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SACRAMENTO — Eric Grant admits he liked going home and telling his family and friends that he filed the legal action that could hasten the political end of Gov. Gray Davis. But Grant, of Sacramento’s Sweeney & Grant, said he’s not trying to change the world with a conservative political practice. “Maybe it’s more accurate to say I want to stop the other guys from changing the world to the worse,” he said. The tiny Sweeney & Grant is barely 2 years old. But if having a key role in the biggest political story in the state, if not the nation, is any indication, the firm has already asserted itself in the competitive and tight-knit world of political lawyering. Sweeney & Grant won the first legal action in the now-litigious recall election. Working for one of the recall groups, the firm asked the Third District Court of Appeal to order Democratic Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to rescind an earlier directive he issued and speed up the verification of recall signatures. Democrats opposed and, in fact, filed a suit challenging the signatures. But on July 18, the Third District granted Sweeney & Grant’s writ — a major coup for Republicans, who are hoping fall voters will more likely recall Davis than if the election is held in the spring. Had county registrars continued counting signatures at a slower pace, the election might not have been certified for Oct. 7. The victory meshes with the firm’s other political work, which has been on behalf of Republicans. Even so, Grant eschews political or other labels. “I would hesitate to use ‘advocacy’ [to describe the firm] because we have a lot of clients who we do ordinary things for,” he said. Grant and partner James Sweeney said they were drawn together by shared political, moral and religious beliefs. Both are refugees from larger firms who decided to strike out on their own as much to improve quality of life as to allow them to pursue cases they believe in. The 36-year-old Grant used to work for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm that battles “government intrusion,” property takings and other “assaults on free enterprise,” according to its Web site. Sweeney was at Bell, McAndrews, Hiltachk & Davidian, a Sacramento firm known for its representation of the California Republican Party. Sweeney & Grant’s political work is mostly seasonal. Their “bread and butter,” as Sweeney puts it, is representing nonprofits and religious institutions, including the California Catholic Conference, the Diocese of Sacramento and some non-Catholic institutions. The firm has done some work in the Catholic sex abuse cases, defending the institution, not the alleged offender, but most of its religious work involves day-to-day legal questions on everything from employment to real estate. “They say don’t discuss religion and politics [at work],” Sweeney, 41, said with a laugh. “In our firm there’d be nothing to talk about.” Although the firm is not instantly familiar in politics, its participation in the recall is no mystery. It got the business the way most firms do: connections. Sweeney used to work for Bill Jones, who was the last Republican secretary of state, and, among other political work, the firm also served as counsel for the Bill Simon for Governor campaign. Simon has taken out candidacy papers and is considering a run in the recall. The Recall Gray Davis Committee also has close ties to Simon. It employs his campaign consultant, Sal Russo, and hired Sweeney & Grant to file the Third District writ. Sweeney & Grant recently moved off the Capitol Mall into bigger offices that are located just down the street from the Department of Justice. Lobby reading material there includes the National Review, and the walls are decorated with historic images of chief justices. Right now, it’s just the two partners plus a part-time of counsel; they hope to add another lawyer very soon. “We are positioned in a market that is really ideally suited [to] issues related to government and enforcing rights of businesses on intrusions of government,” Sweeney said. The pair teamed up in June 2001. Sweeney had been operating as a solo since January 2000, when he left Bell, McAndrews. In the recall, Bell, McAndrews represents Rescue California, the recall group bankrolled by San Diego millionaire U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, and People’s Advocate, which started the campaign. Neither group supported Sweeney & Grant’s Third District petition because they didn’t think the move was necessary. Sweeney said he struck out on his own because he wanted to pursue more First Amendment and religious institutions cases. He met Grant when they both served on the board of the anti-abortion Sacramento Life Foundation. Sweeney was working on a state Supreme Court case, Catholic Charities of Sacramento Inc. v. Managed Health Care et al., S099822, and asked Grant for help. The case, which is pending, concerns religious employers’ resistance to a government mandate to cover contraception in health insurance. Grant welcomed the opportunity to leave the Pacific Legal Foundation in part because of a dispute he had with the higher-ups there. Grant, whose resume includes a clerkship for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a stint at Jones Day in Washington, D.C., said the disagreement arose over a 2001 Supreme Court takings case, Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, 121 S. Ct. 2448. After Grant did much of the work on the case, foundation leaders picked his boss, James Burling, to do the oral arguments. “That’s the big enchilada, so it’s disappointing when it’s taken away,” Grant said. Even so, Grant and Burling, who is principal attorney in the foundation’s property rights section, agree that there’s no residual ill will. In fact, the foundation occasionally hires Grant now that he’s with Sweeney. “He’s a very good person to work with,” Burling said. “He has a really good grasp of complex issues, and he’s able to cut to the chase.” In their political work, Sweeney and Grant have sparred with some big Democratic players, including Remcho, Johansen & Purcell of San Leandro, which represents Gov. Davis and other constitutional officers, and Olson, Hagel & Fishburn of Sacramento, which is general counsel to the California Democratic Party. Sweeney & Grant has also tussled with Joe Dunn, the trial lawyer turned Orange County senator who wants to be the Democratic candidate for attorney general in 2006. The firm represented freshman Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City, and nearly filed a lawsuit against Dunn over statements made during a tight campaign. Besides giving them chances to exercise their convictions, both lawyers say they like the flexibility of their small firm. They don’t put in monster hours — except for an all-nighter for the recall petition — and Grant even works at home a couple of days each week. Neither would discuss profits per partner or other details of the firm’s finances, except to assert that business is good. The money is less than his Jones Day salary, Grant said, but more than his pay at the Pacific Legal Foundation. Still, Grant said he and Sweeney are less motivated by money and more moved by a desire to get into the “fray.” “It seems like the legal profession has generally low job satisfaction. A lot of being a lawyer is pushing paper around,” Grant said. “But if you can find a job where you’re making a difference � that’s a great benefit.” Although it’s tempting to do so, Sweeney said the Third District petition and the firm’s other work should not be viewed through a “political lens.” Rather, he sees it from a constitutional standpoint. The firm doesn’t do political consulting, and Sweeney believes the partners get more respect from courts because they focus their arguments on legal, not political, issues. “If provisions are being ignored, it’s entirely appropriate to hold government accountable,” Sweeney said. “Whether Gray Davis is recalled, from my perspective, is beside the point.” Reporter Jeff Chorney’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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