By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

May 13, 2010 | 7:16 p.m.

Reporting from Oakland

Shortly after Jerry Brown became California’s attorney general, a lawyer with a conservative property-rights group urged him in a letter to drop a global warming lawsuit against automakers.

Brown read the letter and promptly called the lawyer, M. David Stirling, counsel to the Pacific Legal Foundation. Although Brown refused to drop the suit — “He strongly believes in the global warming thing,” Stirling said — the two men reminisced about the old days in the late 1970s and early ’80s when Brown was governor and Stirling a Republican assemblyman.

” ‘Dave, you and I aren’t really that different,’ ” Stirling quoted Brown as saying. ” ‘You are a conservative, and I am a moderate.’ And then we both started laughing.”

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Across more than four decades of holding or seeking public office, one of the defining characteristics of Jerry Brown has been political flexibility: an admirable lack of ideological rigidity to his admirers, a failure of political principle to his detractors. His four-year term as the state’s attorney general has underscored that quality.

Brown has sided with prosecutors over civil libertarians, made gun control advocates wary, encouraged those who want to limit civil lawsuits and disappointed some consumer activists. On those issues, he has surprised liberals, some of whom suggest that his positions have been politically calculated toward a run for governor.

At the same time, he has also taken the relatively rare step of challenging two voter-approved laws in court, Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage and Proposition 209, limiting affirmative action. The California Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the novel legal theory Brown advanced against the marriage ban. On affirmative action, the court is considering Brown’s argument that in certain cases, Proposition 209 might violate the U.S. Constitution.

Brown, 72, bristles at the suggestion that he has been inconsistent. His performance as attorney general shows that he is “very open-minded” and receptive to others’ views, he said in an interview. “Knee-jerk ideology doesn’t impress me much.”

But those who have followed him for decades said Brown has long been defined by a willingness to change his mind.

“When circumstances change, Jerry will change,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, who worked for Brown three decades ago in the secretary of state’s office. “You have to give him some credit for that, but at the same time, people get frustrated because they don’t know where he will be.”

Brown’s eight years as mayor of Oakland, where he went to funerals of crime victims and worked with the real estate industry to try to revitalize neighborhoods, made him an occasional target of the left. Some conservatives believe the experience tempered him.

Unlike other attorneys general, Brown has declined to sponsor much new legislation, declaring that there are already too many laws. He has also said people have a fundamental right to own handguns.

“He is a complicated person, and his positions and views don’t fit a simple profile,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Legal Community Against Violence, a gun-control group.

John Sullivan, head of the Civil Justice Assn. of California, a state tort reform group that fights trial lawyers, said Brown “knows the problem of too much litigation now far better than he did when he was governor” and can empathize with those who are hounded by lawsuits.

Stirling called Brown a “chameleon,” whose demeanor now “is more cordial and more personable and warmer than when he was governor.”

As he was in his previous jobs, Brown is known as a hands-on manager who bypasses channels to quiz lower-level lawyers, brainstorms legal arguments on major cases and even double-checks news releases to make sure his quotations are accurate, staff members say.

If he has a question, he doesn’t transmit it to a top deputy and wait for an answer, staff members say. He picks up the telephone and calls the lawyer.

Those who have received such calls describe an intimidating Brown spouting an encyclopedic knowledge of policy and state history, demanding information on every detail and jousting over the proper direction for the office to take.

He has also continued his practice of relying heavily on close personal confidants. During his first two years as attorney general, his wife, Anne Gust, served as his de facto chief aide, an unpaid lawyer with her own office who called staff members about cases and dispensed advice, lawyers said.

Despite the highly unusual arrangment, staff members said Gust was a welcome presence.

“Jerry likes to process issues a little longer than Anne does,” acknowledged James M. Humes, Brown’s chief deputy in the office.

Gust now works for Brown’s gubernatorial campaign


When Brown took over as attorney general, he streamlined the office. Budget cuts over three years have produced $228 million in state savings, which included the elimination of 750 of 5,000 positions, a spokeswoman said.

He also overhauled the office’s consumer division, to the disappointment of some consumer activists.

“I wouldn’t call his record as attorney general that of a stellar consumer advocate,” said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog.

The consumer division had been renowned nationally for its work. But Brown said it was too busy going after “little cases” and targets like “dance studios,” whereas he wanted to tackle immediate and larger-scale problems.

Shortly after taking office, Brown wanted to sue Countrywide Financial Corp. over its loan practices. He said the consumer unit was slow; the state was facing a deadline, and he grew frustrated.

He appointed a new manager and sued Countrywide, resulting in a billion-dollar multi-state settlement. Overall, settlements reached by Brown’s office have produced $287 million for the state, the spokeswoman said.

Former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp said he was “disappointed about what happened at the consumer section.”

“A lot of people who had been there for years left,” he said. Van de Kamp said that he suspects Brown has been distracted by running for governor and that the attorney general’s office recently “has gotten more involved in press-worthy activities.”

Van de Kamp also said Brown’s aversion to new laws contrasted with the work of his predecessors, who saw sponsoring criminal and civil justice reforms as a key part of their job.

As Van de Kamp observed, Brown is quick to use his position to weigh in on breaking news, firing off a multitude of news releases. He occasionally overreaches, such as when he used the death of actor Corey Haim to illustrate the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

Brown called the late actor “the poster child” for such abuse and released records showing that Haim went doctor shopping for powerful prescription medicines before his death. An autopsy later determined that the actor died of pneumonia and that drugs were not a factor.

Prosecutors, uneasy about Brown’s election, were relieved when he elevated Dane Gillette, a staunch defender of the death penalty, to head the office’s criminal division. Gillette’s years of fighting death row appeals won him the nickname “Dr. Death.”

“For the most part in criminal law, Jerry Brown has put the right people in charge and just let them do their job, which is fine with me,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a law-and-order group.

Brown opposes the November ballot measure to legalize marijuana. “We enforce the law, and law enforcement is very solid that this would not be helpful,” he said.

In dealing with prosecutors, Brown had to overcome suspicions created by his 1977 selection as chief justice of the late Rose Bird, who voted against every death sentence she reviewed. Voters removed Bird from the bench nearly 10 years later after a heated campaign by prosecutors and business.

Brown, who faces no major opposition in next month’s primary, said he would be “more cautious” about his judicial selections if elected governor again. Bird was “in many ways courageous, but there were some things that were missing,” Brown said, his voice trailing. He paused. “You could say that about all of us.”

He has also sided with law enforcement in his handling of cases involving state prisons. Although courts have criticized the state for deplorable treatment of inmates in its overcrowded prisons, Brown has portrayed litigation by the nonprofit Prison Law Office as frivolous and profligate.

“He hasn’t been very constructive in trying to resolve these very life-threatening issues,” said Donald Specter, director of the law firm. “In fact, his office has been as litigious and as difficult to deal with” as his predecessors’.

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