He Trains Legal Eaglets
His friends joke that USC constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky sleeps only in leap years.
He juggles enough commitments to exhaust a small law firm, and, with the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial, his recognition grew beyond academic and legal circles as his commentary became a staple on local and national television.
Newspapers and radio and television stations continue to call on him for quotes, opinion page pieces, debates and insight into legal and political developments.
“He is a real authority on just a wide, wide spectrum of issues, from the 1st Amendment to criminal justice,” said Santa Clara University Law School Dean Gerald F. Uelmen.
Chemerinsky has become a player in Los Angeles civic affairs, serving as chairman of the elected commission created to help write a new City Charter, the municipal constitution. Last year, he was tapped to analyze the LAPD’s internal report on the Rampart scandal for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the officers union.
Interviews with officers while working on that analysis convinced him that the central problem with the Police Department is its culture. And an essential step in reforming the department will be replacing Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, Chemerinsky said in an interview.
Parks “embodies the culture of the Police Department,” Chemerinsky said. “I don’t believe he is the chief who will reform the department. Reforming the department will have to involve the rank and file and the community in a way that Parks is unwilling to do.”
Chemerinsky is an outspoken advocate of liberal views, steadfast in his support of civil rights, affirmative action, gay rights and abortion rights while opposing the death penalty.
Yet many of his ideological adversaries have nothing but respect for him, regardless of how much they may disagree with his positions.
“I have never heard a harsh word about Erwin Chemerinsky,” said conservative Pepperdine University Law School professor Douglas W. Kmiec.
Friends call Chemerinsky indefatigable but emphasize that his capacity for work is not his most notable trait.
“The most important thing about Erwin is, he is just a ceaselessly decent and kind person,” said Scott Altman, associate dean of USC’s law school.
Former Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who persuaded Chemerinsky to run for the charter commission, has had her “testy moments” with him.
“But do I still love Erwin Chemerinsky?” asked Goldberg, now a state assemblywoman, who wound up opposing the new charter. “You bet I do. He’s absolutely honest to a fault.”
Even Chemerinsky’s ex-wife calls him “one of the best people walking the face of the Earth.”
Away from the spotlight of high-profile cases--helping Al Gore’s legal team draft its Supreme Court brief, for example--Chemerinsky is just as likely to get up early on a Saturday to spend a day speaking to elderly residents of a nursing home, or to go out in the middle of the night to baby-sit for a friend whose wife had to be rushed to a hospital in labor.
Two appeals of three-strikes convictions that Chemerinsky has filed sit on a counter in his campus office. One is for a homeless man serving 25 years to life for stealing two bottles of liquor and an umbrella on a rainy night; the other for a man caught twice stealing videotapes worth $150.
Advocacy Stops at Textbooks
“The judge sentenced him to 50 years to life, 25 to life on each count,” Chemerinsky said of the second case, his voice rising slightly with indignation.
His work on those cases, friends say, is another reflection of his values.
“He usually works for free and almost always where his heart is,” said Los Angeles lawyer Edward Lazarus.
Chemerinsky’s advocacy, though, does not find its way into his teaching and textbooks, said Kmiec, who often debates him on radio and at legal forums.
“Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies,” Chemerinsky’s major textbook, “has only one name on it--Erwin Chemerinsky,” said Kmiec. “There are only two such major treatises. The other is by [Harvard University’s] Laurence Tribe. Erwin’s book is entirely accessible. He writes like he teaches. His goal is not to cloud the issue, but to convey information in a sensible, evenhanded form.”
Chemerinsky’s gentle demeanor, should not be mistaken for weakness, those who know him say.
“He hates like the plague to have conflict in his personal life or circle of regular contacts,” said his wife, Loyola Law School professor Catherine Fisk. “But he loves a good fight on behalf of a cause.”
He went eyeball to eyeball with Mayor Richard Riordan in a fight over the new City Charter, and his call for Parks’ removal may draw him into yet another City Hall controversy.
Chemerinsky, a civil libertarian with a long history of championing civil rights, believes that Parks has not been subjected to the same level of criticism that Daryl Gates would have received if he were chief now.
“Because he came from the Los Angeles African American community,” Chemerinsky said, “I know that some of the African American leaders, who might otherwise have criticized the chief, have been unwilling to criticize Parks. Traditionally there have been strong African American voices for police reform. Some of them have been more muted here. I don’t criticize them for this. We’re still, as a society, so much ‘us’ and ‘them’ in so many ways.”
Parks did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment.
Chemerinsky also criticizes the department’s and the Police Commission’s probes of the Rampart scandal, saying they did not go far enough in their examinations of officers who framed suspects and lied about it.
