• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— Still, Johnson regards Brandt-Hawley as an outstanding lawyer, a good writer, and a savvy advocate. "The city's task is to convince the public and CARE that they're looking in earnest at the options available for saving as much as the historic resources as possible." That the court concluded the city violated CEQA is no surprise, Johnson said. "This is a lesson a lot of government agencies don't seem to get. It's very common to see big projects being fast-tracked. When they try and cut corners and not examine the true impacts, they get in trouble."

Some San Diego lawyers specializing in eminent domain, particularly those representing East Village property owners, were disappointed by part of Judge McConnell's ruling. While CARE emerged victorious, the people who have already received condemnation notices to vacate their property in 90 days remain in limbo. The judge stopped the clock on the condemnation proceedings rather than rescind those notices. Some lawyers say the judge was probably throwing the city a bone so as not to appear too heavy-handed; because the actions to acquire land were clearly illegal, the property owners would likely win an appeal that would dismiss the condemnations.

* * *

Although San Diego lawyers have consulted Brandt-Hawley on local issues, she had never filed a lawsuit here until some East Village residents contacted her in March. She welcomed the opportunity to try to save some of downtown's historic warehouses, given her ties to San Diego.

The daughter of an Air Force major, Brandt-Hawley moved with her family to numerous communities and had no trouble adjusting to Crawford High School, where she graduated in 1969. The family had moved to the San Diego area permanently in 1967, after Brandt-Hawley's father retired from the military.

While attending law school at the University of California at Davis, Brandt-Hawley found a course on environmental law compelling but settled on another specialty. "I wanted to be a criminal defender. I thought it was a noble area of law, representing the oppressed. I never wanted to be a corporate attorney or an estate planner," Brandt-Hawley said. "Aside from criminal law and family law, so much of legal work is mainly people fighting over money. That didn't interest me very much."

Federal Defenders, Inc. in San Diego hired Brandt-Hawley in 1977, after she passed the California bar examination. Exercising her powers of persuasion early, she cajoled her superiors into sending her to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to learn Spanish so she could better serve her Hispanic clients.

After returning from Mexico, love and marriage lured Brandt-Hawley to Northern California. Her husband, Bill Hawley, is a surfer, poet, and winegrower. They have two sons, Emile and Zane. In the early days of operating Hawley's Random Ridge Winery, the couple crushed grapes by stomping them with their bare feet. Their only source of electricity comes from solar panels, so Brandt-Hawley has a washer and dryer in her law office to do the family's laundry.

Despite her serene and bucolic existence, Brandt-Hawley didn't think about becoming an advocate for the environment when she first hung her shingle in Glen Ellen in 1979. Evolution, not revolution, marks her career as a lawyer. In the beginning, she operated a general practice, serving most clients who walked in the door, handling almost any type of case presented: bankruptcy, divorce, personal injury, drafting wills, business transactions, child custody, and criminal defense.

In her first environmental lawsuit, Brandt-Hawley represented a group of citizens challenging the size of a Hewlett-Packard plant to be built near Sonoma State University. Although she lost the case, Hewlett-Packard ended up building a much smaller facility. Publicity from the monthlong trial in 1982 prompted community activists to contact her about other environmental issues.

Hewlett-Packard's lawyer, Edmund Regalia, worked for the law firm that had written textbooks about California's real estate and environmental laws, but that didn't intimidate Brandt-Hawley. "I thought she had the makings of an excellent attorney. She was thorough and well-organized," recalled Regalia, of Walnut Creek. "Although Susan called herself a beginner, I didn't regard her as a beginner. Since then she has established a solid reputation."

In 1984 some residents of Cloverdale hired Brandt-Hawley to sue their city government for having approved a project without an environmental impact report. Claiming there would be no negative effects, UltraPower had planned to build a wood-burning power plant with a 12-story smokestack downtown. Brandt-Hawley won the case, and UltraPower abandoned its plans. "Whenever I drive through downtown Cloverdale, I figure no one remembers," she said, "but that's one of the most satisfying cases I've had."

As Brandt-Hawley scored more such victories, she became known as Sonoma County's "dragon slayer," a nickname given her by Helen Libeu, an activist in Santa Rosa. In 1988 Brandt-Hawley decided to concentrate exclusively on environmental law.

Charles "Steve" Crandall, an environmental lawyer in San Diego, said he admires Brandt-Hawley for her success in a field that requires perseverance and personal sacrifice. Typically, such lawyers work on contingency, collecting their pay from the defendants only if they win their case. Citizens groups, such as CARE, usually can't afford to pay much more than their lawyer's traveling expenses, Crandall said. When a group of concerned citizens sues over environmental issues, they're acting as a private attorney general working on the public's behalf to uphold CEQA. They notify the California Attorney General's Office, which once in a blue moon, or once in every 200 cases, might join a suit. Even if the environmental lawyer wins the case, Crandall said, it might take several years to get paid because public agencies and real estate developers often challenge the fees. "This is true public interest work."

If Brandt-Hawley has any regrets about her varied and rewarding career as a lawyer, it's that all the drafting of legal documents leaves her little time for creative writing. "My fantasy now is to take time off and write a book. I am writing a novel very slowly. I feel like I have all these Post-its in the back of my brain. I'd like to get them all written down."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close