate responsibility.

Along the way, he has nurtured collaborations with Stanford Law School, engaging students in the Environmental Law Clinic, working on COVID-19 projects through the RegLab, and helping to launch The Santa Clara County Litigation & Policy Partnership practicum.

In November, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors appointed Williams the next county executive. When he takes up the position in July 2023, he will be the chief executive officer of the largest county in Northern California, with an annual operating budget of $11.5 billion and more than 22,000 employees who provide vital services to nearly 2 million residents. He will also be the first person of color to hold the position.

In the meantime, Williams and attorneys in the county counsel’s office—many of them Stanford Law alumni—are joined by Stanford Law faculty and students in a unique community partnership, working on issues impacting the local county, home to Stanford University, and beyond.

Williams describes counties in California as an invisible layer of government—where a lot of the action takes place.

Community Partnership

“People don’t realize what we do,” he says. “Counties are the safety-net providers. We run the criminal justice system. We run the health and hospital system. We run the whole social services system, the election system, the entire property tax system, the assessor’s office, the tax collector, the auditor-controller who distributes the tax revenue to other local governments.”

And in Santa Clara County’s Office of the County Counsel, the work is mission driven.

“There’s a lot more complexity and nuance than if you’re working in a singular advocacy position,” says Williams. “We can help see things that maybe can’t always be seen from a more siloed perspective. We can help be the convener of important conversations around reform—and help problem-solve across different areas of jurisdictional responsibility, statutory responsibility. That can be complicated, and it can be challenging and difficult, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and enriching.”

“The breadth of the work that the county does is just incredible. I did not know about the major impact litigation done here in Santa Clara when I was in law school."

Rachel Neil, JD ’18, Deputy County Counsel, County of Santa Clara

Students in Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic had the opportunity to experience all of that—and more.

On November 1, Sydney Speizman, JD ’23, delivered remarks on behalf of Santa Clara County at a public hearing before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The topic at issue was something of a throwback: lead in fuel. “I had no idea that there were planes still flying with leaded fuel,” says Speizman, a student in the Environmental Law Clinic. “It’s outrageous.”

The negative effects of lead have long been known, including damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, and behavioral problems— particularly for children. Recognizing the public health risks of lead exposure, the EPA began phasing lead out of automobile gasoline 50 years ago, and leaded gasoline was fully banned in 1996. However, leaded aviation fuel, known as avgas, is still used by over 170,000 piston-engine airplanes and helicopters. According to the EPA, avgas accounts for 70 percent of the lead released into the air, making it “the largest remaining aggregate source of lead emissions to air in the U.S.”

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James Williams, JD ’10, County Counsel for the County of Santa Clara

Santa Clara County operates two general aviation airports serving piston-engine air-craft that run on avgas—one of which, Reid-Hillview Airport, is in a densely populated neighborhood of mostly lower-income people of color in East San Jose. The county took a leadership role in the decades-long campaign to pressure the EPA to ban avgas, commissioning a study to investigate a link between lead in the blood of residents living near Reid-Hillview Airport and piston-engine aircraft activity. The study documented elevated blood lead levels in thousands of children in these neighborhoods linked to avgas exposure and spurred the county to take action.

“The Reid-Hillview Airport study found that during periods of high aircraft traffic, the increase in the level of lead in neighboring children’s blood was twice as high as that found in children in Flint, Michigan, at the height of that city’s water crisis,” says Stephanie Safdi, clinical supervising attorney and lecturer in law for the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. Prior to joining the Stanford Law faculty in 2021, Safdi served as a deputy counsel for Santa Clara County—and worked on the avgas project. “I think the county’s study really reframed both the local and the national conversation on this.”

That study, published in August 2021, led the county to view the situation as a public health crisis, and the board voted to end the sale of leaded fuel at its two airports (Reid-Hillview and San Martin) as of January 1, 2022. The county’s ban on avgas is a major step forward, but Williams and the SLS clinic team are pushing for a national ban to safeguard communities surrounding the country’s 20,000 general aviation airports.

“We’re taking care of a local problem to help protect our residents,” says Williams. “At the same time, we’re looking at how we can help establish precedent or help facilitate statewide or national solutions.”