“We still don’t know how many officers in the Rampart CRASH unit were involved,” he said. “We don’t know how high up it went. We don’t know if there were similar things in other anti-gang units. Whether we call it a cover-up or not, that’s what happened very effectively.”
In his fight with Riordan over the new charter, he threatened to campaign against the document he had helped write if the mayor continued his opposition to a compromise that Chemerinsky had negotiated with George Kieffer, head of the competing appointed charter commission.
Chemerinsky and Kieffer believed that the compromise charter had the best chance of winning voters’ approval, but Chemerinsky’s commission rejected it after the mayor lobbied members intensively. Riordan wanted the charter that Chemerinsky’s commission had originally written, because it gave the mayor greater power to fire department heads and commissioners.
The prospect of Chemerinsky’s campaigning against the charter that Riordan preferred helped persuade the mayor to embrace the compromise, and voters approved it in 1999.
Chicago and Ernie Banks
“That was the only card we had to play,” Chemerinsky said. “And it worked.”
Chemerinsky, who grew up “painfully shy” on Chicago’s South Side dreaming of being Cubs Hall of Fame infielder Ernie Banks, had learned to play political hardball.
He is such a die-hard Cubs fan that his dream would be to argue before the Supreme Court at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ stadium, said Mark Rosenbaum, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California legal director.
Chemerinsky’s grandparents settled in Chicago after fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1920s. Years later, Chemerinsky would return to Belarus--the land from which his paternal grandfather had fled when it was part of the Soviet Union--to help that new republic write a constitution. He said that effort had little effect.
His father, Arthur, an auto mechanic who later managed a home improvement store, saw to it that Chemerinsky attended the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory High School.
That “was a life-changing experience, a wonderful intellectual experience,” he said.
But it was a tough social adjustment.
“I was going to school with all of these kids who were university professors’ sons and daughters or rich people’s kids,” he said. “I remember the first couple of days at lunch in the cafeteria not knowing anyone. They were talking about their summer vacations in Europe. The farthest I’d been at age 14 was Gary, Ind., where my aunt lived.”
Chemerinsky grew up 60 blocks south of the school campus. “None of the kids at the lab school had ever been that far south,” he said.
Acceptance did not come quickly or easily, but Chemerinsky soon found his metier: debate.
“It was wonderful analytical and speaking training,” he said, wondering why he ever became a debater, given his shyness. “I paid for a good deal of law school coaching debate.”
He met his first wife, Loyola Law School professor Marcy Strauss, through debate, and they both went to Northwestern University.
He went to Harvard Law School and joined the USC faculty in 1983 after two years teaching at Chicago’s DePaul University Law School.
His marriage to Strauss, with whom he has two sons, Jeffrey, 17, and Adam, 14, ended in 1992 after 11 years with “about as amicable a divorce as humanly possible,” he said.
A mutual friend introduced him to Fisk, who had serious reservations about even dating the ex-husband of her “senior, tenured colleague” at Loyola Law School.
“I have always respected Catherine very much,” Strauss said, “and Erwin and I are and have remained very close friends.”
Chemerinsky married Fisk in December 1993 and they now have a son, Alex, 6, and a daughter, Mara, 2.
Chemerinsky has been approached three times about the possibility of becoming a federal judge, most recently by the Clinton White House, which said he was on a short list for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I’ll tell you now, you don’t want me,” Chemerinsky told the administration. “I’m too liberal. I’m unconfirmable.”
The White House counsel’s office persisted, and conducted a full review before concluding that he indeed probably could not win confirmation because of his opposition to California’s Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in state contracting and university admissions.
“As honest as I can be with myself, I love what I do enough that I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “My attitude is that, if it happens, great. If not, I love what I do. I’m not looking to change jobs.”
With affirmative action under siege, a gathering storm over Roe vs. Wade--the Supreme Court decision that upheld abortion rights--and a conservative Supreme Court seen by many as chipping away at civil liberties, Chemerinsky admits that his optimism suffers at times.
“I’m discouraged, as anyone who has my values is, by how much of my career is going to be spent with a conservative Supreme Court moving against things I believe in,” he said.
Much Progress in U.S. History
But his optimism remains on two levels, he said.
“One, if you look at the course of all of American history, the movement has been progressive, and things overall have gotten better--racial equality, gender equality, equality for gays and lesbians,” he said. “There’s been tremendous movement forward, not as much as I would want, but tremendous movement forward.”
Over time, he said, “progressive positions will ultimately prevail. It’s just a question of how much in my lifetime.”
His optimism flows from his own good fortune.
“I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, and here I am a law professor and doing the stuff I’m getting to do,” he said. “I’ve had an incredibly fortunate and blessed life. I’ve lived under a lucky star. That has to create optimism. There’s a tremendous cheerfulness and appreciation that comes from all the good fortune I’ve had.”