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Ron Plesser died in the ring, the victim of a heart attack at Dulles Airport on Nov. 18 as he prepared to board a plane to Paris to deliver a speech on information policy. He would have wanted it no other way. To sum up Ron, a giant of the privacy and information bar, in 1,000 words is a hopeless task. All one can hope to do is to evoke nods of recognition from those who knew him, and to paint the broadest outlines of a portrait for those who did not. You didn’t really know Ron Plesser unless you got voice mails from him. He would leave scores a day, exhorting this associate, reassuring that client, expressing his impatience to a managing partner, comforting a friend. And all those messages started with his trademark foghorn greeting: “HIIIIIII . . . it’s RON.” He was a pioneer. While Ron didn’t write the Freedom of Information Act, he helped to make it a permanent, effective fixture of public life. Working for Public Citizen and Ralph Nader shortly after graduating from law school in 1970, Ron documented the shortcomings of FOIA. His analysis formed the basis of the 1974 overhaul, which still serves as the basic blueprint of the law 30 years later. Those of a certain age will also recall Vaughn v. Rosen (1973), the D.C. Circuit landmark that established procedures for trial courts to follow in FOIA disputes; they might not remember that it was Ron’s case. Today, we take FOIA and what it represents for granted. But it was only through the efforts of Ron and others like him that we have a government that is, to some significant degree, open and accessible to its citizens. Ron was committed to the principle that transparency produces the best result, most of the time. And so he helped effect a true revolution in the relationship between government and its citizens. The value of such open government — as well as the imperative to protect it — has never been more urgent and obvious than it is today. Ron was perfectly positioned in the second half of his career to see what was at stake when the free flow of information he helped to set in motion came together with the great current of advanced information technology. How fortunate that a man of his sensitivity both to the right of privacy and the benefits of electronic communication was there to bend the river to protect us all. Over the last generation, his mark was on every privacy and information law passed by Congress, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, E-FOIA, and numerous others. Ron forged his reputation as the first director of Nader’s Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, as general counsel of the U.S. Privacy Protection Study Commission, as chair of the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section of the American Bar Association, and in private practice, including the last 16 years in the D.C. office of Piper Rudnick. His influence also stretched overseas: He advised on the European Union’s Data Protection Directive, and the prime purpose of the trip he never got to take was to speak to the partners at DLA (a likely merger partner with our firm) on how the history of FOIA can help them wrestle with new parallel legislation in the United Kingdom. Whatever hat he wore, Ron would — in the best tradition of the Washington lawyer — bring disparate views to the table and hammer out a consensus, always with an eye to the public purposes behind the law. No one could doubt his commitment to the common good. That’s why Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that Ron “not only educated all of us about threats to privacy in the computer age, but also of the social value of new technologies in our lives.” And it’s why John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, said that for three decades, Ron “fought to ensure that core constitutional protections would not be eroded by the advent of new technology.” I had the unhappy task of announcing his death to our firm in an all-hands e-mail. Naturally, and fittingly, the word soon raced around the Internet, and I received scores of heartfelt replies from friends, clients, colleagues, and many others. Among the most striking were those from lawyers who looked to Ron as a teacher. One attendee at a World Intellectual Property Organization conference reported, “We are exploring a webcasting/broadcasting treaty this week, and the session hall is full of those who were students and colleagues of Ron. They all ask to be remembered to the firm and his family.” As a colleague, Ron defined the word “beloved.” Yes, he could be gruff and demanding on occasion, but it was all for effect or because his passions simply outran his patience. As quickly as he fulminated, the moment passed, and he became again the big bear of a man who embraced everyone and everything. The most reliable test of how you rank as a colleague — what the staff thinks of you — speaks volumes in Ron’s case. As Stu Ingis, an associate at our firm, said in a eulogy at Ron’s funeral: “The first person who came in to see me on Friday morning was one of the housekeeping staff at the firm whom Ron had befriended. It wasn’t long before the staff had congregated in the hall to comfort each other and reminisce. . . . This was a man who really respected and developed relationships with everyone at the firm. . . . There was nobody who was too small or too big.” His passions were as stirring as he was. Ron was devoted to his wife, Barbara, and their two children, Jeremy and Shelley. He loved sailing — an improbable figure to imagine at the helm of a sailboat, but once you saw him there, you understood, for he was at peace, in complete control, enjoying the challenge. He loved race cars and basketball, fishing and the outdoors. His secretary of 27 years, Phyllis Quander, will testify to his passion for his colleagues — he made himself a fixture in their lives, whether they asked him to or not. People as vital as Ron Plesser sometimes block out the sun. That never happened with him. The sun shone right through Ron, illuminating all of us lucky enough to be standing nearby. His light is now dimmed, but his legacy shines, and it marks the way for those of us left behind. Jeffrey F. Liss is a partner in the D.C. office, and the nationwide chief operating officer, of Piper Rudnick.

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