1999 Public Lawyer of the Year: Joanne Speers

JoAnne Speers was honored as the 1999 Public Lawyer of the Year during the Public Law Section's annual reception at the California State Bar's annual meeting in Long Beach, California on October 2, 1999.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George:

Good afternoon. I am very please to be here to participate in the presentation of this award to the Public Lawyer of the Year. The recipient, JoAnne Speers, has a background that exemplifies the essential service to our state provided by public attorneys in our state's legal and governmental system.

Our government structures depend on the contributions of public lawyers who provide the legal knowledge, expertise, and guidance that assist every sector of government in performing the public's business. Ms. Speer's career provides an excellent example of the key role that such lawyers play.

She has served as General Counsel of the League of California Cities for 10 years, providing in-house counsel assistance to city attorneys across California. Her expertise in the area is reflected in her work updating the California Municipal Law Handbook, her authorship of the City Attorney's Newsletter, and her staff support to State Bar training programs that help others to develop the necessary skills to serve as city attorneys. She also serves as the Assistant Director for Customer Services, overseeing the customer service unit which includes the staff of the League of California Cities' functional departments.

Perhaps the best reflection of the diversity of interests in which JoAnne Speers has developed a working knowledge is to note some of the projects underdevelopment by the Institute for Local Self Government, for which she serves as Executive Director. They include regulatory takings, public confidence and government, and arts in the community.

I will not digress into a discussion of regulatory takings and arts in the community may be a subject best left to my wife, as a member of the California Commission on the arts. I did, however, want to pause for a minute to focus on the public confidence and government. This is an area of great concern to the judicial system as well.

The judicial branch places the highest priority on improving access to justice. In furtherance of that goal, the Judicial Council, the constitutional entity charged with oversight of the administration of justice, which I chair, has been very active in promoting activities to improve court/community outreach and communication.

A council advisory committee has already begun assisting courts in implementing projects to engage with and better respond to their local community. The council has adopted a standard of judicial administration urging judges to become more involved in their communities. Efforts to improve juror service, provide better compensation for interpreters have already met with partial success. And courts are experimenting with user-friendly kiosks, and limited legal assistance to assist pro per litigants, particularly in the family law arena. Our goal in pursuing these and many other related projects is to provide improved services, and thereby also to improve public confidence in the courts - and ultimately, our government as a whole.

Any public lawyer, serving in any segment of government, is, I am certain, keenly aware of the public's too-frequent skepticism about government, yet our state is most fortunate that so many skilled and capable individuals continue to serve with dedication and creativity at every level. They all deserve our gratitude and our admiration.

The award the JoAnne Speers is receiving today from the Public Law Section of the State Bar is recognition by her peers of her extraordinary contributions in this very important area of legal and public life. Her background demonstrates that the scope of a public lawyer's contributions can be broad, varied, and creative. On behalf of the California judicial

JoAnne Speers:

Thank you very much Chief Justice George and to the Public Law Section executive committee for this tremendous honor.

I know it has become a tradition for the recipient of this award to share their thoughts on what the practice of public law and this honor means to them. Finding the words to express what each means to me has been quite a challenge.

What This Award Celebrates: Collective Action For the Betterment of Municipal Law

Part of the reason for this challenge is that my role as a public lawyer with the League of California Cities is really rather unique. This is because the League's role is rather unique. The League is a vehicle, powered by its members. Without this fuel, the League would be much like my 66 Mustang that rarely finds itself out of the garage.

  • For example, although I write Chief Justice George more letters in a year than I do to my family, all of the League's full-blown appellate amicus briefs are prepared on a pro bono basis by public law attorneys through out the state.
  • Another example is the League's pride and joy--the California Municipal Law Handbook. This 1300 page tome on municipal law is the result of literally hundreds of public law attorneys' efforts and the list of attorneys contributing to this work grows each year with the annual update process.
  • The new regulatory takings educational effort (which has just been funded by the Packard Foundation for $450,000 over two years) was the grassroots concept of a group of public agency attorneys and others concerned about the development and lack of clarity in the law in this area. This group labored some 23 months (and through just about as many drafts of grant proposals) to make the project a reality.

The result of all of this is that I have come to know well the capabilities and contributions of many public lawyers. There are literally dozens of attorneys--many of whom are in this room--who qualify not only as public lawyers of the year, but of the century.

To the extent that this award reflects my work for the League, the success of my efforts have depended heavily on these attorneys' willingness to contribute their time and expertise. More than anything else, I truly believe this award recognizes all of our efforts and the value of collaboration.

What Public Law Means to Me: Promoting the Efficacy of Collective Action at The Local Level

Having said this, I cannot tell you how much it means to me to be recognized as a public lawyer and that my colleagues would believe my work with the League has made some kind of contribution to the practice of public law. The reason it means so much to me is I care very deeply about what public agencies--particularly cities--do and what the League does to help cities serve their communities.

This is because I think cities are very important in our system of government. In a 1997 Western City series about home rule and the value of cities, Professor John Kirlin of USC noted that cities are instruments of collective action and expressions of collective visions on a human scale. If you think about it, cities are the way in which we as individuals can better ourselves and our immediate environments. Nearly everything cities do relate to these two forms of betterment--arts and cultural programs, economic development efforts, public safety services, land use planning and the ongoing and sometimes discouraging efforts to muster adequate financial resources to respond effectively to the public's needs.

The ability of cities to serve this role is critical for the public. Professor Kirlin also notes that, for individuals, the costs of seeking action at the state and national levels are simply prohibitive. Those institutions are geographically remote from us and tend to respond to influences that most of us as individuals are unable to match. Our ability to actually make a difference within those forums is very limited. Professor Kirlin poses an important rhetorical question: without cities, how would citizens have the means to influence the important dimensions of their lives?

The means to influence important dimensions of citizens' lives is what local control is all about. And the significance of this fundamental democratic principle is why the California Constitution recognizes and protects the intrinsic value of municipal home rule for charter cities--even in the face of conflicting and/or unclear state law. In fact, the importance of keeping public agency decisions as close to the people as possible is also why courts should be highly discerning in deciding even ordinary preemption cases. Local decisions should only be overridden when the Legislature has clearly stated its intention and justification for doing so.

The League and Cities: Instruments for Expressing Collective Visions

Being able to advocate on behalf of such worthy principles is truly a privilege. Being able to work with such a fine group of fellow public lawyers in so doing is the professional equivalent of nirvana.

Just as the priorities cities set for themselves are the collective expressions of vision for their communities, the League is municipal lawyers' instrument for expressing a collective vision about the betterment of public law. This is true whether the undertaking is to protect local control or create tools to help city officials respond effectively and knowledgeably to their community's needs.

Thank you all for sharing this very special evening with me. I have learned so much from the attorneys that help the League with its work and I know I have so much more to learn. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as a public lawyer and I am grateful for the very much appreciated pat on the back that this award represents. Again, it means more than words truly can express.