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The state’s Democratic power brokers lost one of their top legal advisers with the death Saturday of attorney Joseph Remcho. Remcho, who started his legal career challenging the U.S. military legal system in Vietnam, served the past two decades as the go-to legal adviser for the state’s top Democrats on issues ranging from redistricting to free speech issues. Remcho, 58, of Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, was killed when the helicopter he was piloting crashed in rural Solano County. An investigation into the crash is under way. “Joe had one of the finest legal minds I’ve ever encountered. In matters of state constitutional law, politics and civil liberties, he absolutely had no peer,” said San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr. — a longtime client of Remcho’s — in a statement released Monday. “The state of California, along with hundreds of clients, both Democrat and Republican, have benefited from Joe’s expertise in deep and profound ways, and it will be impossible to replace him.” Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, based in San Leandro, has a client list that reads like a who’s who of California’s Democratic power brokers: It includes Gov. Gray Davis, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Remcho worked on many cases involving important political and constitutional issues, and some of his most widely recognized cases related to the reorganization of California’s voting districts. In the early 1980s and again in 1991, Remcho fought redistricting battles for Democrats. Armed with U.S. Census data, the Democrats alleged that the GOP tried to take control of the state Legislature by redrawing voting districts. Remcho also argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In one, Torres v. Puerto Rico, he won in a unanimous decision. Born in Elizabeth, N.J., Remcho earned a B.A. from Yale University in 1966. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1969 amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War. Upon graduation he became a staff attorney for the Lawyer’s Military Defense Committee in Saigon, where he defended soldiers facing felony charges in military courts. While in Vietnam, Remcho challenged the basic tenets of the military’s system of justice. “He mounted an attack on the military system for picking juries who were usually picked by commanders,” said Dolores Donovan, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco who worked with Remcho in Vietnam. “He mounted an attack claiming enlisted men had a right to a jury of their peers — and he persuaded military commanders he was right. Time magazine ran a cover story on it.” In the early 1970s, after his stint in Vietnam, he became an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in California. “He had been a lobbyist for the ACLU and was heavily involved in the political process,” said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. “While there, he got an opportunity to become a member of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and that set him off on his career.” Henderson and Remcho helped to found Rosen, Remcho & Henderson, a public interest law firm, in 1976. “Remcho was a perfect partner because he was a workaholic,” Henderson said, adding that Remcho even cut his honeymoon short by a couple of days because of work. And while Remcho had success working civil liberties issues, it was his work for political clients that really set him apart. Already a rising star in the state’s political scene, he soon became state Democrats’ go-to guy. “One of the first things I did when I became speaker was make Joe Remcho my attorney,” Mayor Brown told The Recorder in 1997. Remcho has been Brown’s lawyer since 1980, representing him in cases ranging from charges of illegal campaign contributions to attacking campaign ads that Brown found inflammatory. Robin Johansen, a name partner at Remcho’s firm who started working with him in the late 1970s as an associate at the old Henderson firm, said the firm would continue. “We’re a very small but close-knit group. That’s what he would have wanted and that’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “He was a brilliant lawyer with an enormous amount of common sense,” Johansen said. “He loved the notion of government working the way it’s supposed to work. He believed in the system of checks and balances and felt that’s what he was doing.” Remcho’s political work extended beyond California. He traveled to Cambodia in 1995 to help judges create anti-corruption legislation for the country’s government. In addition, Donovan, of USF, said he recently discussed his desire to serve as an observer at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where the United States has detained hundreds of terrorism suspects. Remcho never let his membership in the state’s power circles go to his head, his friends say. “One of the things that amazed me: I never got a sense from Joe that this was a guy who just met with the governor, or a briefing with Willie Brown,” Judge Henderson said. “He was always just Joe. He would never talk about it. His power never went to his head — it never changed him.” “I have lost a dear friend and a trusted adviser of many years,” said Lockyer in a news release. “He was truly a lawyer’s lawyer and a protector of our constitutional rights.” Remcho is survived by his wife of 25 years, attorney Ronnie Caplane, of Piedmont, who writes for the Jewish Bulletin, his daughter, Morgan, and son, Sam. Gov. Gray Davis will be among the politicians attending a memorial at 1 p.m. Thursday at Temple Sinai in Oakland. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Temple Sinai or BASF’s Minority Law Student Scholarship program. A reception will immediately follow the service.
Some of the most notable of Joseph Remcho’s many cases:
U.S. Supreme Court Storer v. Brown, 415 U.S. 724 (1973) – Represented independent candidates for Congress, president and vice president, challenging a California statute that requires independent candidates be politically disaffiliated for at least one year before the primary. The court held the law was constitutional. Torres v. Puerto Rico, 442 U.S. 465 (1979) – Represented defendant who had been searched upon arrival in Puerto Rico from the United States. The court held that the Fourth Amendment search and seizure requirements applied to Puerto Rico. California Supreme Court Assembly v. Deukmejian, 30 Cal.3d 638 (1982) – Successfully defended the use of new voting districts in the 1982 legislative and congressional elections. Legislature v. Eu, 54 Cal.3d 492 (1991) – The California Supreme Court upheld term limits on state legislators. Remcho, who was challenging the state’s term limit law, lost the case. Kopp v. Fair Political Practices Commission, 11 Cal.4th 607 (1995) – The California Supreme Court declined to rewrite Proposition 68, a campaign contribution initiative. Remcho won this case, arguing that the court should not rewrite the proposition. Senate v. Jones, 21 Cal.4th 1142 (1999) – Remcho successfully had a redistricting initiative removed from the ballot on single-subject grounds. The initiative would have transferred responsibility of redistricting to the California Supreme Court.

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