In the fall of 2021, a national coalition of NGOs and public agencies, including Santa Clara County represented by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, petitioned the EPA to make an endangerment finding for leaded avgas under Section 231 of the Clean Air Act—the first step to regulating harmful air pollution from aircraft. This past October, the EPA published its proposed endangerment finding, citing overwhelming evidence that lead air pollution endangers public health or welfare and lead emissions from combustion of leaded avgas by piston-engine aircraft cause or contribute to that pollution.

“If this positive endangerment finding is finalized, the EPA must then propose and finalize standards to control lead pollution from aircraft as the second stage of its rule-making,” says Speizman. “This regulation marks a major step in reducing air lead pollution that disparately harms children, people of color, and low-income communities. I feel fortunate that I got to be involved in this advocacy with the County of Santa Clara as part of the clinic’s environmental justice work.”

A decision to designate avgas as an endangerment to human health is expected next year.

“We're counselors in the fullest sense of the term. We're partners with the departments and the different agencies and the board. We're willing to be bold, and we're willing to defend what we do in court."

James Williams, JD '10, County Counsel for the County of Santa Clara

Another case with national implications also involves lead, but in paint—an ongoing hazard in millions of U.S. homes and the leading cause of childhood lead poisoning in California.

In 2000, the Office of the County Counsel filed a landmark case on behalf of the People of the State of California, joined by nine other California cities and counties, to hold former lead paint manufacturers responsible for promoting lead paint for use in homes despite their knowledge that the product is highly toxic.

In 2013, Santa Clara County Superior Court issued a decision holding the manufacturers accountable for creating a public nuisance in the 10 cities and counties involved in the lawsuit and ordering them to pay $1.15 billion for inspection, abatement, and education. In 2019, after nearly two decades of litigation, the counties reached a settlement and agreed to share $305 million.

“We have fought to hold these companies accountable for nearly 20 years,” Williams said in 2019, “and will finally have the needed funds to devote to protecting our children from lead poisoning.”

Royce Chang participated in The Santa Clara County Litigation & Policy Partnership practicum over the course of two quarters and worked with attorneys in Williams’ office and other county officials to launch the lead paint abatement program. The experience gave him a deep understanding of the role local governments can have in effecting change.

“It was through Professor Michelle Anderson and the practicum that I first learned about local and state affirmative litigation divisions that have been bringing important civil cases on behalf of the people in consumer protection and environmental justice matters,” says Chang. “It has had a huge impact on my law school experience.”

The genesis for the practicum goes back to 2013 and the launch of Stanford’s Law & Policy Lab, a unique program that offers about a dozen policy practicums each year that invite students to tackle real-world challenges, working with clients (often government agencies) grappling with a range of issues. Santa Clara County was among the early clients.

“Several faculty members who had worked with the county met with James and his team to talk through the possibility of formalizing this relationship that had been building over several years,” says Michelle Wilde Anderson, the Larry Kramer Professor of Law, who has been teaching the practicum since it was first offered in 2018. “The aims of the new, ongoing partnership were to give students the opportunity to work with this very talented and local group of attorneys, working on pioneering litigation but also with- in local government and really thinking about how they can do their job more justly and effectively.”

“We got thrown into projects right away,” says Chang, who subsequently interned for the county counsel’s office and is a policy practicum teaching assistant for Anderson, a local government law and environmental justice expert (see Issue 106 to learn more about her latest book, The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America).

One of Chang’s supervisors in the practicum was Zoé Friedland, JD ’17, now with the special litigation division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, who spent two years on Williams’ team at the Office of the County Counsel.

“In law school, it’s all about the cases and the litigation, but we didn’t get to the next question, which is after you win public interest litigation, what to do to get relief back to the people,” says Friedland.

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Santa Clara County Counsel staff including (left to right, back) José Martinez, JD ’17, Meredith Johnson, JD ’12, and Grace Kouba, JD ’16, and (sitting, front) Rachel Neil, JD ’18, and Elizabeth Vissers, JD /MS ’17

And several big settlement wins by the county counsel’s office required just that. It also required help with legal research. “The beauty of the policy practicum is that we could assign these really deep-dive questions, whether about consumer protection law or lead abatement, and we knew we would get really good work with a fresh perspective,” Friedland says. “We attorneys were often in the weeds of litigation for a while. The students could zoom out and take a fresh look. It was very helpful. Working with the Stanford Law students was one of my favorite things about working in the county.”

