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Gary Blasi: Eclectic career marks Loren Miller award winner

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Gary Blasi
 Gary BlasI
                                           Photo by Stephanie Diani

Gary Blasi’s legal career began, quite curiously, over a bag of carrots.

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 California.

“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 1976.

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 teaching.

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 recruit.

“That’s the best part of it,” he said.