About the Award: County Counsel Recognition Awards are made by the County Counsels’ Association of California to deputies who have made a significant contribution to the Association or have performed other extraordinary service benefiting counties statewide. Recipients are nominated by a County Counsel and selected by the Association’s Board of Directors.
In 2022, the County Counsels’ Association of California recognized the County’s COVID-19 Litigation Team, composed of former Chief Assistant County Counsel Greta Hansen, Assistant County Counsels Tony LoPresti and Douglas Press, Lead Deputy County Counsels Meredith Johnson and Melissa Kiniyalocts, and Deputy County Counsels Bryan Anderson, Claire Cormier, José Martinez, Michael Serverian, and Robin Wall. After working with the County’s Public Health Department to issue first-in-the-nation shelter-in-place and risk reduction orders that were replicated throughout the Bay Area and beyond, the COVID-19 Litigation Team won a series of victories in federal and state courts that kept the orders in place. At that sensitive time, during the first winter surge and before COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and community testing were widely available, enforcement and coordinated defense of these core public health orders ensured that businesses were complying with the orders and taking the necessary steps to protect the community. These litigation victories were pivotal in establishing the viability of progressive and effective public health measures that protected communities in Santa Clara County, the greater Bay Area, and throughout the State. Notable examples of these multi-jurisdictional and/or significant COVID-19 matters from 2020 and early 2021 include cases involving COVID public health measures concerning firearms, supportive housing, retail sales, and amicus cases involving executive emergency authority.
In 2019, Deputy County Counsel Jennifer Tsou, along with counsel from the San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Luis Obispo County Counsel offices, were recognized for identifying a need within the County Counsels’ Association Child Welfare Study Section for mentoring the section’s younger lawyers and developed a program to fill that need. The Mentoring Program pairs attorneys new to child welfare with the section’s more experienced lawyers. This program allows for a lifeline by promoting peer mentoring and sharing of legal knowledge and best practices. It helps foster career development and creates a dedicated and integrated community of child welfare attorneys for the state.
In 2018, Assistant County Counsel Kavita Narayan and Deputy County Counsel Laura Trice were recognized for their work spearheading nationwide efforts to coordinate a broad coalition of counties, cities, and national local government organizations in providing amici curiae support in federal litigation raising issues of critical importance to California counties. In four major cases challenging unlawful laws and policies relating to immigration enforcement, Ms. Trice and Ms. Narayan promoted counties’ vital interest in retaining local discretion over policy decisions, particularly in the law enforcement arena; explained the ways in which policies limiting local involvement in immigration enforcement protect public safety; and highlighted the costs and harms of the challenged laws and policies to localities and their residents. The amicus briefs were joined by dozens of other counties and cities, and by major organizations including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, and the National League of Cities.
In 2018, County Counsel James R. Williams, former Chief Assistant County Counsel Greta Hansen, Assistant County Counsel Kavita Narayan, Deputy County Counsel Laura Trice, and other former Deputy County Counsels were recognized for their work in County of Santa Clara v. Trump. The County filed a lawsuit in federal court against President Donald Trump and members of his administration challenging one of President Trump’s first Executive Order after taking office, through which he sought to deny all federal funding to any state or local government that declined to participate in the Administration’s immigration enforcement activities. The lawsuit challenged the President’s authority to unilaterally impose conditions on federal funds—a power the Constitution places exclusively in the hands of Congress—as well as the bland denial of all federal funds, the vast majority of which have no connection to immigration or law enforcement. They sought and were granted injunctive relief when U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick issued a preliminary injunction blocking the key provision of the Executive Order. In November 2017, Judge Orrick declared that provision unconstitutional and permanently enjoined its enforcement nationwide. As a direct result of the Executive Order, counties throughout California that have their own “sanctuary” policies or that comply with state “sanctuary” laws risked losing billions of dollars in federal funding annually. By obtaining a permanent injunction blocking the Executive Order’s key provisions from taking effect, these award recipients protected the unconstitutional withholding of funds from counties nationwide. They also received an International Municipal Lawyers Association Amicus Service Award, which recognizes exemplary work to protect and advance local government interests, for these efforts.
In 2017, former Deputy County Counsel Dax Goldstein was recognized by the Association for their leadership in formulating and implementing the response by the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) to the Fair Political Practices Commission’s (FPPC) proposed Political Reform Act (PRA) revisions. The FPPC launched a project to modernize the PRA, the first comprehensive effort of its kind since its adoption by voters in 1974. Upon release of the draft revision in August 2016, Mx. Goldstein analyzed the complex and extensive proposed PRA revisions, identifying many major issues with the proposal, and drafting the formal response submitted to the FPPC on behalf of CSAC. When the second draft was released, many of the issues Mx. Goldstein had identified had been resolved and their extensive work on the project had a profound impact, and greatly benefitted County Counsels and other public officials statewide.
In 2014, former Chief Assistant County Counsel Greta Hansen, Deputy County Counsel Jenny Lam, and others, were recognized by the Association for their work in County of Santa Clara v. Atlantic Richfield, a lawsuit seeking to hold the former manufacturers of lead paint responsible for cleaning up lead that continues to poison thousands of California children each year. Attorneys from the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office led the team of public attorneys throughout the litigation.
