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Wall Street Journal

 

'Public Interest' Lawyers Say Leave the Homeless to Rot

February 14, 2009

By Heather Mac Donald

PRINTER FRIENDLY

The dean of California's newest law school is suing this seaside community over its treatment of the homeless. The suit should serve as a warning to the business establishment of Orange County, Calif.,—which has poured over $24 million into the still-unopened University of California, Irvine law school—that it is creating a litigation monster that will endanger the county's fabled quality of life.

The law school will open its doors this fall. Part of its core mission is to train students in "public interest" law (or what its press materials now refer to as "instilling public service values"). The term "public interest" law is a masterstroke of misrepresentation, since its practitioners usually subvert the broad public interest, arrived at democratically, in favor of judge-created rights conferred on favored victim groups. The aim is judicially mandated government social services, strict new environmental regulations, and compromised public safety.

This dispute is a perfect example. Two days before Christmas last year, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the law firm of Irell & Manella filed a complaint in federal court charging Laguna Beach police and city officials with a deliberate campaign of abuse against the homeless. Shrill, occasionally ungrammatical, and devoid of factual support for its sweeping accusations, the complaint could only have been written by someone who hasn't observed this city's police-homeless interactions, or who is blinded by ideology.

The homeless here seem to be as mellow as the beach town in which they live. Michael and Robert, wearing sunglasses and relaxing in a park overlooking the sparkling Pacific Ocean, cheerfully list for me the meals and services available to them: coffee and Danish brought to the park every weekday morning; bag lunches and dinner feedings; showers, laundry and kitchen facilities at a drop-in center; and shelter during the winter months.

But residents and business owners complain of some vagrants' increasingly disruptive behavior. Winos drink outside of stores, then urinate and defecate on sidewalks, planters and walls. Homeless people fight among themselves and curse out other residents who complain.

John, a 58-year-old drifter sitting on a bench outside of City Hall, told me that in his six-and-a half years living on Laguna's streets he's had "only favorable interactions with the police but nothing but bad experiences with other homeless." Indeed, just four days before John and I spoke, a 230-pound man whom the police had taken to mental-health treatment numerous times grabbed a girl jogging on the beach, promptly smacked another girl in the mouth, then punched this second victim's father when he tried to intervene.

The Laguna City Council has been struggling to solve its homeless problem for nearly two years. Following the recommendations of a task force, it is now paying for a full-time police officer to assist the homeless with getting into treatment and off the streets. Despite a nonstop effort, the officer has found only a handful of takers. The council has also approved funding to enlarge Laguna's homeless assistance center. Neighborhood resistance, however, has blocked the expansion effort.

Such democratic process, laboriously balancing the competing demands of homeless advocates, employers and homeowners, fails to impress "public interest" lawyers such as Mr. Chemerinsky. He and his fellow attorneys want a federal judge to enjoin enforcement of Laguna's anti-camping ordinance until the city builds more no-strings-attached homeless housing. In fact, the homeless can have camping violations and other low-level infractions wiped off their record by participating in a rehabilitation program—surely a better outcome than being left to drink themselves to death on the streets. The lawsuit does not charge that any of the plaintiffs have sought, but been turned away from, a shelter or other assistance.

The police have used the camping ordinance only when calls from residents and business owners about vagrants' unruly behavior grew too insistent, and they have done so with restraint. A clothing store owner testified to the city council in January that in 12 years in business she has seen the homeless spit on, curse and ridicule the police, but has never seen the police react with anything other than professionalism and compassion.

This legal action could not come at a worse time. As John the drifter observed from his post outside City Hall: "The homeless situation is hurting business. Tourists come in the winter, they don't want to get harassed." City officials are spending rapidly declining tax revenues negotiating with the plaintiffs' attorneys, who demand in their complaint that the city pay their fees.

Yet the lawsuit augurs poorly for Orange County's future. The U.C. Irvine law school has already signed up a Who's Who of left-wing advocacy groups such as the Western Center on Law and Poverty, California Women's Center, and the Public Law Center to work with and recruit its students. Expect a steady stream of similar litigation against cash-strapped local police departments, welfare offices and private employers to roll forth from the tax-subsidized school.

That is something that developer and Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren, who has pledged $20 million to the new law school, might want to consider. How would he react if aggressive panhandlers camped out in his massive shopping and housing complexes and scared off his customers? The press release accompanying Mr. Chemerinsky's lawsuit sneers that "in Laguna Beach, there are more art galleries than city shelter beds"—a typical sampling of the complaint's contempt for prosperity and civic order. There are also more art galleries than homeless beds on Irvine Company properties or in the city of Irvine. Under the plaintiff attorneys' logic, until that imbalance is rectified Mr. Bren and Irvine's city fathers should not avail themselves of the law or should expect to be hauled into court if they do.

There will also be more espresso makers and high-paid professors' offices in the U.C. Irvine law school than homeless beds. Mr. Chemerinsky did not respond to a request for an interview, but perhaps he could create an on-site shelter and treatment program and have his students try to persuade Orange County's homeless to use it. Until they do, any argument that they are vindicating the "public interest" rings hollow.

 

 
 
 

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