Deja Vu for Rights Lawyer : Peter Schey Is Jumping Into the Fight Against Prop. 187--Much Like the Battle He Helped Win for Texas Students


When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1982 decision on the right of illegal immigrant children to attend public schools, one of the civil rights attorneys who handled the case was in the jungles of Nicaragua.

“We were huddled ‘round a two-way radio, listening to the BBC,” recalls Peter Schey, who was part of a team investigating human rights abuses by Contra rebels. “When we heard the ruling, I whooped for joy.”

In a decision affecting some 150,000 undocumented children in Texas, the high court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe that a state law barring them from free public education was unconstitutional. It was only the second case Schey had argued before the court.


A dozen years later, California’s newly approved Proposition 187 promises to keep Schey--already fully occupied as an international human rights advocate, immigrant rights lawyer and operator of a shelter for homeless kids--busy for the foreseeable future.

On Wednesday, he filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the “Save Our State” initiative, which echoes the Texas law by targeting public school students who are not legal residents of the United States. Says Schey, who heads the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law: “The consequences (of the measure) would just be tragic.”

During an unconventional 21-year career, which has spanned numerous liberal causes, Schey has represented Salvadoran political prisoners, Native Americans, Haitian refugees and an Indian guru. On Oct. 15, he accompanied Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to Haiti as the exiled president returned to power. (“The only other L.A. attorney on the trip was (Secretary of State) Warren Christopher,” he notes wryly.)

In a casual setting, he can be low-key, even reticent. But in court, allies and opponents say, it’s a different story. “Peter never stops,” says Ralph Santiago Abascal, a doyen of public interest attorneys and general counsel for California Rural Legal Assistance in San Francisco. “He’s always at your heels.”

Bob Kendall, a Department of Justice lawyer who has opposed Schey on several cases, says he may appear “laid back and mellow,” but that the gloves come off before a judge. “This little sweet, innocent tone leaves him and he becomes very aggressive.” He adds with a laugh: “Sometimes he can overkill and the judge will say, ‘Now, Mr. Schey, shut up.’ ”

A dapper man with wavy hair and blue eyes, Schey, 47, isn’t given to introspection about his work. Asked why he pursues cases that require years of tortuous litigation and battles with bureaucrats, he says, “I don’t quite know how to put it. I truly enjoy the work.”


It’s likely not for the money. Schey takes most cases pro bono; often, he says, he’ll accept clients only if they have nowhere else to go. If he wins, he can apply for attorney’s fees as part of the judgment, but that can mean another legal battle and the resulting fees are often below market rates.

To keep two other lawyers and a dozen staffers employed, the center handles a few private cases, accepts grants from foundations and charities, and stages an annual dinner that has honored human rights activists such as Aristide and actor Edward James Olmos.

Far from the Century City high-rises of the city’s legal elite, Schey works out of a converted A-frame in the Westlake district, eschewing pin stripes in favor of khaki and denim.

It’s clear that activism is part of Schey’s heritage. His parents fled Germany in 1938--his father was Jewish and an anti-Nazi agitator--and moved to South Africa, where Schey was born. By his teens, he was protesting the country’s apartheid policies. When he was 15, the family moved to San Francisco, partly for his own safety.

“They got particularly concerned when my picture appeared in a (newspaper) story about an anti-apartheid demonstration,” he recalls in an interview.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he was arrested during a Vietnam War protest. And, when he was a part-time youth counselor at a community center in the Hunter’s Point district in San Francisco, he was caught in the middle of a two-day riot.


The violence erupted on Sept. 27, 1966, after a white policeman shot and killed a black teen-ager. Schey, then only 19, rushed to the community center, which the rioters had turned into a virtual headquarters, and tried to restore calm. He was still there the following evening when National Guard troops opened fire on the center.

“That was pretty intense,” Schey says matter-of-factly, recalling that he avoided the flying bullets by diving to the floor of his office.

After some frantic phone calls from the center to the mayor, the Guard withdrew and negotiations began that led to increased employment opportunities for minority youth.

Graduating with a psychology degree, Schey went on to California Western School of Law in San Diego, where, as a student, he handled cases of illegal immigrants at a legal aid clinic.

When Schey started practicing law in 1973, it was, as one long-time associate points out, only natural for him to focus on civil rights cases. “He knew from experience what it was like to live in a polarized society,” says Juan Jose Gutierrez, executive director of One-Stop Immigration, a Los Angeles-based legal aid project.

“I feel moved when I encounter people who are suffering in someway that seems unnecessary, that seems to result only from the actions of some bureaucratic official or agency,” Schey says.


These days he describes himself as “overwhelmed.” In addition to advising people like Aristide on human rights issues and arguing cases across the nation, he is something of a social worker, operating a residential shelter for homeless youths two blocks from his cluttered legal office.

One moment he can be discussing Haiti with a senior State Department official; the next, taking a call from a high school principal reporting a discipline problem with one of the shelter kids. “Very much an average day for me,” he says.

Schey, a resident of the Westside’s Carthay Circle neighborhood, manages to set aside Friday afternoons for his 9-year-old daughter. He is married to Melinda Bird, who is also a public interest lawyer.

He often spends evenings doing outreach among the homeless on Westlake streets.

“To some extent, it keeps me well-grounded,” he says of his social work. “I wouldn’t want to be removed from that.”

Gutierrez, a leader of the anti-Proposition 187 fight, calls him a “trailblazing lawyer,” particularly in the area of immigrant rights.

“Peter is an extremely strong advocate for the immigration cause,” agrees Kendall of the Department of Justice.


After years of litigation, Schey won complex class-action lawsuits against the Immigration and Naturalization Service that provided those arrested by the agency with written notice of their rights and allowed undocumented children in custody to be released to responsible adults pending deportation proceedings.

In 1989, he negotiated a $110,000 damages award for a Texas resident who, as a 14-year-old, was improperly deported to Mexico--the largest INS settlement ever paid in a personal injury lawsuit. He recently filed a class-action suit that alleges conditions at INS detention centers in San Pedro and elsewhere are unconstitutional.

“A handicapped guy called me from a detention center. They won’t let him have a walker,” he says with a grimace. “Just unbelievable.”

Schey acknowledges that much of his work is mundane, of interest mainly to constitutional scholars or immigration experts. But he has experienced his share of the bizarre and even dangerous.

One client was the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the orange-clad Indian mystic who founded a commune in Oregon and collected Rolls-Royces. In 1985, the Bhagwan hired Schey to arrange his voluntary surrender to U.S. authorities on immigration law charges. But the day the charges were made public, he attempted to flee the country in a private jet, only to be apprehended after landing in North Carolina.

“It didn’t work out too well,” Schey laughs.

In 1981, he received death threats while representing Haitian refugees seeking political asylum in Florida. Two years later, amid a civil war, he traveled to El Salvador to help locate Dennis Quintanilla, a U.S.-born child who disappeared after his parents were found slain there. Persisting in spite of concerns about his own safety, he negotiated with the Salvadoran National Guard to have the 3-year-old returned to the care of his uncle.


Schey now represents several relatives of Mario Aburto Martinez--the convicted assassin of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio--as they seek political asylum in the U.S. His goal, he says, is to challenge a U.S. policy that “at a minimum strongly discourages the granting of asylum to any Mexican national.”

He is also gearing up for the battle over Proposition 187. Harking back to the Plyler vs. Doe case, “it seems like deja vu ,” he says. And he predicts that, with the Plyler precedent in place, Proposition 187 will be quashed. “I don’t think the courts will ever permit its enforcement. I think it’s unconstitutional.”