During the more than 50 years I knew Bill Norris he was my mentor, law partner, almost-colleague on the Ninth Circuit, and my close friend.
I first heard of Bill in the fall of 1965 when I was a third-year Stanford Law School student interviewing at Los Angeles law firms for a job. I wanted to be involved in politics and pro bono work. (This was the era of Vietnam War protests and civil rights activism in the South.) “You should talk to Bill Norris at Tuttle & Taylor” was the frequent recommendation at many of the firms I interviewed.
In 1968, four of us joined T&T and the firm grew overnight from 14 to 18. Of course, “big” firms then were few and small, mostly under 100 lawyers. Thanks to Ed Tuttle and Bob Taylor, JD ’49, the firm had a strong corporate and agribusiness clientele. However, it was under Bill’s visionary and charismatic leadership in building its litigation practice that the firm rose to rank as one of the best firms in Los Angeles.
But T&T was more than a top-flight, high-quality litigation and corporate law firm. Inspired in large part by Bill, it had a special “lifestyle” culture of collegiality—we socialized together, becoming a “family” of friends and families. Equally important, the firm had an ethic of balancing good lawyering with service to the community. Bill led by example; he was prominently involved in Democratic politics (even the Republicans among the partners and associates took pride in Bill’s activism). It was this special culture that led me to join T&T.
So why and how was Bill particularly special? He was not one for self-doubt or lacking in self-confidence. With good reason: He came from little Turtle Creek, Pa., served in the Navy, then graduated from Princeton thanks to the GI Bill, then went on to Stanford Law School and the Stanford Law Review—capping all this with a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship with the legendary Justice
William O. Douglas.
Bill was fiercely competitive. But usually with a sense of humor and a winning smile.
He was above all a legal scholar who prized intellectual excellence and rigorous analysis. He was a “lawyers’ lawyer,” as well as a scrappy litigator. He was a master at creating and applying legal theories, a meticulous editor who insisted on clarity of argument and careful, accurate reading of cases and precedents. He could be very insightful and creative in articulating legal theories.
He was a visionary, who thought long range and strategically. He looked for ways to make institutional or systemic changes. He was unafraid of controversy, of challenging the status quo or an injustice.
He was an eternal optimist. He didn’t lose a case or a cause: Instead, Bill would always find a silver lining in an unfortunate outcome, or look for ways to win the next round.
All of these qualities permeated his legal, political, and civic career. But they are best illustrated by his scholarly, prescient 1988 opinion as a Ninth Circuit judge in Watkins v. United States Army, which involved a career Army sergeant discharged after 18 years of patriotic, unimpeachable service simply because he was gay. Bill, careful to ground his opinion on the Constitution and Supreme Court jurisprudence, found a novel way to remedy this obvious unfairness by invoking the Equal Protection Clause. As reported in The New York Times:
“Homosexuals may not be kept out of the Army; their claims for equal protection under the Constitution are as strong as those of blacks and stronger than those the Supreme Court has ever recognized for women. So concludes the U.S. Court of Appeals on the West Coast. A ruling of such sweep on such an incendiary subject cannot stand without full Supreme Court review but it is another welcome step in America’s steady evolution toward tolerance. Gay people should not be denied the opportunity for military service solely on the basis of their sexual preference, as distinguished from their behavior.”
As it turned out, however, Bill’s equal protection theory would have to wait until 2013 to be vindicated by the Supreme Court in its landmark gay marriage decision. But that was Bill Norris: a brilliant, optimistic visionary not afraid to be ahead of his time.
Although Bill found his calling in litigation, political activism was his driving force for most of his life. Bill was heavily involved in Democratic politics, at a time when being active politically (or even being a politician) was seen as an honorable act of good citizenship. Appointed by Governor Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown to the California State Board of Education and later to the Board of Trustees of the California State University system, Bill was a passionate, persistent advocate for equal educational opportunities for minorities, especially black students in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1970, he helped recruit and elect Wilson Riles as state superintendent of public instruction, the first African-American elected to any California statewide office; his win over a controversial incumbent was described as “one of the most stunning upsets in California’s political history.”
Bill went on to help elect the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, in 1973. Mayor Bradley recognized Bill’s talent and leadership by appointing him president of the Los Angeles City Police Commission, the unpaid civilian board that oversees the LAPD.
Next, at the urging of his friends and admirers who thought he was a natural to be California’s “top lawyer,” Bill ran for attorney general in 1974. He would have been a great attorney general, but he couldn’t do for himself what he’d done for Tom Bradley and Wilson Riles—beat the incumbent.
Disappointed but optimistic and upbeat as ever, he answered Mayor Bradley’s call to a new (for Bill) area of public service: the arts. Thanks to Bill’s leadership and tenacity, Los Angeles today has the world-class Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
Bill returned to electoral politics with a major role in Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. In 1980, in recognition of Bill’s stellar reputation as a lawyer and civic leader, President Carter appointed him to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. To my disappointment, Bill left the Ninth Circuit shortly before I arrived in 1999. But even though we didn’t sit together, his hundreds of opinions are still there, and I sometimes find them guiding—even dictating!—my decisions.
Finally, above law and politics, Bill had an endearing passion for his family—an enthusiastic pride in all they were doing. He was a cheerleader for his children and stepchildren and especially for his two grandchildren. His wife, Jane Jelenko, was a perfect intellectual and spirited match for Bill; he was never happier than when he was with her or bragging about her latest accomplishment.
Bill had a wonderful life and accomplished many amazing things. Fortunately, he was honored in his lifetime when the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles gave him its prestigious Maynard Toll Award for Distinguished Public Service in 2013. And before he became ill, he completed and published his fascinating memoir, Liberal Opinions: My Life in the Stream of History (2016). He leaves an enduring legacy and will be missed.