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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Jim Fox: Bar president brings calming force in rough waters

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

James Fox
Fox - Photos by S. Todd Rogers

Prominently displayed in the kitchen of Jim Fox’s San Carlos home is a crayon drawing of the State of California and an American flag congratulating “Papa” – a cherished gift from his 6-year-old granddaughter after he won the election for president of the State Bar of California’s Board of Trustees.

With challenging reform efforts underway and funding uncertainty looming at the bar, people have often asked the happily retired grandfather of seven why he wants to lead the public service organization.

Fox, 72, said he sometimes wonders the same thing.

“If you can come up with an answer, can you tell me what you hear?” he says, breaking into his signature good-natured laugh.

But seriously, Fox says, for him this leadership role is a capstone to the work he’s done his entire adult life.

photo of drawing
Photos by S. Todd Rogers

“I’ve spent my whole adult life in some form of public service,” he said. “I never became a lawyer to become wealthy. I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people.”

Fox practiced law for 46 years in the county where he was raised – 29 of them as the elected district attorney for San Mateo County.

He pledged to work with Vice President Danette Myers, Treasurer Jason Lee and the other board members who will keep the staff moving forward, making the organizational improvements necessary to prioritize public protection.

As a longtime government employee, Fox said he understands how good government can and should work. That doesn’t mean he expects things to run flawlessly.

“The bar is operated by human beings,” he said. “All we can do is the best we can.” 

Fox also brings an insider’s perspective to the post. Before being appointed to the board by the California Supreme Court in 2014, Fox spent nearly three years as a special assistant to the bar’s disciplinary prosecution unit. He assisted in transitioning the unit to a vertical prosecution model, which eliminated delays in moving cases from investigation to prosecution.

One of Fox’s goals for the year, he said, will be trying to repair frayed relationships with the Legislature, which adjourned at the end of August without approving the bar’s annual fee bill. Both the Assembly and Senate made it clear that bar reforms are needed, but could not agree on the details. The bar is asking the California Supreme Court to set the fee amount by Dec. 1.

The board has been focused on reforms that were outlined in a series of reports to the Legislature, as well as those recommended by the Governance in the Public Interest Task Force in early August, a process he’s been following closely. One thing that will be important is clarifying the bar’s public protection mission, since the term can mean different things to different people.

Fox said in his mind public protection and enhancing the administration of justice go hand in hand. The bar’s activities should benefit the public, not line lawyers’ pocketbooks. If the bar assists lawyers, it should be to educate them so they can better serve the public.

The principles are similar to those of a criminal prosecutor, who may decide not to pursue a case if it doesn’t serve the interest of justice.

“We want to do the right thing for the right reasons,” he said.

It’s the same philosophy Fox has applied to his previous public service work, including serving on the legislative committees of the California District Attorneys Association and the National District Attorneys Association. As a long-time advocate of an unbiased justice system, he was a state Senate appointee to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice and was the only elected district attorney in the state to oppose the 1994 enactment of the Three Strikes Law.

The law mandated a prison term of 25 years to life for a third felony, regardless of whether the offense was serious or violent. He felt so strongly that he signed the ballot initiative against the measure. (California voters repealed this law in 2014.)

San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, the current president of the statewide DA’s group, said Fox wasn’t shunned by his fellow prosecutors for his contrary stance.

“He was a prime-time leader of our organization that everyone looked to with respect,” Wagstaffe said. “He remained a critical player. He was one of the go-to people.”

Wagstaffe pointed out that Fox was president of the National District Attorneys Association at a difficult time for that organization, and he helped steer the group toward the path to recovery.

“I think Jim’s traveled the road he’s being asked to travel here,” Wagstaffe said.

Another testament to Fox’s approach is the fact that he was re-elected as San Mateo County district attorney six times with no opponent. His only opposition came when he was elected to his first four-year term in 1982.   

Wagstaffe said Fox’s even-keeled approach may be just what the State Bar needs at this juncture.

“We live in a world of polarization today and Jim really transcends all that. He does not come in with an agenda. He’s the opposite of a polarizing influence,” Wagstaffe said. “I’m hopeful Jim can be a real steadying influence.”

Tom Casey, who worked with Fox in the DA’s office and went on to become San Mateo County Counsel, said Fox’s greatest strength is being able to see both sides and get along with people, even those with whom he disagrees.

“He is a great listener,” Casey said. “He is a genuine nice guy who gets along with people.”

Wagstaffe and other former colleagues frequently chide Fox for his willingness to take on new challenges at a time in his life when he should be enjoying retirement.

A phrase Fox has often used in response to similar scolds over the years is, “I’m just a boy who can’t say no.”

Casey and Fox have known each other since they were classmates at University of San Francisco School of Law. Fox, who was putting himself through law school, pinched pennies by borrowing Casey’s government law textbook before class instead of buying his own copy.

Before he became a lawyer and a prosecutor, Fox grew up in Half Moon Bay and worked on a nearby farm that grew barley and oats. He also worked for his father’s construction business for a time, operating a heavy earth-tamping machine on the former salt marshes along the San Francisco Bay that became the planned city of Foster City.

Fox and his wife, Bonnie, have lived in the same house since 1977. They have three children. Christine is a teacher, Tim is a lawyer and Brian is a musician.

Every Sunday, the extended family convenes for dinner, where Fox prepares the meal himself.

Two years ago, Fox fractured his neck in a fall. But after surgery his only loss of mobility is the ability to turn his head.

So despite the challenge ahead this year, Fox continues to see the positive side of things.

“We’re very lucky,” he said.