Rachel Neil, JD ’18, started as a fellow with the county counsel’s office and earlier this year became a deputy county counsel. She has worked with practicum students on several projects including one to ensure the county is following best practices related to non-discrimination and LGBTQ people in the health and hospital system.

“I really appreciated the perseverance that the students showed when faced with questions that often don’t have neat, clean answers and figuring out how to make the best of what you have to work with and make sense of what is available,” she says.

Neil thinks the practicum also serves the purpose of opening Stanford Law students, who often look to government service careers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to working in local government. “The breadth of the work that the county does is just incredible,” she says. “I did not know about the major impact litigation done here in Santa Clara when I was in law school.”

Meredith Johnson, JD ’12, joined the County Counsel’s Office in 2020. She is the Lead Deputy County Counsel for the Social Justice and Impact Litigation Team and the first point of contact for Anderson, with whom she selects county projects to present to students in the practicum.

“I think it’s really beneficial and also fun for our attorneys to step back from the day-to-day work and present to students, which requires us to take a more bird’s-eye view of what our team does, what our Office does, and the impact of the County Counsel,” she says. “And then to hear the students present their work at the end of the quarter, and see what they’re bringing, it’s very impressive.”

Kavita Narayan, JD ’08, joined the Office of the County Counsel in 2012. Today, she is part of its executive team overseeing Public Safety and Justice, which advises the county’s criminal justice and emergency response agencies; Social Justice and Impact Litigation, which litigates high-impact cases and develops local policies and programs; and legal representation of the Division of Equity and Social Justice. Narayan has served as a lead attorney in People v. Purdue Pharma, et al., the county’s first-in the-nation lawsuit against the opioid industry, and County of Santa Clara v. Trump, in which the county obtained a permanent injunction blocking enforcement of former President Trump’s executive order on “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

She quickly runs through some of the questions her teams consider when deciding to pursue a case: “Will it have a significant positive impact on county residents? Is there a role that we as a government entity can play? Are we uniquely positioned to take on this issue? And can individual residents afford to advocate effectively for themselves, as with opioids and lead paint, and pay for attorneys?”

In partnership with various county departments, county counsel staff help to problem-solve and advise on getting work done—a key element of Williams’ vision of attorneys as collaborators.

“James really cemented the credibility of our office within the county by having such a focus on excellence, on responsiveness, on not just providing legal advice in a vacuum but making sure it’s practical and takes account of operational considerations,” Narayan says. “His mandate to us is very much to be a full-service provider—not just to tell people what the law is but advise on what they can actually do.”

“James really cemented the credibility of our office within the county by having such a focus on excellence, on responsiveness, on not just providing legal advice in a vacuum."

Kavita Narayan, JD ’08, part of the County Counsel Executive Team

One of Santa Clara County’s more audacious moves took place in 2019 when it purchased three hospitals that had filed for bankruptcy.

“Counties don’t buy hospitals,” says Williams, who traveled to Los Angeles bankruptcy court for hearings on the county’s purchase of O’Connor Hospital, Saint Louise Hospital, and De Paul Health Center. When Xavier Becerra, JD ’84 (BA ’80), California’s attorney general at the time, tried to block the acquisition, Williams and his team fought back—and won.

“I think that they thought we would just roll over, but we knew that buying those hospitals was central to our mission—to preserving health care access. If Saint Louise had closed, there would be no hospital between San Jose and Salinas,” Williams says. “It’s not ever going to be a profitable system, but that’s not our goal. We serve the uninsured. We serve everyone. We’re the hospital of last resort and we are committed to providing world-class care. By that measure, it has been a huge success.”

From the ashes of the second biggest hospital bankruptcy in history, Santa Clara County emerged to run one of the nation’s largest public hospital systems. “I think it’s the crown jewel of the county,” says Williams.

The move was bold—and prescient.

Early in 2020, Santa Clara County became one of the first-known hot spots for COVID-19, recording two of the nation’s first six diagnosed cases and the first death.

Dr. Sara Cody (BA ’85/CRT ’96), county health officer of Santa Clara County, coordinated the response for the Bay Area’s six counties, hashing out details with her counterparts in San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa, and Alameda.

