Each year, Davis Wright honors one associate at the firm who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to pro bono service. This year, the Heart of Justice Award was given to Jeff Glasser, a sixth-year associate in our San Francisco office, who provided over 200 hours of pro bono legal service in 2012 alone.
Glasser entered law school after almost eight years as a journalist and researcher, including three years spent helping Bob Woodward write a book about the Clinton Administration. He has built on that experience with a practice focused on First Amendment and media work. His pro bono efforts have been largely dedicated to opening up public records.
As Glasser recalls, he got started on his first pro bono case almost immediately upon walking in the door at DWT in 2007.
What was your first pro bono case about?
Tom Burke [a partner in DWT’s San Francisco office] and I did a FOIA case against the U.S. Department of the Treasury over the Office of Foreign Assets Control terrorist list. If you get put on that list, your assets and credit are frozen. Your financial life is at the mercy of the federal government. There are a lot of deleterious consequences. But as with the government’s No-Fly List, there are people who end up there in error, or who run into trouble because they have the same name as someone on the list. We wanted to get records where people had written the government to say they’d been mistaken for people on the list, or that they were unjustly listed. We wanted to draw attention to the lack of actual procedures for people who were seeking to be delisted.
How did the government respond?
The government asserted many exemptions, including all these national security exemptions. It was a very hard-fought case and went on for several years. We started with the government claiming there were some four documents, and ended up getting around 8,000 pages of documents. We were able to bring some good public attention to the problem.
What kind of legal experience did the case provide you as a new lawyer?
It was a great way to learn the skills of what we do in high-stakes litigation. It was the first time I opposed a motion to dismiss, the first time I did a summary judgment motion, the first time I got to argue in front of a judge. I continue to work with the client in that case, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Are there other examples where you’ve been able to burnish your legal skills through pro bono work?
Yes, many. It’s pretty rare to get an appellate argument, for instance. But I got to take the lead in another case recently, representing the parents of a high school student in a lawsuit seeking access to records of a teacher disciplined for violating the district’s policy against sexually harassing students.
I argued that case in front of the California 2nd District Court of Appeal, which produced a published decision. The outcome was mixed, but we were able to ensure in the end that the records were disclosed. And we were able to protect an important principle of California Public Records Act law—that where discipline has been imposed, or the allegations are well-founded, the public is entitled to know the basis for the discipline against the public employee.
What else is on your plate, pro bono-wise?
We’ve filed briefs and are waiting for a hearing in a case that is pending before the Northern District of California, where we’re seeking to compel release of U.S. Department of Justice documents addressing the legality of targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas who are believed to be terrorists. Can the government legally, through a drone program, target and kill an American citizen without due process of law? We want to know the administration’s legal rationale. We’re fine with redacting information that would impact national security. At a bare minimum, legal citations would not.
How did it feel to receive the Heart of Justice Award?
I was honored to win the award. I’m glad that we’re able to do these somewhat complex cases that can go on for several years at a time, and still be able to incorporate that into a media law practice. There are excellent opportunities at Davis Wright to do pro bono projects, particularly in the areas in which I practice. It is fulfilling at the end of the day to know that we’re on the side of right, and that we are really pushing to advance the law and promote maximum public access to government and official information that should be public.