When I heard the shocking news of Warren Christopher’s death on March 18, 2011, my many experiences with Chris flashed through my mind, from his call in 1963 to recruit me to Stanford Law School to our recent Santa Barbara dinners, Chris and Marie, Nancy and I. In the days that followed, I thought deeply about the details of what I have generally recalled—and recounted—at various times, about the enormous influence Chris had upon my life and career, about why I consider him a mentor and a friend. As part of the grieving process it has helped me to refresh and record my remembrances of Chris—so what follows is my personal recounting, to pay tribute to a wonderful man from the perspective of one who benefited from some of his public service and acts of kindness. As will become evident, there has been an uncanny connectivity between our separate lives—episodic intersections that I have always viewed as a causal chain of events to which I owe my own good fortunes.
The phone call came one morning in early 1963, just as I was getting ready to leave from my job as a first-level supervisor at pacific telephone in the west san Fernando Valley to go home for a good sleep after a stressful night fielding calls about storm damage and interruptions of phone service due to a heavy rainstorm. To my surprise, the call had nothing to do with phones or the storm. Instead, a firm but pleasant voice said, “You don’t know me, but my name is Warren Christopher. I’m a lawyer here in Los Angeles at O’Melveny & Myers law firm, and I understand you have been accepted at Stanford Law School. I’d like to invite you to lunch to discuss why you should consider going there.”
I had been working at Pacific Telephone in a management training program since graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 1961. Nancy and I had married in January 1961 and our son Jeff had been born later that year, so we were a young couple just getting started in family and career. PacTel was interesting, but I had applied to law school as I had long planned, including to Stanford, Boalt Hall, USC, and Michigan. I was accepted at all of them but given our limited financial resources and family responsibilities we had largely concluded Boalt was most likely within our means, especially because the school had married student housing. However, I was flattered and intrigued to be called by this lawyer, essentially recruiting me to Stanford. That call, and my lunch meeting with Mr. Christopher, would affect my life in ways I never imagined at the time.
Although I grew up in West Los Angeles, my exposure to the business and legal world was quite limited. I was raised in an academic household—my father was a Russian history professor at UCLA— and I had no exposure to downtown Los Angeles or its corporate/legal culture. (Even my brief introductory training at PacTel’s main office in 1961 limited my corporate perspective to the 7th and Olive headquarters and my commute on Venice Boulevard between Venice and downtown!) Thus, I was somewhat awed to be invited to the big city, not to mention to what I vaguely gathered was an important law firm—less vaguely once I arrived at O’Melveny’s impressive offices (to me, at least) near Pershing Square. Mr. Christopher was exceptionally gracious and low key, albeit making sure that I got to take in the formal, grand trappings of the firm. He included a young associate, Richard White ’62 (BA ’61), to help put me at some ease and we walked over to the Los Angeles Athletic Club dining room for lunch. Now I really had a sense of luxury—in the club’s large dining room with very clubby furnishings and service. At Mr. Christopher’s suggestion, I tried the exotically named “Croque Monsieur” sandwich—quite foreign in all ways to this very middle-class young man.
Whatever we three discussed at lunch and on the walk back to Mr. Christopher’s office is lost in the haze of memory, but I do recall the sense of formal elegance I was exposed to and the genuine interest he showed in encouraging me to consider Stanford as an alternative to Boalt. And he gave me two pragmatic reasons to do so: a full scholarship and newly built on-campus married student housing in Escondido Village. (He identified Associate Dean William Keogh ’52 at Stanford as the person who would handle matters.) I left the meeting that day with a sense I’d been shown a broader view of what the practice of law might entail and what financial rewards that might bring. Above all, I was pleased that an obviously successful lawyer could be so nice to me and take the time to recruit me to Stanford. Later, when Nancy and I ultimately did decide to choose Stanford over Berkeley, it was Warren Christopher’s personal touch that made the difference.
When I enrolled at Stanford in fall 1963, I met with Dean Keogh. When I mentioned my meeting with Warren Christopher, he smiled and said, “You probably wouldn’t know this, but he’s one of our most important graduates!” (It was clear Keogh had enlisted Chris to call me. Little had I known what a compliment this was and how naive I was in not perceiving the importance of such attention from Mr. Christopher.)
