By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 15, 2009]
When I first glimpsed my name on the cover of the April 8 Guardian (“Herrera’s other crusade: protecting bad cops” ) my initial thought was that it unfairly singled out police officers while neglecting to mention my defense of “bad librarians,” “bad nurses,” “bad MUNI operators,” “bad social workers,” and the countless other bad things alleged in every lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco.
That is certainly not to concede that all City employees or departments named in lawsuits are actually bad, of course. But it is to illustrate what I hope is an obvious point: my job as City Attorney is to defend the City in all civil litigation. I have yet to see the lawsuit that hasn’t charged something or someone with being “bad” — usually premising a demand to be compensated because of it.
Without attempting to re-litigate any specific case here, it is true that San Francisco is sometimes sued by very sympathetic plaintiffs — by good and decent people who, through no fault of their own, suffered grave injustices. But it is also true that not every injustice is the fault of City government.
When San Francisco or its employees cause harm, my office does everything in its power to reach a just conclusion; sometimes we’re able to settle those cases, and sometimes we’re not. If an alleged harm is not caused by the City or its employees, we aggressively defend those cases; sometimes we fight them through to trial, and sometimes we conclude that it’s more prudent to settle.
As the City’s lawyer and as an officer of the court, I make tough decisions every day based on the facts and the law presented by each particular case. I am certainly open to being criticized for those decisions, and I’ll be the first to concede that some of my critics — including the Guardian — have made me a better city attorney. But I can’t choose not to defend a category of City employees to fulfill a policy agenda.
The fact that I am doing the job I was elected to do doesn’t mean I oppose accountability, for police officers or any other public servant. It does mean I believe our legal system is uniquely equipped to serve the ends of justice, and to hold the unjust to account. Lawyers’ role in that system is not to pursue their own agendas, but to represent their clients.
In my case, that’s the City — yes, even when it does bad things. That isn’t about protecting bad conduct; it’s about protecting our tax dollars, and the many good and worthy things they make possible.
City Attorney of San Francisco
April 15, 2009