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In Consideration of the Bernie Siegan Award

U-T columnist took shots at USD Law School’s rewarding city attorney Jan Goldsmith.
U-T columnist took shots at USD Law School’s rewarding city attorney Jan Goldsmith.

Last week, Union-Tribune columnist Tom Blair showed how far the paper has gone under its post–Copley Press owners, but whether it’s in a good direction probably depends on one’s politics and level of interest in local intellectual history. Making fun of the bestowal of the University of San Diego Law School’s Bernie Siegan Award on city attorney Jan Goldsmith, Blair noted that previous recipients have included Ed Meese, who the columnist said had been “tarred by the Wedtech defense firm’s corruption scandal as President Reagan’s attorney general. And then there was his involvement in the pesky Iran-Contra weapons mess that led to charges of a cover-up.” Of another past winner, Kenneth Starr, Blair — who in March of 2007 as San Diego Magazine editor gave $250 to Barack Obama’s nascent presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org — wrote: “He’s the guy who led the bitter impeachment charge against President Clinton.…” About Siegan himself, who died in Encinitas five years ago this month at the age of 81, Blair said nothing.

The late USD law professor was a libertarian hero, a constitutional scholar famous for his defense of individual property rights and his fierce opposition to zoning restrictions and government condemnation. An early redevelopment foe, Siegan wrote, “People whose property is not secure from government are extremely limited in their freedom, for, as Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter noted, ‘the free range of the human spirit becomes shriveled and constrained under economic dependence.’”

But Siegan — who consistently opposed taxpayer-subsidized projects, including the San Diego Convention Center and pro–sports stadium deals coveted by the U-T, the chamber of commerce, and the local GOP establishment — was out of sync with his times. After Reagan picked him for a judgeship on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987, the Senate Judiciary Committee, controlled by Democrats, voted the nomination down in an 8–6 party-line roll call. Siegan’s was just the second of Reagan’s 340 appointments until then to be rejected by the committee. After his defeat, the good-natured Siegan returned to his quiet life as a scholar in a house on La Jolla’s Camino de la Costa best known for one of its previous occupants, mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep and other books that often referenced Southern California’s pervasive corruption.

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U-T columnist took shots at USD Law School’s rewarding city attorney Jan Goldsmith.
U-T columnist took shots at USD Law School’s rewarding city attorney Jan Goldsmith.

Last week, Union-Tribune columnist Tom Blair showed how far the paper has gone under its post–Copley Press owners, but whether it’s in a good direction probably depends on one’s politics and level of interest in local intellectual history. Making fun of the bestowal of the University of San Diego Law School’s Bernie Siegan Award on city attorney Jan Goldsmith, Blair noted that previous recipients have included Ed Meese, who the columnist said had been “tarred by the Wedtech defense firm’s corruption scandal as President Reagan’s attorney general. And then there was his involvement in the pesky Iran-Contra weapons mess that led to charges of a cover-up.” Of another past winner, Kenneth Starr, Blair — who in March of 2007 as San Diego Magazine editor gave $250 to Barack Obama’s nascent presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org — wrote: “He’s the guy who led the bitter impeachment charge against President Clinton.…” About Siegan himself, who died in Encinitas five years ago this month at the age of 81, Blair said nothing.

The late USD law professor was a libertarian hero, a constitutional scholar famous for his defense of individual property rights and his fierce opposition to zoning restrictions and government condemnation. An early redevelopment foe, Siegan wrote, “People whose property is not secure from government are extremely limited in their freedom, for, as Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter noted, ‘the free range of the human spirit becomes shriveled and constrained under economic dependence.’”

But Siegan — who consistently opposed taxpayer-subsidized projects, including the San Diego Convention Center and pro–sports stadium deals coveted by the U-T, the chamber of commerce, and the local GOP establishment — was out of sync with his times. After Reagan picked him for a judgeship on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987, the Senate Judiciary Committee, controlled by Democrats, voted the nomination down in an 8–6 party-line roll call. Siegan’s was just the second of Reagan’s 340 appointments until then to be rejected by the committee. After his defeat, the good-natured Siegan returned to his quiet life as a scholar in a house on La Jolla’s Camino de la Costa best known for one of its previous occupants, mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep and other books that often referenced Southern California’s pervasive corruption.

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Blair has always been an enigma of sorts. During his earlier stint with the Union, he wrote one of those local "feel good" columns with a strong establishment flavor. Then he went off to edit San Diego Magazine, amid much fanfare. Although that publication had a tradition of some real investigative reporting, notably by the late Harold Keen, its emphasis was on living the good life, La Jolla-style (even if you lived in City Heights.) I can only assume that Blair realized that the magazine was going nowhere, losing both readership and advertisers, and headed for a more sheltered port to finish his career.

The Blair piece that triggered this story seems to be, shall we say, politically inconsistent or muddled. He probably knew little of the history of the award or the man for whom it was named. But, yes, there are signs that a certain knee-jerk reaction that could always be anticipated from the U-T, especially involving local sacred cows, is no longer so predictable.

March 18, 2011

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