Stanford Law Review
Special edition on “The Constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965”
At the end of my first year, when the grades came in and I did well enough to qualify for Stanford Law Review, I contacted Mr. Christopher (as I still knew him) to report that his confidence in me was not misplaced, and he graciously congratulated me and wished me well for the remaining two years. A year later, I was elected president (editor-in-chief) of the review, an honor made all the more significant to me because Warren Christopher had been its first president in 1948.
In the summer of 1965, Chris (as he was now introducing himself) called me shortly after I formally assumed my duties as president. Would we consider publishing a special edition of the Stanford Law Review (never done before), which would discuss and defend the constitutionality of the seminal Voting Rights Act that Congress was likely to enact to implement the 15th Amendment’s prohibition of racial discrimination in the right to vote? My answer: Of course! It would be a coup for the review, especially with Warren Christopher as the author. The act was one of the major civil rights laws of the mid-1960s, based on the initiatives of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Chris had played a major role in the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law and under his leadership O’Melveny & Myers had prepared a legal memorandum setting forth the arguments in favor of the controversial legislation’s constitutionality.
Chris proposed converting the memo into a law review article, but it could not wait for the normal late-fall publication date. I agreed to work with Chris and two O’Melveny lawyers, Dick Warmer and Chuck Bender, and one who had by then left for Tuttle & Taylor, Julian Burke, to edit the memo into a law review-quality piece. During late summer (while the act was still in the final stages of passage), the article came together and we published it in October 1965, under Chris’ authorship. Typically, he wanted all the lawyers who worked on the article to be listed as authors; I and others persuaded him that the impact of the article would be greater if it appeared under his name alone. I proposed that we give due credit to the others in my President’s Page introduction to the special issue; Chris reluctantly agreed. (The impact of the unique special issue, under his name, was substantial.)
Following law school, I was fortunate to win clerkships with J. Skelly Wright on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Justice William J. Brennan Jr. on the Supreme Court. My faculty mentor on both occasions was Professor Keith Mann. I do not know whether Chris played any role in either of these fortunate events in my life, but—given his close relationships with many at the law school, including Keith, I think—it would not surprise me if Chris deserves some credit. On the other hand, it would be presumptuous to think he had time or inclination, since Chris was serving in the Johnson administration as deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice. I did not have any contact with him during my two years in D.C. until near the end of my Brennan clerkship.
As I was trying to decide what to do post-clerkship, focusing on returning to Los Angeles to either Tuttle & Taylor or Munger Tolles & Rickershauser, I had a meeting with Chris at his DOJ office in spring 1968. Again the setting was impressive; Chris as the deputy attorney general was well known and heavily involved in the major events of that time, particularly the civil rights/Vietnam conflicts. To my surprise, Chris offered me a position as one of his special assistants, an offer I now know was a highly desirable opportunity and a chance to gain invaluable experience and insights into the Department of Justice and the workings of Washington. But I was not attuned to any of this and too quickly demurred with thanks. (It took me 30 years to get another chance at DOJ!) Rather, I was interested in Chris’ advice about which law firm would be better for me, especially since I was interested in participating in Democratic politics. First, Chris sagely advised me that public service was a worthy goal; but he cautioned that—at least in the political sector (especially if working in government as a political appointee)—one should never depend upon it for one’s livelihood. I should practice law, establish a professional career and marketable skill. Otherwise, I would be beholden to my political patrons and not able to exercise independent judgment or walk away if I had to. (I have passed along this valuable wisdom to generations of young lawyers and, now, law clerks.)
As for law firms, he spoke well of both. He observed that, as a litigator, I should pay attention to each firm’s corporate client base because that was important to spinning off litigation, which could otherwise be episodic. Chris, circumspect as always, declined to favor either firm, but when he seemed to rate Tuttle & Taylor as having not only excellent litigators but also a solid corporate client base, I felt my own leaning to the firm was confirmed. (Ironically, Tuttle & Taylor later lost much of its corporate clientele to mergers or acquisitions by out-of-state companies, whereas Munger Tolles had Warren Buffet!)
Los Angeles: Law Practice and Public Service.
I did join Tuttle & Taylor in 1968, where I remained until early 1988. During that time I took Chris’ advice seriously, trying to combine an active law practice with various types of public service and civic engagement. In 1975 I spent a hectic and intense 10 months as special assistant to governor Jerry Brown, who had been a fellow associate at T&T. He whimsically assigned me the portfolio on shepherding public employee collective bargaining legislation through the California legislature. Although the bill failed—at least in its comprehensive form—it introduced me to the world of public employees and civil service, giving me at least a patina of expertise in an area that later figured in my being appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Los Angeles City Civil Service Commission in 1985. (Whether Chris had a role in my selection, I don’t know; but it did influence his assignment for me when working on the Christopher Commission years later.)
