Sozi Tulante (Photo by Nanette Kardeszeski)

In 2017, you couldn’t be a regular consumer of Philadelphia news and not hear the name Sozi Tulante. In fact, plenty of people outside the city and even outside the state became familiar with the now-former city solicitor last year, as his office took on a seemingly endless procession of high-profile issues, from the soda tax to sanctuary cities.

City solicitors have traditionally been known (if they’re known at all) for quietly defending against lawsuits. It’s rare that a solicitor and his office find themselves under such a bright spotlight for such a long time, but Tulante didn’t view the increased media scrutiny as a distraction.

Instead, he looked at it as a chance to educate the public.

“I thought it provided an opportunity to talk about the law and not politics—even though that’s only interesting to lawyers,” he said with a laugh, noting that, for example, throughout the widely publicized litigation over the city’s controversial sweetened beverage tax, “I was out there explaining pre-emption and uniformity, which I’m pretty sure no city solicitor had done.”

Tulante, who earlier this year left the solicitor post to take a job teaching prosecutorial ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said he talks to his students about the drawbacks of refusing to comment on ongoing cases.

“What that means is you leave a void,” Tulante said. And that void can sometimes be filled with misinformation, especially in the social media era. So, Tulante said, as city solicitor he felt it was better to be as transparent as possible with the public and explain his office’s position in each matter as best he could.

That philosophy was all the more important because the Philadelphia Law Department, under his guidance, made a concerted effort to increase its focus on affirmative litigation, attracting unprecedented media attention in the process.

Last year, the office filed a first-of-its-kind suit against Wells Fargo alleging discriminatory lending practices in the city. It also successfully sought a preliminary injunction against Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attempt to cut off federal funding for the city’s law enforcement as part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on sanctuary cities. In December, Philadelphia joined New York City and San Francisco in suing the Department of Defense over alleged repeated failures to report criminal history and dishonorable discharge data for military members into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. And a collaborative effort between the Law Department, several local law firms and a Temple University law professor culminated in a lawsuit filed in January of this year against several leading pharmaceutical companies in an effort to hold them accountable for their alleged role in the opioid crisis.

Tulante was instrumental in pushing the office to take on more affirmative litigation, inspired by his counterparts in other major cities.

“If I’m at a cocktail party and someone asks me what the Law Department does, [the answer] would be, ’We’re the most-sued entity,’” Tulante said. “We were trying to change that dynamic.”

Tulante reached out to city attorneys around the country for guidance on bringing affirmative litigation.

“I was able to talk to a lot of my peers from across the country about some of the issues they’re going through,” he said.

But determining which causes to champion on behalf of the City of Philadelphia was not a task the office could afford to take lightly, Tulante noted.

“The credibility of the city is at stake,” Tulante said. “If a claim is frivolous, we lose credibility the next time we bring a claim.”

The first prerequisite for any action was that the city needed to be able to show it suffered direct harm in some way, he said. And while the office was willing to entertain any suggestion brought to it, often by local attorneys, the process for vetting each potential claim was long and thorough.

For example, the city held off on filing its suit against Wells Fargo until after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling establishing that municipalities have standing to sue banks over allegedly discriminatory lending practices. Philadelphia was first to do so following that decision.

“I’m fairly conservative,” Tulante said. “I wanted to wait to see what the Supreme Court said about our ability to proceed.”

The battle over sanctuary city funding, meanwhile, began as something of a reactive situation that ultimately warranted a proactive approach by the Law Department.

In June 2017, the city, with the help of attorneys from Dechert and Hogan Lovells, certified to the U.S. Department of Justice that it was in compliance with federal law when it came to sharing of immigration information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents.

As part of the certification, Tulante sent a letter to the DOJ saying the city was fully compliant with 8 U.S.C. Section 1373, which says municipalities can’t bar their officers and agents from sharing immigration information with ICE.

The certification was done specifically in response to concerns raised by the administration of former President Barack Obama that two city policies—one implemented in 2001, the other in 2009—might violate Section 1373. Similar concerns were raised about policies in nine other municipalities as part of a broader evaluation by the U.S. Office of Inspector General.

But the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 and, soon after, the appointment of Sessions thrust the sanctuary city issue to the forefront of national discourse. In early 2017, Trump signed an executive order promising to cut federal funding if municipalities, including Philadelphia, were not in compliance with federal immigration laws by June 30.

It became clear that the city would have to take action, while attempting to stay above the political fray.

“When the president was elected, we knew then it would become a hot political issue,” Tulante said, but added that in the litigation itself, as well as in the press, “We were very careful about focusing on the legal issues.”

But despite the numerous “big” cases the Law Department handled during Tulante’s tenure at the helm, the one he’s most proud of is a matter that received very little media attention: his advocacy in Philadelphia Family Court on behalf of a 2-year-old who contracted chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Tulante tried the case himself and successfully argued to confirm a finding of child abuse against the child’s caregivers.

“It meant something to me, to be back in court,” he said. “I feel like I made a difference in that child’s life.”

A celebratory event will be held at the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia on June 27 to honor The Legal’s Professional Excellence Award winners and finalists. For more information, contact Andre Sutton at asutton@alm.com or 757-721-9020.