Pioneering San Francisco Law Firm Turns 50
Since it first opened its doors in 1971, Public Advocates charted a unique course as an innovative, nonprofit law firm that didn’t just litigate in the courts but used a wide array of advocacy tools including administrative complaints, petitions, and community activism to advance the interests of its clients.

By Isabel Alegría, Communications Director

Public Advocates Inc., the first public interest law firm on the West Coast and among the first in the nation, launched its 50th Anniversary celebration on January 3, 2022 to honor its legacy of five decades as a champion for the rights of low-income communities and people of color in California. Since it first opened its doors in 1971, Public Advocates charted a unique course as an innovative, nonprofit law firm that didn’t just litigate in the courts, but used a wide array of advocacy tools including administrative complaints, petitions, and community activism to advance the interests of its clients.“Off the starting block, Public Advocates was squarely on the side of working people, people of color, women, seniors and children. It leverages the law and the power of community organizing to ensure the people’s interests have as much sway in courtrooms, the legislature and boardrooms as those of the rich and powerful,” said Guillermo Mayer, President & CEO of Public Advocates. “From integrating the SF police and fire departments, to championing renters’ rights in SOMA and Oakland and consumers’ rights in banking, insurance and telecommunications, to shaping the nation’s most equitable school funding formula, Public Advocates has been on the frontlines– not just to fight, but to win.” And the wins have been significant. Among Public Advocates’ landmark victories is Serrano v. Priest, which eradicated the use of local property taxes in determining school funding levels which heavily favored districts with wealthy residents. Before the court’s decision in the 1970s, vast disparities between wealthy areas like Beverly Hills and poorer ones like Baldwin Hills resulted in affluent schools receiving more resources. In another landmark education case, Williams v. California, the state reached a settlement with Public Advocates and co-counsel to provide the most basic necessities to public school children–textbooks, safe and sanitary campuses, qualified teachers, particularly for English learners, and a system to hold school districts accountable. Public Advocates continues to monitor the settlement. Years later, Public Advocates built on both cases with its role in shaping the Local Control Funding Formula, a significant and historic shift toward a simpler, more rational and equitable school finance system that aims to improve outcomes by providing increased and improved services each year to meet the education needs of low-income students, English language learners and foster youth.“Public Advocates’ visionary founders, Bob Gnaizda, Justice J. Anthony Kline, Sid Wolinsky, and Peter Sitkin started a law firm that would have a profound impact, bringing benefits to countless Californians, especially our youth,” said Bob Olson, chair of Public Advocates’ Board of Governors. “Their legacy lives on to this day, fueling the groundbreaking work of Public Advocates’ expert staff in education, housing, climate justice and transportation.”An example is Public Advocates’ advocacy in 2014 to establish a revenue stream for local bus service by tagging a share of proceeds of the California Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to be directed to low-income communities. A few years later, Public Advocates built on the win to secure $400 million for transit operations in the gas tax bill SB 1, doubling the State Transit Assistance program.Over the last decade, Public Advocates has redoubled its commitment to working in partnership with community-based organizations throughout California, a cornerstone of its legal and advocacy approach since Public Advocates’ earliest days. Currently, Public Advocates works in close partnership with groups such as Californians for Justice, PICO California, the ACLUs of Northern and Southern California, Urban Habitat, Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), the Partnership for the Future of Learning, Students Making a Change, Housing Now! and ACCE.“Partnering with Public Advocates on various economic and racial justice campaigns over the years has been of real value for ACCE,” said Christina Livingston, Executive Director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). “As a membership-driven, base building organization, it’s not every day we find legal and policy organizations that truly value campaigns driven by a bottom-up, grassroots partnership.”During the pandemic, Public Advocates mobilized its partnerships with key allies in education and housing advocacy as the threats of eviction loomed and economic insecurity increased among students and their families, who struggled with distance learning. Long-standing partners worked with Public Advocates to communicate the needs of affected communities to lawmakers. The effort yielded important wins, including an eviction moratorium and unprecedented new funding for schools.“We trust Public Advocates,” said Taryn Ishida, Executive Director of Californians for Justice. “They aren’t just lawyers–they are movement builders–and together we’ve made history. We passed California’s progressive education funding law in 2013 that transformed how oppressed communities get resources while giving students and families more say in decision-making. And just last year, we won $3 billion to reimagine schools into more than just places of learning, but as community hubs. Students need allies like Public Advocates.”During this 50th Anniversary year, Public Advocates will commemorate the many people who have built its legacy over the years, and its legal and advocacy victories through a social media series and a dedicated website. The celebration culminates in a gala planned for October 20, 2022 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. For more information, please visit our dedicated website, here.