By March 17, 2020, those six counties had announced shelter-in-place orders—strict measures directing a population of more than 6.7 million people to stay inside their homes for an initial three-week period.

Williams led the effort to draft the legal orders, with his team working around the clock in the Emergency Operations Center.

“It was totally unprecedented,” he says. “We traditionally would issue isolation and quarantine orders that really were specific to certain individuals, or certain households, or certain businesses with a hazardous waste issue. This was something so much broader in scale.”

It was also uncharted territory. “We couldn’t look to see what some other city or state had done and pull from their list. We didn’t have time to do a big consultation or analysis with dozens of people. We just had to get it done,” he says.

“Usually, an attorney might sort of say, ‘I’m just here to manage the risk and tell you what you can’t do,’ ” Dr. Cody said in a 2020 Stanford Lawyer article. But Williams, she explained, takes a different approach. “He and his team want to know ‘What’s the right thing and what do we need to do? And we’ll help manage the risk to do it.’ Their top-level concern is our top concern in public health.”

The COVID crisis precipitated an all-hands-on-deck effort.

“We were working every night, every weekend, over the holidays. It was a very intense effort to try to make sure people were as safe as possible,” recalls Grace Kouba, JD ’16, who joined Williams’ team in 2019 as a deputy county counsel. “We were posting FAQs on the website and writing guidance documents on things like what is a face covering and how to wear it. So much was evolving in real time.”

At the start of the pandemic, Daniel Ho, the William Benjamin Scott and Luna M. Scott Professor of Law, professor of political science, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic and Policy Research, associate director for the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) and director of RegLab, formed a close working relationship with county public health officials, with RegLab students and faculty helping to develop data- driven insights to inform the county’s COVID response efforts. Among numerous projects, the RegLab team created a mobility data dashboard to track the spread of the virus within the county. They also helped to develop an algorithm to match contact tracers to individuals diagnosed with COVID based on language after finding that language barriers were impeding contact tracing and a COVID-19 testing project in high-transmission neighborhoods. The collaboration led to a Brookings Institution publication co-authored by Ho and Cody, “How to Build Academic-Public Health Partnerships: The Stanford-Santa Clara County Experience with COVID-19 Response.”

“The Office of the County Counsel, and Santa Clara County as a whole, has been at the forefront of creating innovative community partnerships to solve urgent challenges,” says Ho.

In addition to forging community partnerships to meet urgent challenges, the county’s purchase of three hospitals just before the pandemic put Santa Clara in a much stronger position to provide essential treatment in a medical crisis. “The county has been one of the biggest providers of vaccines and testing, bigger than Kaiser and Sutter Health, the two major local private health-care providers,” says Williams.

Robert Fannion, JD ’13, joined the county counsel’s Finance and Government Operations team in mid-2020—just in time to work on early COVID challenges including the California Rebuilding Fund, a public-private partnership to help small business owners weather the shock of business shutdowns.

“I think Santa Clara County was the largest public entity aside from the state that participated in the program,” says Fannion. “We cycled about four and a half million dollars of small business loans into the county.”

But it was his effort drafting local legislation to regulate DoorDash and other restaurant delivery services that really hit home. “They doubled the charge they were imposing at the beginning of COVID, which for small, family-run restaurants was really hard,” he says.

Fannion drafted legislation and presented options to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. After it was adopted, he visited his local Chinese restaurant and asked about DoorDash. “They let me know that the charge had been cut to 15 percent, and I said, ‘Hey, that was me!’ ” he recalls. The owner offered an order of egg rolls as thanks but Fannion declined. “It was gratifying enough to see how we had helped so directly.”

Reflecting on the work he and his team do at the Office of the County Counsel, and the lessons they hope to impart on Stanford Law students, Williams reinforces the values of partnership in legal work, particularly in government service.

“We’re counselors in the fullest sense of the term. We’re partners with the departments and the different agencies and with the board. We’re willing to be bold, and then we’re willing to defend what we do in court. If we get sued, we’re willing to go on the offensive too,” Williams says. “When I’m asked about why I love working at the county, I say two things: the mission and the people. It’s an honor to work in partnership with such dedicated public servants who are committed to excellence. And we’re fortunate to have a rich collaboration with Stanford Law School as part of that mix.” SL