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Judicial Profile: Coleman Blease

Jill Duman, The Recorder

August 23, 2005

COURT: Third District Court of Appeal

APPOINTED: May 1979, by Gov. Jerry Brown

DATE OF BIRTH: Oct. 23, 1929

LAW SCHOOL: Boalt Hall School of Law


Reading the recent majority opinion in the Third District's review of Proposition 77 the
redistricting measure twice removed from the November ballot offers insight into its author,
Justice Coleman Blease.

A one-time teacher of rhetoric at UC-Berkeley, with a scholar's respect for language, Blease
zeroed in on what he considered the heart of the case the failure of Prop 77 proponents to
follow the letter of the law.

"The Legislature has directed that an initiative petition not be received or filed which is not in
conformity with the statutes which govern its submission and circulation," wrote Blease.

His decision was the outcome of 50 to 100 hours of research and writing, compressed into
two weeks because of tight election deadlines.

As is typical of the 26-year Third District veteran, Blease paid careful attention to the laws in
question. He describes himself as "the only strict constructionist here on the court."

"I read the statutes," he said dryly. "It's a failing of mine."

Just days after his Prop 77 opinion was issued, the state Supreme Court put the measure
back on the ballot, agreeing with dissenter Arthur Scotland that the measure should not
undergo judicial pre-election review.

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Blease is nonplussed about being overruled, saying he's had plenty of decisions "deep-
sixed" by the Supreme Court even when it was headed by Chief Justice Rose Bird, who
like Blease was an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Bench colleagues Scotland, Justice Richard Sims and former Justice Keith Sparks note
Blease's penchant for stripping cases down to their original legislative intent a legacy from
his early career as a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California,
the Friends Committee on Legislation and the Social Workers Union.

"There are a lot of smart justices," Sparks observed. "But not too many have been a scholar
of the law like he has."

In his dealings with lawyers, Blease laments the failure of many to "come to grips with
statutory language" and said he's bothered that many of the attorneys who argue before the
Third District bench "don't draw the distinction between statutes and cases" and can't explain
how relevant statutes might benefit their clients.

Another frustration is what Blease sees as the failure of attorneys to "fill in the blanks" about
"general consequences" pertaining to the field of law their cases concern.

"We are all practicing generalists," said Blease of the Third District bench.

In the recent decision on Prop 77 which seeks to take redistricting out of the hands of the
Democrat-controlled Legislature Blease discounts the chatter from pundits that it had
anything to do with partisanship.

One of three Democrats and two Brown appointees on the Third District bench, Blease
counts himself an admirer of the late Robert Puglia, a conservative and former presiding
justice of the Third District.

"We had a mutually high regard for our legal abilities," Blease said. "We disagreed on
everything else.

"A lot of what happens with the law is arriving at conclusions you might not arrive at on your
own," Blease added. "You may disagree vehemently with them [but] you can't be a
revolutionary in this system."

But if Blease isn't a revolutionary, his legal work has indeed blazed new trails.

Strict scrutiny of statutory language is a hallmark of many notable Blease opinions, among
them a series of decisions preserving the state's natural waterways.

County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles, 124 Cal.App. 3d 1 and 160 Cal.App.3d 1178, two
cases from the 1980s, addressed water diversion in the Owens Valley. California Trout, Inc.
v. State Water Resources Control Board, 207 Cal.App.3d 585, a 1989 Blease-authored
opinion, required adequate tributary flow into Mono Lake for fisheries. Those decisions
changed water use in California, said Antonio Rossmann, a water law expert with Rossmann
and Moore in San Francisco.

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"It would not be an overstatement to say he's the best writer in the court of appeals right
now," Rossmann said.

In a 2004 decision, Central Delta Water Agency v. Water Resources Control Board, 124
Cal.App.4th 245, Blease held that both the state constitution and state water code require
reservoir permits to estimate the amount of water intended for "actual" beneficial use rather
than a "general statement" of potential beneficial use.

Rossmann, who teaches some of Blease's water law decisions at Boalt Hall School of Law,
maintains that Mono Lake might not exist but for Blease's appellate decisions.

Blease and his then-partner Lawrence Karlton, now a federal district court judge, also played
a major role in limiting development at Lake Tahoe during their early years as counsel for
the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

Michael Rothschild, another former partner of Blease's, remembers the justice as a

formidable lawyer.

"We would be in litigation representing the League," Rothschild said. "On the other side of
the table would be five or six high-powered attorneys paid for by the casinos. We considered
that a fair fight."

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