I want to know more about Public Advocates’ history of litigation & advocacy!

  • For decades, California’s public school administrators mis-assigned tens of thousands of Black students to classes for the “Educable Mentally Retarded,” based on faulty IQ tests. In a first-ever opinion, a court ruled in Larry P. v. Riles that the use of standard IQ tests to place Black students in such classes was racially biased and invalid. In 1986, Public Advocates successfully halted the use of I.Q. tests for placement of Black students in special education classes.
  • In the early 1970s, San Francisco officials planned to displace more than 4,000 elderly, low-income residents from the city’s Yerba Buena area without any plans to resettle them. Public Advocates filed a lawsuit, Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR) v. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development which resulted in more than 1,600 replacement units and the development of 400 additional low-income units in the neighborhood.
  • In the 1970s, on behalf of La Raza Unida and the Sierra Club, Public Advocates halted the construction of a $100 million freeway that would have displaced more than 5,000 low-income Mexican Americans living near and around Hayward, Union City, and Fremont.
  • In NOW v. Bank of California, a lawsuit from the 1970s challenging discrimination against people of color and women, a federal court issued a consent decree requiring that 60% of the bank’s management consist of women and people of color, a result that even the banking industry called the most significant employment victory to date. Subsequently, Public Advocates negotiated similar settlements with four of the largest banks in California, and seven of the largest savings and loan associations.
  • In 1984, Public Advocates won Committee for Children’s Television v. General Foods when the California Supreme Court upheld the right of children to sue manufacturers for damages for fraudulent marketing. The litigation challenged misleading advertisements that claimed sugared cereals were nutritious
  • Spurred by the widespread practice of transferring low-income patients to public hospitals, in 1985, Public Advocates formed a health access coalition with the California Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union, California Congress of Seniors, and the California Black Health Network. For the first time, organizations committed to guaranteeing health care regardless of the ability to pay were working proactively for long-term health provision and advocating for the uninsured and underinsured. The coalition became an independent non-profit organization, Health Access, in 1987, with Maryann O’Sullivan as its founding Executive Director.
  • In the early 1990s, Public Advocates amassed extensive evidence of pervasive insurance redlining against low-income communities of color in California. In 1994, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi adopted comprehensive regulations—the first of their kind in the nation—forcing insurers of automobiles, homes, and small businesses to disclose where they were and were not serving low-income, minority, and inner-city communities. After Garamendi’s successor announced in 1996 that he would ignore these regulations, Public Advocates filed a lawsuit—Southern Christian Leadership Conference v. Quackenbush – and won.
  • Advocacy with the California PUC paid off in 1996 when it ordered discounts on internet services for community-based organizations providing education, health, and employment services to low-income residents and people of color. In a first-in-the-nation ruling, the PUC also ordered comprehensive services in seven common non-English languages spoken by seven million Californians.
  • In Yvette Doe, et al. v. Kim Belshé, Public Advocates secured pre-natal care for 40,000 low-income California residents when an Alameda County judge, in 1997, blocked the state from implementing plans to cut off prenatal care to most undocumented immigrants.
  • In the first lawsuit challenging failure of a district to comply with LCFF, Community Coalition of South Los Angeles and Reyna Frias v. Los Angeles Unified School District, Public Advocates worked with grassroots activists and coalition partners to win a directive from the California Department of Education requiring LAUSD to properly allocate funding towards high-need students. The District also agreed, in 2017, to direct more than $150 million over three years to new services for high-need students in the 50 middle and high schools with largest numbers of low-income pupils, English Learners and foster youth; and to partner with community partners and school leaders in developing additional services for high-need students.
  • In 1985, Bob Gnaizda represented two 7-year-olds in California who sued Pacific Bell for failing to disclose to them that they would be charged $.50 every time they dialed a Santa Claus line.
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