The case was originally filed by the County of Santa Clara in 2000. The complaint in the case alleged a single cause of action on behalf of the People of the State of California (People) for public nuisance, based on the fact that the five defendant paint manufacturers promoted lead paint for decades, despite knowing it was seriously hazardous to children. Nine other California counties (City and County of San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Los Angeles, Monterey, Ventura and Solano) and cities (Oakland and San Diego) eventually joined the County of Santa Clara in this litigation. After a 6-week bench trial in July and August 2013, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg handed down a decision on December 16, 2013, finding that three manufacturers (ConAgra, National Lead, and Sherwin Williams) had contributed significantly to the creation of a public nuisance placing children at risk of lead poisoning. Judge Kleinberg found that children are significantly harmed by the lead in paint in older housing in California, that lead paint was actively sold by these manufacturers even well after they were aware of the harms of lead to children, and ordered the three defendants to pay $1.1 billion into a fund to be administered by the State of California’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, for the benefit of the people within the cities and counties that prosecuted the case.
In 2013, Assistant County Counsel Steve Mitra was recognized by the Association for his amicus work in the matter of Elk Hills Power v. Board of Equalization. The Fourth District California Court of Appeal issued an opinion on a matter of first impression: whether an electric power plant’s emission reduction credits (ERCs) (Health and Safety Code section 40709) should be included in its unitary tax determination. The State Board of Equalization (BOE) included the ERCs in the tax determination. On appeal, the court held that the BOE properly took into account the value of the ERCs. Because they were necessary to the ongoing productive use of the property, they were properly considered under Revenue and Taxation Code section 110, subdivision (e). The court found that the assessor is allowed “to assume the presence of the ERCs that are necessary to operate the taxable property productively, and to value the fair market value of the property accordingly.” The Supreme Court granted review to appellant Elk Hills to consider how limitations on the taxation of intangible property apply to the assessment of a power plant subject to annual assessment by the State Board of Equalization when the owner of the plant used emission reduction credits to offset its emissions and obtain authorization to construct the plant. Mr. Mitra drafted an amicus brief on behalf of the California State Association of Counties and California Assessors’ Association in support of the BOE in the California Supreme Court.
In 2012, Assistant County Counsel Robert M. Coelho and former Deputy County Counsel Cheryl Stevens received the County Counsels’ Association Recognition Award for their work in drafting the Employment Law: Discrimination/Disabilities section of the Association’s County Counsel Law Guide.
In 2011, former Chief Assistant County Counsel Greta Hansen was recognized by the County Counsels’ Association of California for her work in front of the Commission on State Mandates related to the AB 3632 program. Ms. Hansen and the Office secured a major victory before the Commission, successfully challenging an $8.6 million disallowance in state reimbursements for mental health services the County provides to special education students. This arose from a 2009 audit by the State Controller’s Office, which determined that the State was not responsible for funding mental health rehabilitation services to seriously emotionally disturbed children. Ms. Hansen challenged the State’s disallowance for these services by filing an Incorrect Reduction Claim (IRC) arguing that these critical services were covered by the mandate, and thus the County was entitled to State reimbursement. When faced with a long waiting period to have the County’s claim heard, Ms. Hansen sought expedited relief in court and was ultimately successful in persuading the Commission to expedite the IRC. Ms. Hansen’s success before the Commission not only saved the County general fund the $8.6 million at issue, but also shielded the County from comparable disallowances for other fiscal years, protected other counties throughout the state from similar disallowances, and validated this important category of services which provides effective interventions to the County’s vulnerable children.
In 2009, Lead Deputy County Counsel Theresa Fuentes, along with counsel from the Sonoma and San Mateo County Counsel Offices, were recognized for their representation of the “County Intervenors” in the Coleman and Plata cases, long-standing federal prison overcrowding litigation. The proceedings were noteworthy and highly innovative as they were held using a unique procedure created by the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act involving a three-judge panel of federal trial and appellate court judges whose decision is directly appealable to the United States Supreme Court. The three-judge panel in these cases, even before the counties were permitted to intervene, had indicated its intent to remedy state prison overcrowding by issuing a “prisoner release order” or a “population cap.” The team of attorneys worked tirelessly to present evidence that the issuance of a prisoner release order could have substantial and wide-ranging adverse impacts on counties. They argued forcefully that a prisoner release order would shift costs and responsibility for housing and providing prisoner services from the State to the counties that would be required to absorb this population. In addition, they informed the court any relief that the three-judge court ordered would be ineffective unless the court also ordered the State to fund any remedial actions that would negatively impact counties. The three-judge panel credited the counties’ concerns. To address those concerns, the three-judge panel’s order provided that to the extent population reduction measures implemented by the State would increase the need for county-provided services, the State must confer with the counties and calculate the level of funding needed by the counties to maintain public safety at or near existing levels. The fact that the court understood and cared about the counties was the result of the extraordinary presentation made by the “County Team.” Ms. Fuentes and the other counsel were commended for their success at helping the court and the plaintiffs understand that counties are woefully underfunded to take on this additional responsibility, and that any meaningful relief from state prison overcrowding must also address the fact that the order would exacerbate the challenges that the counties were already facing. In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the order of the three-judge panel. Due in part to the efforts of the “County Team” in the Coleman and Plata cases, when the California Legislature embarked on major post-litigation public safety realignment efforts embodied in Assembly Bill 109, the State accompanied the legislative changes with funding to the counties to house and provide programs for prisoners released or diverted under AB 109 and other programs.
In 2008, Lead Deputy County Counsel Theresa J. Fuentes was also previously recognized by the Association for her work on the Coleman and Plata cases, discussed further above.