But precious few firms beyond the D.C. beltway have a steady Supreme Court practice. One leading exception: Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, a 23-lawyer appellate boutique based in Los Angeles, about 2,300 miles from the high court.
Its unanimous victory January 8 on behalf of the government entity in Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council marked the sixth victory in six years in Supreme Court cases in which one of its lawyers argued before the court.
“You don’t have to be physically present in Washington to stay on the pulse of the court,” said partner Kent Richland, who has argued several of the firm’s cases before the court, notably including City of Ontario v. Quon, which explored issues of privacy in electronic communications. Reading argument transcripts and keeping up with the court’s website and others brings the work of the high court home, Richland said.
Especially with cases that originate from the West Coast, the advantages of knowing the facts, the geography and the context can be more important than proximity to Washington, said partner Timothy Coates, who argued and won the flood control case. “I know the area, I know the people. I’ve seen the Los Angeles River my entire life,” Coates said.
It also helps that the 30-year-old firm’s sub-specialty has been representing local governments on appeal. When those entities lose cases at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, their certiorari petitions may get more attention than others from a Supreme Court that seems to enjoy reversing the Ninth Circuit in favor of government interests.
In Messerschmidt v. Millender, Los Angeles County v. Humphries and Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, the firm won rulings that enhanced the immunity of government officials and institutions from Section 1983 suits and other forms of liability.
Once the Supreme Court grants review in those kinds of cases, Richland said, “an awful lot of people” in the specialized Supreme Court bar call the clients seeking to represent them, often for free. “The competition is intense.” Fortunately for the firm, the clients have stuck with “the horse they rode in on” because of its expertise, Richland said. Word of mouth among lawyers who represent local governments has brought them new business.
That was how the flood control case came to the firm, said Coates. He recalled reading the Ninth Circuit ruling that found the district’s management of storm-water pollution violated the Clean Water Act. “It looked incredibly wrong to me,” said Coates. Soon, a lawyer from the flood control district who knew the firm’s work called and asked him to become involved in an appeal to the Supreme Court. “I got a fast course in the Clean Water Act.”
Then there were the high-profile cases of Marshall v. Marshall and Stern v. Marshall, the probate and bankruptcy disputes that might have gone unnoticed except for the fact that model Anna Nicole Smith was one of the parties. The firm was invited by her lawyers to join the case at the trial stage, in part to preserve issues for appeal. By the time it got to the Supreme Court, said Richland, “it was wonderfully ripe for review.” The litigation has lasted more than a decade, and Richland said, “it’s still not over.”
Coates and Richland believe their firm is in sync with the Supreme Court, in spite of the long geographic distance. “It’s a very practical court, and we make sure we have a real grounding in the area of the law involved, how it operates in the trenches.” Richland added, “We are substantive generalists. In that way, really, we are similar to the court itself.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.