Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2016

Legal Heritage

Paying Sid Lezak's Legacy Forward:
Iconic Prosecutor's Work for Social Justice Continues
By Jordan Schoonover

Sid Lezak served as the U.S. attorney for Oregon from 1961 to 1982, spanning six presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican. He then became a mediator and championed the development of alternative dispute resolution in Oregon and nationally. Today, 10 years after his death, Lezak is remembered as a giant of the Oregon legal community and his legacy lives on through the Lezak Legacy Fellowship Program at Lewis & Clark Law School.

I didn’t know Sid Lezak. When he died on April 24, 2006, I was still in high school in New Mexico. At the time, I had not the slightest inkling that I’d one day go to law school, or that, partially through Lezak’s influence, I would end up building a life and a legal career in Oregon. But I was far from the first young lawyer to be influenced by Lezak.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Susan Graber was Lezak’s first female law clerk. When she arrived in Portland in the summer of 1970, Judge Graber remembers, “Sid was immediately embracing, inviting me to his famous parties on the deck and introducing me to lawyers and judges around Portland. Sid encouraged all my ambitions, including my desire to become an appellate judge. I’m confident that, without his support, my road would have been much tougher.”

Lezak was also influential in bringing another esteemed woman lawyer to Oregon. Kris Olson states that Lezak is the reason she moved to Oregon in the early 1970s. “It was clear that he approached his job humanely and with a commitment to social justice. He asked me to join him and shape his pioneering pretrial diversion program,” she recalls. Olson would later follow in Lezak’s footsteps and serve as U.S. attorney from 1994 to 2001.

Lezak’s influence on those he mentored extended beyond their careers. He introduced Olson to her husband, Les Swanson, a respected trial attorney whom he also mentored. Swanson met Lezak in the late 1960s when, as a young lawyer, Swanson represented conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War and Lezak was the federal prosecutor. The two spent many hours conversing on planes, in Chinese restaurants and in bar meetings. Lezak introduced Swanson to Olson in 1994, and they were married two years later by Judge Graber and Ellen Rosenblum. Sid and his wife, neuropsychologist Muriel Lezak, boogied at the wedding.

Much of Lezak’s mentoring and connection-making occurred at the deck parties he and Muriel hosted at their home in the summers. Muriel remembers that on many warm, summer evenings, attorneys, law clerks, spouses and friends would show up on their deck and Sid would serve mixed drinks — he was particularly fond of gimlets.

Many an affectionate roast occurred at these deck parties, and Norm Sepenuk played the role of chief roaster. Like many others, Sepenuk relocated to Portland as a result of Lezak’s influence and worked with him as an assistant U.S. attorney before becoming an internationally respected criminal defense attorney. Sepenuk remembers Lezak as an inspirational man with a sense of justice, who was “a terrific guy to be around and to work with.” He jokes that Lezak became addicted to the roasts in his honor and remembers that his booming, infectious laugh at these events made them all the more mirthful.

Lezak’s mentoring efforts did not end when he resigned after more than 20 years as U.S. attorney. He went on to guide many a mediator, including Portland mediator Sam Imperati. Imperati became a full-time mediator in 1992 and recalls that Lezak took him under his wing, immediately becoming his mentor and promoter. Imperati could always tell where Lezak had traveled recently, because potential clients would call Imperati from cities Lezak had just visited. He recalls with jealousy Lezak’s boundless energy, as even in his mid-70s, Lezak could outlast him on the dance floor.

To these folks and the many others who comprised the community of his mentees, Lezak offered guidance, encouragement and entertainment — and fostered a commitment to social justice. “Social justice was my sweetie’s central principle,” says Muriel. “He would encourage any kind of service that enhanced social justice.”

Lezak influenced so many people during his life that his influence continues even now after his death. In 2012, Muriel and a group of Sid’s former mentees came together to launch the Lezak Legacy Fellowship Program at Lewis & Clark Law School. Their goal was to implement a formal structure to ensure Lezak’s legacy would persist and to honor that legacy by providing summer stipends and mentorship to law students pursuing social justice. Says Bob Klonoff, who was the Lewis & Clark law school dean when the program was established, “Sid Lezak was a giant, and any program in his name has instant prestige. This was a great way to promote public interest law and honor the memory of the finest U.S. attorney in Oregon’s history.”

Three classes of fellows have been selected to participate in the Lezak Legacy Program since its inception. To date, 19 fellows have completed approximately 5,000 hours of work in support of social justice. Here are some snapshots of the fellows’ experiences:

Drew Henning, now an assistant state’s attorney with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in Chicago, was a member of the 2013 class of fellows. “Being a Lezak fellow was the highlight of my time at Lewis & Clark,” Henning says. As a fellow, Henning worked as a law clerk in the human-trafficking unit at the Multnomah County district attorney’s office. “My experience enabled me to work directly with victims, law enforcement, experienced prosecutors and members of the community,” he says. “I also wrote motions and assisted in court hearings for the unit.” Frank Noonan, Olson and Swanson mentored Henning and provided critical advice and insight during his fellowship and beyond. According to Henning, “being a Lezak Fellow absolutely afforded me the opportunity to attain my current position. I am so proud to carry on Sid’s legacy of being a prosecutor and helping those without a voice, and I could not be happier starting my career here in Sid’s hometown.”

Nikki Pritchard, now a judicial law clerk to the Hon. Suzanne B. Chanti at the Lane County Circuit Court, was selected as a fellow in 2014. During that summer, she worked as a legal intern at the ACLU, where she analyzed a potential case regarding freedom of speech and contributed to a U.S. Supreme Court brief in Geiger v. Kitzhaber, the case that won marriage equality in Oregon. Pritchard was mentored by Nancy Tauman, Olson and Swanson during that summer and beyond. She went on to intern with Legal Aid Services of Oregon, the Federal Public Defender’s Office and Oregon Public Broadcasting, and she attributes these opportunities in large part to the mentoring she received. “Being a Lezak Legacy Fellow has proven an incredible resource because of the community it has created,” she explains. “I am so grateful to be a part of that community, and I plan to stay involved with the program and contribute to it in any way that I can.”