Although I was generally aware and in awe of Chris’ stature as a lawyer and a major figure Los Angeles and California politics and civic matters, I had little occasion to develop any kind of close relationship beyond professional respect. Two events brought us in contact, however, one problematical, the other a watershed for each of us.
In 1980, as deputy secretary of state, Chris famously negotiated the release of the Iranian-held American hostages. Part of the so-called “Algerian Declarations” included setting up a United States-Iran Claims Tribunal that would preempt hundreds of pending lawsuits in the United States against Iran or Iranian companies and release billions of dollars of seized Iranian assets back to Iran. As it happened, one of the affected plaintiffs was a Tuttle & Taylor client, Dames & Moore, a Pasadena-based company that had attached various Iranian assets in California and Washington in a dispute over several million dollars in fees the Iranian government owed the company for geological consulting in Iran. Many lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the declarations, contending that the government had no authority to interfere in private litigation, force plaintiffs to litigate overseas, and give up the valuable assets they’d attached. To everyone’s surprise, especially Tuttle & Taylor’s, Dames & Moore v. Regan was the lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear in a special sitting at the end of its regular 1980 term, fast-tracking the briefing schedule and setting oral argument for June 1981. In effect, Tuttle & Taylor was trying to void a critical element of Chris’ carefully crafted hostage deal. The Department of Justice vigorously defended the declarations, with President Reagan’s new solicitor general, Rex Lee, making his maiden Supreme Court argument in a highly charged proceeding of international importance. As the leader of Tuttle & Taylor’s brief-writing team, I sat second chair to Steve Howard, my partner who had handled the case throughout. Although Steve and I had been fellow clerks in 1967-68 (he, Potter Stewart; I, William Brennan), this was our first appearance in the Supreme Court, one fraught with high drama and we were nervous just appearing in front of our former bosses. As we waited at counsel table, suddenly there was a murmur in the crowded courtroom: Warren Christopher, now the former deputy secretary of state, was ushered in to take a seat front and center just behind the government’s lawyers and in clear view of the nine justices, who plainly noted in their body language as they took the bench that they saw Chris there. The optics were bold and blunt—Chris merely by his imposingly formal appearance making clear to the justices what was at stake. Steve by all agreement gave the better argument; still, Dames & Moore lost, 9-0! (Even as passionately as I believed in the legal arguments on our side, I couldn’t feel too badly at the outcome and had to credit the government with the cleverness of its silent trump card.)
I do not know what Chris felt about our challenging his legal and diplomatic craftsmanship, but I did feel somewhat guilty for having had to oppose him that day and worried that I had perhaps created a barrier between us. Thus, I was particularly pleased some nine years later to receive another of those fateful phone calls—not directly from Chris but from John Spiegel (BA ’70, MS ’73, MA ’77) whom Chris had just named general counsel of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, forever to be known as “the Christopher Commission.” John relayed an invitation from Chris to have me join the team of lawyers being assembled and, based on my experience with civil service and public employees, Chris and John asked me to take responsibility for the investigation and recommendations concerning the structure and functioning of the Police Commission and of the Office of Chief of Police—then selected under traditional civil service rules. This assignment marked a major turning point in my life, my career—and my relationship with Chris.
