Ralph Santiago Abascal, general counsel of California Rural Legal Assistance and one of the state’s foremost lawyers for the poor, has died of cancer at age 62.
Abascal died Monday at his home in Berkeley.
In nearly 30 years as a legal services lawyer, Abascal was involved in more than 200 cases on behalf of farm workers, welfare recipients and the elderly, disabled and needy.
He filed a 1969 lawsuit on behalf of six farm workers that led to a ban on the pesticide DDT three years later. Twenty years later, he joined in environmentalists’ lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency that led to an agreement to ban about 85% of pesticides then in use.
“I’ve been doing pesticide litigation since 1969, and this is the most important pesticide case that has ever been brought, simply because it involves such a large number of chemicals. It addresses all these pesticides in one fell swoop,” he told The Times after the settlement of that case in 1994. “This is the first time such a comprehensive, cross-cutting policy has been challenged and resolved.”
Another suit handled by Abascal resulted in a ban on the short-handled hoe in California fields in 1975.
Abascal took part in California Rural Legal Assistance’s successful battle against Gov. Ronald Reagan’s welfare cuts in the late 1960s, prompting Reagan’s unsuccessful effort to cut off federal funding for the agency.
Abascal also took part in the challenge to Proposition 187 and persuaded a judge to block the exclusion of illegal immigrants from public colleges. He helped to draft the 1986 federal immigration reform law and relied on one of its provisions to win court orders extending the federal amnesty deadline for 300,000 illegal immigrants. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 1993, and the case is now back in the lower courts.
Abascal worked on the lawsuits that maintained Medi-Cal abortions for poor women, preserved the state’s workplace safety inspection program and expanded state restrictions on the discharge of toxic chemicals.
Abascal won one of the legal profession’s top civil rights honors, the American Bar Assn.'s Thurgood Marshall Award, in 1995. The association cited his work on protecting the disadvantaged from environmental harm and his “visionary ability to bring legal principles to bear on fundamental societal concerns.” He was also honored by the State Bar of California in 1983 and the National Legal Aid and Defender Assn. in 1993.
“Ralph was probably the most successful lawyer in California, if not the nation, in using legislation and litigation to affect people in positive ways,” said fellow civil rights attorney Brad Seligman.
The son of immigrants from Spain, Abascal flunked out of San Jose State University twice before graduating. He was working on a doctorate in economics at Berkeley when he saw the film “Inherit the Wind,” became fascinated by the clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, and enrolled at Hastings College of the Law.
He went to work for California Rural Legal Assistance in 1967, spent five years with the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Aid Foundation, and then returned to CRLA as general counsel in 1975, directing more than 50 lawyers in offices statewide.
He is survived by his wife, Beatrice Moulton, a professor at Hastings, and a daughter.
A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.