Joe Callahan, now in his final year at Lewis & Clark Law School, was also a fellow in 2014. He worked for the Migrant Education Program, which provides services to highly mobile low-income students and their families, and he served on the executive board of the Cesar E. Chavez Leadership Conference planning committee. The conference brings together over 1,700 Latino high school students from throughout Oregon to participate in workshops, learn about scholarships and higher education and celebrate Hispanic culture and heritage. Of the Lezak Fellowship, Callahan notes, “the financial support was quite helpful, and I am very appreciative of the support and guidance that are provided through the mentoring aspect of the program.” Imperati and Swanson were his assigned mentors. Callahan has remained involved with the Lezak program by serving on the fellowship selection committee in 2015, and he plans to continue supporting the program because it provides great opportunities to law students engaged in public service.

Ellie Reuland, now a 3L at Lewis & Clark, was selected as a 2015 fellow. She spent the summer working for the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project on employment matters for low-income and migrant workers. “The guidance and learning opportunities I received this summer from my mentors, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Jerry LaBarre, Sam Imperati and Jordan Schoonover and the support of the rest of the Lezak community have reinforced my commitment to public service and social justice while showing me that there is more than one way to get there,” Reuland says. “My experience this summer as a Lezak Legacy fellow has been one of the best of law school and will likely prove to be the most important as I move through my final year and into the greater Portland legal community.”

As a former fellow myself, I can attest to the immediate and lasting impacts of the Lezak Legacy Program. After a most unexpected series of events, I became one of the inaugural fellows in the summer of 2013. I was in Washington, D.C., for the spring of my 2L year, interning with the Department of Justice, and I had planned to remain in D.C. for the summer to participate in the Environmental Protection Agency’s summer honors program. However, funding for that position unexpectedly was eliminated shortly before it was to begin, as a result of budget cuts during “The Sequester.” Thus, I found myself mere weeks away from my 2L summer without a job or a source of income.

Fortunately, I was able to secure an internship with U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman in Portland, and I was selected as a fellow, assuring that I would have enough money to live on. The impact of a modest stipend on a law student working in an unpaid internship cannot be overestimated. Yet, the value of the stipend paled in comparison to the value of the mentorship I received and the community I became a part of as a Lezak fellow. Judge Graber and Sepenuk, my assigned mentors, welcomed me into their friendship, advised me and entertained me during our get-togethers. I also formed a lasting connection with Muriel, Kris, Les and the rest of the Lezak Legacy mentor community, and I gained a friend and champion in Judge Mosman. During my internship, I worked on pro se criminal matters and Social Security cases and on a complex environmental case. My experience introduced me to the inner workings of the federal courts, showed me how to be an effective litigator and helped me obtain my post-graduate federal clerkships.

During my time as a fellow, I also gained something that neither I nor the selection committee could have predicted: a life partner. On the third day of my internship, I laid eyes on a handsome juror, and after the trial — with Judge Mosman’s permission, of course — we began to date. Judge Mosman will marry us this summer on Sunday, June 26, 2016 — 67 years to the day after Muriel and Sid were married, also on a Sunday. We consider this happy coincidence to be a very good omen. Thus, what appeared to be a terrible blow to my budding legal career — losing my summer job and leaving D.C. unexpectedly — turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, personally and professionally. I returned to Portland for a wonderful summer job experience with Judge Mosman, connected with the inspirational and supportive Lezak Legacy community and met my husband-to-be. We are excited to return to Portland and build our lives there when my clerkship concludes.

As my story and the experiences of the other fellows demonstrate, Sid Lezak’s legacy of mentoring and bringing like-minded people together and his passion for social justice live on and pass to another generation of Oregon lawyers through the Lezak Legacy fellowship. According to those who knew him, this is exactly what Lezak would have wanted. Says Swanson: “The Lezak Legacy Project embodies Sid’s impressive character and warm personality, his mentoring, his concern for others and his public service.” Olson adds: “How fitting that we should be honoring him by providing stipends to law students who share his values of holding the legal system accountable to its founding principles! Sid was among the lions of the bar, and — 10 years after his abrupt death — we still can hear his distinctive voice gleefully goading us to live up to our own ideals of justice.” Imperati agrees: “It gives me so much hope for the future to see so many future lawyers carrying on Sid’s legacy.”

Muriel notes that the young lawyers are not the only ones to benefit from the mentorship program, which brings established lawyers into contact with the most current thinking and with the young people who represent the future of the legal profession. When asked what Sid would have thought of the program that bears their name, Muriel responded, “I think he would have just been delighted. It combines his joy in mentoring and his awareness of the importance of good mentoring and good experiences for young law clerks plus his driving passion for social justice.”

The Lezak Legacy

The Lezak Legacy Fellowship Program has already impacted many during the three short years of its existence, and its influence continues to grow. This year, in honor of the 10th anniversary of Sid’s death, the program will begin an ambitious endowment campaign by soliciting pledges from Lezak’s former law clerks, instituting a planned-giving program for bequests, enlisting the generosity of major donors and forming a steering committee. In this way, we hope to grow the program, continue supporting those who will work for social justice in the future and honor Lezak’s legacy. For more information about the program or to become involved, contact board chair Chuck Tauman at ctauman@gmail.com. —J.S.

Jordan Schoonover, a 2014 graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School and member of the Oregon State Bar, is clerking on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Nashville.

© 2016 Jordan Schoonover

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