Working as a deputy general counsel on the commission was the only time—other than the brief collaboration on the Stanford Law Review special issue—that I was privileged to work closely and intensely with Chris, to experience first-hand his consummate leadership, intelligence, strategic thinking, and collegial style as we worked through our research, recommendations, and writing. Chris skillfully managed the sensitive politics of the commission, both externally and internally; he delegated to us “type-A” deputy general counsels the extensive factual, legal, and policy analysis yet kept closely involved throughout—checking our progress, critically evaluating our investigative game plans, reports, and preliminary recommendations—all the while respectfully (albeit critically) treating us as partners and peers in the process. One episode sticks in my mind: how to limit the term of the police chief. Chief gates, selected under a strict and insider-biased civil service system, had no end date and could be removed only for cause and after so much due process it was no real threat at all; thus, he already had 13 years in the position and gave no indication he would leave anytime soon despite his unpopularity with Mayor Bradley and many others. A few of us were meeting with Chris in a conference room (I think John Spiegel and Gil Ray were there and perhaps others). Chris, drawing on his DOJ experience, suggested we adopt the FBI director model: a presidential appointee, confirmed by the Senate, for a fixed 10-year term, terminable only for cause. Similarly, the chief of police would be selected by the mayor from a list of candidates vetted by the Police Commission, subject to City Council confirmation, and the chief ’s term would be limited to 10 years. Better than the indefinite civil service tenure, a 10-year term would overlap mayoral terms so, like the FBI director, the chief would be seen as independent of the mayor who appointed him or her. But then Chris presciently observed that 10 years of a bad chief was still too long. He proposed breaking the 10 years into two five-year segments and making it the Police Commission’s decision, not the mayor’s, to decide whether the chief should be renewed for the second five years. Today, it seems an obvious solution. However, given the radical changes the commission was proposing in the selection and retention of the chief and reforms in the role and authority of the Police Commission, Chris had come up with an approach that won acceptance from those who feared politicizing the police chief position and those who believed it had become too entrenched and unaccountable. Many contributed to the excellent and enduring Christopher Commission Report and Recommendations; nonetheless, Chris’ modesty notwithstanding, every aspect of the report justifies it being personally identified with him. I now knew why Chris was so respected and how he was able to achieve so much. I also felt we had come through a stormy time together and had bonded as colleagues; I had passed from the “associate” stage to “partner” level.
Four years later, in 1995, Mayor Richard Riordan appointed me to the Los Angeles Police Commission, when it was still wrestling with implementing Christopher Commission recommendations, trying to overcome intransigence within the department and lackluster leadership from Willie Williams, the first chief (and outsider) selected under the non-civil service process we had devised. Williams was approaching the end of his first five years; Chris’ wisdom in including a mid-term review/renewal requirement became evident, albeit painfully so, given the racial politics surrounding the chief ’s performance and the Police Commission’s decision whether to reappoint him or not. I became president of the commission in 1996 and had the dubious honor of putting into practice the theory we had formulated in that conference room in 1991. I can honestly say that in my two years on the Police Commission, I found the thoughtful analysis and recommendations set forth in the Christopher Commission Report—reforms of the LAPD as well as those affecting the Police Commission and the police chief—to be well conceived and realistic. This latter quality was vitally important to maintaining the credibility of the recommendations, both with the public and within the LAPD itself. I credit Chris’ good judgment and attention to the realities of police work and management; he made sure we got input from police officers and the community. Thus, the report served as a useful blueprint for reform; not just a wish list of high-minded theories destined to gather dust on a shelf, it achieved one of Chris’ stated goals at the outset in 1991.
Having survived the firestorm of the Williams’ termination, I felt I had carried out Chris’ mandate. I think he felt the same way; he was certainly kind and supportive during the occasional times we had a chance to talk, including at a reunion of the deputy general counsels that Chris helped organize. There is no question that Chris’ insights, steady hand, and careful judgments echoed in my mind and guided me during my entire tenure on the Police Commission. And beyond.
Department of Justice.
One day in 1996, when I was at my desk at my then law firm, Heller Ehrman, and in the midst of dealing with the Police Commission’s decision not to retain Willie Williams as chief, I received another of those fateful phone calls— again, not directly from Chris but clearly “caused by” Chris as will be evident. This was from the Department of Justice—and I hoped it was going to be about the Clinton administration’s effort to find a job for Williams that would give him a graceful exit and make our transition to a new chief a lot more pleasant. Instead, it was an official on Attorney General Janet Reno’s staff who wanted to know whether I would be interested in being considered for the position of associate attorney general. Completely surprised by this out-of-the-blue question, and knowing little firsthand about the DOJ than my visit with Chris decades earlier, I asked what the job entailed. Needless to say, as the third-ranking position at DOJ its scope was broad and plainly a dream job given my own interests and background. Although it took many agonizing months between that call and my ultimate confirmation as associate in fall 1997, once again Chris played his direct and indirect important role.
One of the reasons I had come to the attention of the Clinton administration was my presidency of the Police Commission and the public profile it led to in the press during the Willie Williams crisis. (Ironically, at the time the Civil Rights Division was investigating the LAPD and I had been dealing with the then head of the division, Deval Patrick, now governor of Massachusetts; the division would be under my authority as associate AG!)
