By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Richard Zitrin has spent nearly 50 years in the practice of law. It’s from that practice that he’s come to see parallels between Catholic social teaching and Judaism’s concept of “tikkun olam,” which means to repair or improve the world.
“We’re taught to leave the world a better place, and I was taught to leave the world a better place,” said Zitrin, who is Jewish. “It is my effort to help others in need, and do service to my community in the larger sense of community.
“I believe,” he added, the pope is “saying the same thing.”
After dropping out of law school at New York University to play guitar in Greenwich Village clubs for pass-the-hat money and to pull three 12-hour shifts a week driving a taxi in New York, Zitrin “fled to California,” in his own words, to go to law school at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco.
Within three years of getting his law degree, the university called in Zitrin to be an adjunct law professor — a role he fulfilled for 30 years.
He also found time to serve as a visiting lecturer for Jesuit-run Fordham University Law School’s first-year orientation program, “Truth, Justice, Ethics and Morality,” for five years in the 2000s.
Zitrin outlines some of the most compelling cases he had in court in a new book, “Trial Lawyer: A Life Representing People Against Power.” Standing up for the underprivileged has been a guiding principle for him.
“I remembered my white privilege every time I jogged from my law office through downtown San Francisco streets and needed a bathroom,” he said.
“I knew that despite my slovenly and sweaty T-shirt and shorts, I could still duck into a fancy hotel, give a nod of familiarity to the doorman, and make a beeline for the men’s room,” he said, “while my Black friend Cedrick, the accomplished high school math teacher and basketball coach who favored hoodies outside the classroom, would be stopped before he ever got inside.”
Jogging aside, Zitrin hasn’t had a lot of down time.
“I self-selected my first job,” he told Catholic News Service in a July 28 phone interview from San Francisco, where he has his home and his law practice. “When I was a law student, I got the offer to work for five bucks an hour to investigate the San Quentin case.”
The case dealt with the prison escape attempt and death of inmate George Jackson, a revolutionary activist. Jackson took several people hostage; five of them were later found dead in his cell.
Zitrin’s client, Johnny Spain, was one of six inmates tried on murder charges in connection with the prison break. Spain was convicted, but the verdict was later overturned.
“That was an eye-opening experience for me in the way that disadvantaged people, especially people of color, were being treated,” Zitrin said. “True, they were in prison, but they were also treated extremely inhumanely.”
He continued, “When you spend from age 17 to age 39 in prison (as Spain did), it’s going to affect you. When you spend years in prison locked in a single cell, it’s going to affect you. The chances of not having PTSD — which is what we know it as now — is very small. That’s not to excuse the behavior of what got them there, but those six defendants were treated like animals.”
Perhaps the highest-profile case Zitrin tried aside from the San Quentin Six was a suit against Chrysler Corp. for a dangerously faulty steering system installed in vans built in the 1970s.
Rather than settle the case out of court for an “undisclosed sum” and have the case files sealed — a practice Zitrin wants to see changed — Chrysler fought the plaintiff tooth and nail, losing to Zitrin and his client in a jury trial.
Not every trial in “Trial Lawyer” is packed with such intrigue. But there was one unexpected flash of action in what should have been a simple no-fault divorce case between (not their real names) Navy enlistee Ernie and his wife, Margie, who really — really — wanted to keep both of the couple’s dogs so she could continue to breed them and sell the puppies.
The judge, though, gave the Navy man the male dog while his soon-to-be-ex was awarded the female. Screaming, “Not my Buffy!!!” Margie charged the bench and attempted to strangle the judge.
“In all my trials, even the hairiest criminal trials, I’d never seen anything like this,” Zitrin wrote. “The bailiff tried to pull Margie off the judge as three other bailiffs appeared from out of nowhere to drag her away. Somehow, they released Margie from custody, and I never learned whether she was criminally charged.”
A police escort helped Ernie to pick up Buffy and followed him till he was out of the county.
If an element in one of the many cases Zitrin unspools in “Trial Lawyer” came up blank in his mind, he can always refer to his files. “I actually maintain my files, basically, forever. Especially in a criminal case, you never know,” he said. “In fact, it has (come up) in the case of DNA evidence. Some of them are super-deep storage, and some of them are in the garage.”
Zitrin has received the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award, a national honor, for service in support of the public good, as well as statewide and local awards for his pro bono work and for promoting equality and diversity.
“You can you do good and make money at the same time,” he told CNS.
Zitrin said his trial-lawyer days are over, but for someone who calls himself semi-retired, he may have others huffing and puffing trying to keep up with him.
He’s already written four chapters of his next book, his fifth, while he maintains an ethics consulting practice.
“I’m much better known as a legal ethics expert than I am as a trier of famous cases,” Zitrin said “I am in the midst of working on legislation which I drafted which is going to come up in the California Legislature.”