Gary Blasi: Eclectic career marks Loren Miller award
By Amy Yarbrough
| Gary BlasI
Photo by Stephanie Diani
Gary Blasi’s legal career began, quite curiously, over a bag
Blasi was waiting in line to buy vegetables at a food co-op
in Echo Park in 1971, when a friend asked if he was interested in becoming a
lawyer through California’s legal apprenticeship program, training with him and
several others under a practicing attorney rather than law school.
Though not entirely sold on the lawyer idea, Blasi decided
to give it a go, spending his days studying law under the guidance of an
attorney at the Echo Park Community Law Office and his nights working in an
orange juice factory. But things quickly became interesting, and Blasi
volunteered to help with the criminal defense of Vietnam vet and anti-war
activist Ronald Kovic following his arrest during a protest at President
Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign headquarters in Los Angeles.
Now, more than 40 years later, the 67-year-old Blasi remains
passionate about the law and committed to social justice. He has built a resume
that would make any aspiring poverty lawyer swoon. On Oct. 11, the UCLA Law
School professor will be recognized with the 2013 Loren Miller Legal Services
Award for his many contributions as a lawyer and a teacher.
Given during the State Bar’s annual meeting, the Loren
Miller award recognizes attorneys who have made a longtime commitment to legal
services and done outstanding legal work to benefit the poor.
Catherine E. Lhamon, director of impact litigation for
Public Counsel in LA, wrote in a letter supporting Blasi’s nomination that
Blasi helped shape the doctrine she and other poverty lawyers now rely on and
continues to train young lawyers to follow in his footsteps. When she was a
young lawyer new to trial-level litigation, it was Blasi who taught her how to
write a complaint, she said.
“Gary has achieved unparalleled success on behalf of the
neediest and least powerful populations,” Lhamon wrote. “He well deserves his
iconic status in the legal community.”
Born in Pratt, Kansas, Blasi spent his childhood attending
more than a dozen schools in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado. His dad was a
migrant oilfield worker. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University
of Oklahoma, graduating with high honors, and was awarded a full, four-year
fellowship to Harvard to study political science.
More interested in the actual politics of the day than the
political science discipline, Blasi went on to take a series of odd jobs after
graduate school – night janitor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
helicopter mechanic and gun and diamond salesman. Eventually, he moved out to
“It didn’t occur to me I’d be a lawyer,” he said.
While participating in the law office study program, Blasi
noticed more and more low-income people coming into the Echo Park Community Law
Office with eviction paperwork. There were few places that could help them, so
Blasi led the charge to start a Tenant Action Center, which provided free legal
services to tenants two nights a week.
He also began to hone his skills as a lawyer, developing an
expertise in landlord-tenant law and procedure and passing the bar exam in
Looking back, Blasi said his experiences growing up may have
helped fuel his interest in housing rights.
“I think I had an appreciation for what it meant to have a
stable home and knew about the disruption of having to move around,” said
Blasi, who also grew up witnessing the struggles faced by oilfield workers like
his father. “I also had an instinctive attraction to helping the little guy,
the powerless, the underdog.”
Two of Blasi’s early cases, while he was an attorney with
the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, were among the most impactful.
Prior to the California Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Arrieta v. Mahon, sheriffs and marshals executing a writ of possession routinely evicted everyone found on the premises, including tenants
who had no prior notice of the proceedings.
Blasi’s efforts in Sanchez v. Little helped to outlaw
another tactic that unscrupulous landlords had been using to unlawfully evict
tenants. William Little, the named plaintiff in the class action, developed the
scheme he used for hundreds of evictions. If a tenant appeared to have a good
defense at trial, Little would offer to let him or her stay, provided they
consented to an entry of a stipulated judgment. Little would later claim the
tenant had violated a provision of the judgment and obtain, without proper
notice or a hearing, an order for the tenant to vacate. The 2nd District Court of Appeal ultimately held that the stipulations were illegal and
that tenants’ due process rights were violated.
Blasi also started the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles’
Eviction Defense Center in 1983. The center helped more than 10,000 tenants in
its first year, providing full representation to more than 300 families. The
following year, he shifted his focus to the homeless and created the Homeless
Litigation Team, a coalition of six legal services and public interest firms
and health, housing and other service providers who pursued systemic litigation
to bring about change for Los Angeles County’s poorest residents.
Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community
Action Network, a group focused on LA’s Skid Row that Blasi has worked with for
more than 10 years, called Blasi the “go-to lawyer by community organizers,
other attorneys, public officials and many others.
“Personally, I have never met someone with the combination
of knowledge, skill, legal expertise, ethics, deep understanding of low-income
communities and communities of color and commitment to diverse collaboration
that Gary Blasi possesses,” she wrote in a letter supporting his award nomination.
“He has uniquely and immeasurably utilized his legal expertise in ways that
have impacts far beyond the case or project at hand.”
If Blasi’s entry into the legal profession was a bit
accidental, so was his career as a law professor.
Blasi was having lunch with Harvard law professor Lucie
White – then on the faculty at UCLA – when White brought up the idea of Blasi
Blasi balked at the idea that he would ever be able to teach
law school, not having been to law school himself.
“I said, ‘Nobody would hire me. I didn’t even go to law
school,’ ” he recalled. “She said, ‘We might.’
“To my eternal surprise, they did hire me.”
Blasi was appointed acting professor of law in 1991 and
professor of law in 1996. The following year, he helped found the UCLA School
of Law’s Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy, a program that has
trained some 400 aspiring public interest and legal services lawyers.
Although Blasi officially retired in 2012, he headed back to
UCLA last month to teach another course, Problem Solving in the Public Interest.
He is committed to stay on as a professor emeritus until 2015.
“As I told my spouse … I couldn’t imagine spending all my
time hanging out with people my own age,” he said.
In coming weeks, as he has done for years, Blasi will take
his students on a bus tour of Los Angeles to show them districts of the
sprawling city that many Angelenos have never seen. One of the early stops of
the tour is the late film and television producer Aaron Spelling’s former
mansion. From there, the tour meanders through LA’s ethnic neighborhoods, Dodger
Stadium, Chinatown and Skid Row.
“The idea of the trip is LA is an incredibly diverse place
and its incredibly stratified as well,” Blasi said, adding that students also
learn about how legal services have shaped the city.
“They are, by and large, shocked to see some of the
poverty,” he added. “I think they are incredibly impressed by the physical
beauty and ugliness of LA.”
As for his view of the budding attorneys, Blasi said he is
always struck by the “passion, enthusiasm and intelligence of the students we
“That’s the best part of it,” he said.