I promptly called Chris for advice and counsel, both on the merits of pursuing the position and how to handle the confirmation process, as well as the job itself if I made it that far. (I am sure he was not surprised I’d been called; although he never took credit, I know his support for me with President Clinton, Janet Reno, and others key to my nomination and confirmation was vitally important.) Chris was generous in his advice; three particulars stand out in my memory. First, he recommended I read griffin Bell’s book about the Justice Department and the role of the attorney general; I think Chris loaned me his copy. From this, and from Chris, I gained an invaluable perspective and understanding of the institutional nature of DOJ and the special status of the AG in serving both as a member of the President’s Cabinet and as the nation’s chief legal officer. Second, he cautioned me that— because I lacked any DOJ experience and was not a former assistant United States attorney—I would be viewed as a second-class citizen in the department (even though a majority of my portfolio would involve civil, not criminal, matters). He urged me to fill at least one of my deputy positions with an AUSA. He was so right. By good fortune, I was able to do just that: The day I brought Mary Lou Leary, the former acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, onto my staff, my credibility within the department palpably rose overnight! Third, Chris singled out the Office of Legal Counsel, then a little-known division within DOJ (remember, this was before OLC became infamous for its so-called “torture memos”), and he strongly urged that I get at least a dotted-line authority over OLC, because it dealt with many of the most interesting and important legal issues, acting as general counsel to the executive branch. Again, he was right on target, and thanks to him I enjoyed a close working relationship with OLC’s talented lawyers. Indeed, in the two wonderful, exciting, challenging years I spent at DOJ I frequently thought of Chris—both as I knew him now and, with some chagrin, as I realized what it would have meant to be his assistant when he was deputy AG, what an opportunity he had offered me in 1968. Better late than never, I kept thinking. And I finally fully appreciated the enormity of his own roles not just at DOJ but at the State Department.
The last link in the Christopher chain of causation is my current position as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. I hold this position because I was privileged as associate AG to work directly with President Clinton and White House Counsel Charles (Chuck) Ruff. When an opening on the court occurred with Judge David Thompson of San Diego going senior, Ruff surprised me by calling to say the president wanted to appoint me to fill the vacancy. There were two reasons I was considered a confirmable candidate: The Senate had already confirmed me for associate AG and I was probably viewed as more moderate than other nominees who had been tied up in delays by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. But I would never have been on the radar without being right there in D.C. (It also helped I was not viewed as a “Los Angeles” lawyer, which would have upset San Diegans hoping to succeed Judge Thompson.) Helping me to be at the right place at the right time was not Chris’ only contribution, of course. He lent his considerable support and influence in helping me win confirmation, including enlisting his influential partners William Coleman and A.B. Culvahouse to help win Republican support. Thus I can say without doubt: I would not be a judge on the Ninth Circuit but for Warren Christopher.
The Santa Barbara Years
For all my gratitude to Chris for all he did to influence my life in so many ways, my (and Nancy’s) fondest memories will be of Chris and Marie over the recent years that we have enjoyed our dinners (or lunches) together in Santa Barbara. Having lived so long viewing Chris as a respected role model and mentor, it was such a pleasure to find ourselves gravitating into a more personal, informal, and relaxed friendship as we frequented some of Santa Barbara’s nicest restaurants. Nancy and I always looked forward to those weekends when we all were in town at the same time, when we could count on catching up on current events and politics, books, movies, family events, whatever. Those are times we treasured, and we always will. For lots of reasons, Chris’ death has left a hole in our lives—but this is the one that’s most immediate and saddening. We can only hope that for Marie the memories are as pleasant and that there perhaps will be times when the three of us can reunite, remember, and talk some more.
To conclude, Chris’ passing has caused me to pause and reflect not just on his life but my own, to remember and recognize how fortunate I am to have been one of the many Chris touched during his remarkable lifetime. I can only hope he appreciated the effects he could have on people—he was so reticent to accept accolades or to dwell on his own achievements. He of course took pride in what he did, always insisting on excellence, but he never bragged. I am but one of many who benefited from his wisdom and care, and I am not reticent to brag about Chris. I therefore was most moved by Tom Christopher’s (BA ’81) eulogy for his father at the memorial celebration of Chris’ life, when Tom gave witness to how wonderful a dad, grandfather, and husband Chris was, how much he gave to his family, and how much he loved them. It is reassuring that they can brag about Chris too. He shall be missed, never forgotten. SL
Read more about Warren Christopher in the “In Brief” story “Honorable Warren Christopher.”