Eva Jefferson Paterson is the underdog’s best friend
Published in 2006 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 17, 2006
Updated on March 17, 2017
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”
The inscription on the Statue of Liberty? Well, sure. But it also describes Eva Jefferson Paterson’s client list. For more than three decades, the 57-year-old co-founder and president of the Equal Justice Society (EJS) has made a career of sticking up for society’s underdogs: immigrants, gays, minorities, the battered, the destitute, the disabled, the diseased, the dispossessed and the discriminated against.
Actually, she’s been facing down bullies from the time she was 7, when she stopped her father from battering her mother. By the time she was 21, Paterson single-handedly stopped student radicals from burning down a building and debated Vice President Spiro Agnew on national TV.
These days Paterson pursues her passion from her corner office on Sansome Street, overlooking San Francisco’s financial district, where she and her nine employees at the 6-year-old Equal Justice Society get involved in cases ripped from today’s headlines. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, EJS filed an action seeking protection for those displaced. The petition alleged race-based discrimination, and the EJS also filed a petition with the United Nations to investigate that same claim. The Society also opposed Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, citing several decisions hostile to civil rights. And now the organization is lending its support to groups that are challenging South Dakota’s stringent new anti-abortion law.
You know that Lady Justice sculpture — the one wearing a blindfold and holding the balanced scales of justice? That’s definitely not the scale that Paterson sees operating in today’s America.
“The scales of justice are tilted to the right with the Federalist Society, Bush, timid Democrats and an unengaged public weighing it down,” she says. “On the other side is the civil rights community, a public that’s harmed by reactionary policies, the rest of the world, torture victims and a few politicians who have a backbone.”
Paterson — a genial woman with a hearty laugh — was born in San Antonio, a self-described “Air Force brat” and spent her childhood trotting around France, England and southern Illinois. Although she describes her father as “a smart, hard-working man who should have been a general,” he didn’t rise above chief warrant officer, and 7-year-old Paterson watched him take out his frustration by coming home from work and battering her mother for trivial offenses.
“I remember taking on my dad,” she says. “I also got a sense that there are certain things that are wrong and you have to stand up, even if it’s painful.” As an attorney, her first case involved wife-batterers.
While Paterson recalls being aware of the Civil Rights Movement, at first she wasn’t involved. “I didn’t have deep politics,” she says. In fact, in 1967, her first year at Northwestern University, she argued with the anti-war supporters of Eugene McCarthy.
“I said, ‘The president says we have to support the war, and we have to do what the president says.’” Paterson recoils at the memory. “It astounds me that I had that position, but it gives me hope, because it shows minds can change.”
Paterson attributes her about-face to listening to her fellow students, and to Robert Kennedy turning against the war. “That turned me against it, too,” she says.
Still, she wasn’t an activist.
And then came the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
A month after King’s death, black students at Northwestern took over a building, demanding a black studies program and separate dorms. Paterson joined them. “I didn’t really get it, but I was there anyway.”
By the time four students were gunned down by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970, Paterson was a student leader. While protests forced many college campuses in the Chicago area (as well as the rest of the country) to shut down, Northwestern remained open, and Paterson led protest rallies every day on campus.
On the second day of the strike, members of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were poised to burn down the ROTC building, when Paterson told them not to do it.
“I said, ‘These torches remind me of torches from a different era,’” she says, and then laughs at the memory. “I don’t even know what that means exactly, but they stopped.”
Saving the building made her extremely popular with school officials, and led to her being appointed to a presidential commission on school violence, where, she says, she was misquoted as advocating violence. Paterson suspects that because of that misquote, the White House contacted her to be one of four students to go on national television — The David Frost Show — and debate Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Still just 21, Paterson’s appearance, in which she got Agnew to concede that protests were indeed an American right, flung her into the national spotlight. She appeared, incongruously, on a TV talk show with Michael Caine and Jack Lemmon; anti-war spokesman Rennie Davis invited her along to North Vietnam (she declined); Barbara Walters interviewed her on The Today Show (“She was very rude to me.”); and Mademoiselle listed her as one of its “10 Young Women of the Year.”
But all the hoopla had its cost, including 19 credits of “incompletes.” When she applied to Yale Law School, Yale turned her down.
What she regrets about that, she says half-jokingly, is “that was the class that Clarence Thomas was in. If I’d gotten in, I could’ve talked to him. I could’ve said, ‘Clarence, my brother, it’s OK, you don’t have to be a conservative.’ I could’ve helped him.”
U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law admitted her under its affirmative action program. While she remains a stalwart champion of affirmative action, Paterson admits it was a dual-edged sword. “The professors all treated us like we were stupid,” she says.
In 1997, more than two decades after she graduated, Paterson returned to Boalt to receive a special alumni award. In the meantime, Proposition 209 had passed, eliminating affirmative action, prompting Paterson to point out in her acceptance speech, “If I applied now, you wouldn’t even let me in.” But it was also a transformative moment for her. “I said to myself, ‘I’m not stupid.’ It took 20 years to fully overcome the negativity I internalized from how I was perceived as a recipient of affirmative action.”
Upon graduating from Boalt, Paterson began working for the Alameda Legal Aid Society, where women continually came in complaining that they were beaten by their boyfriends and husbands, and the police wouldn’t do anything. The officers would either not show up, side with the husband, tell the man to “take a walk around the block” or advise the woman to get a restraining order that they wouldn’t enforce.
“All my clients were Afro-Americans so I thought it was an Equal Protection race case, but I soon realized it wasn’t race, it was gender,” she says. “The police had an official ‘arrest-avoidance’ policy.”
The Society filed suit, and as a result of the out-of-court settlement, the police department changed its policy and, as a bonus, the city ponied up $5,000 to help open A Safe Place — a shelter for battered women. In the middle of giving a speech about the case 10 years later, Paterson had an epiphany: “I realized I’d brought this case on behalf of my mother against my father.”
Her next job was with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, where she spent the next 26 years, half of them as executive director. During her tenure, the organization provided free legal services to low-income individuals, litigated class action civil rights cases, and campaigned against Proposition 187 (anti-immigrant), Proposition 209 (anti-affirmative action) and in numerous statewide campaigns against the death penalty, juvenile incarceration, discrimination against lesbians and the like. A firefighter’s hat with the inscription “Chief Eva” hangs in Paterson’s office, a souvenir from the ’90s of one of her proudest achievements — getting the San Francisco Fire Department to increase the number of blacks, Asian Americans and Latinos hired and promoted.
All that might seem like a pretty full plate, but Paterson also co-founded and chaired the California Coalition for Civil Rights, where she served for 18 years, and served as vice president of the ACLU National Board for eight years. Not to mention chairing the boards of Equal Rights Advocates and the San Francisco Bar Association Foundation.
For 19 of those years, beginning in 1975, Paterson was married. Then, after divorcing Gary Paterson in 1995, she met Steve Henry, who lived in Jamaica. The pair not only fell in love, but also developed their own jerk chicken sauce they planned to market commercially. Then one day, Henry, carrying $8,000 in cash to buy a new car, was robbed and murdered. “One year and six days,” Paterson sighs, recounting their time together.
Concerned about a rightward tilt of the courts and laws weakening civil rights, environmental protection, voting rights and immigration law, members of the progressive legal community held a series of meetings in the summer of 2000. One result was the birth of the Equal Justice Society. Paterson hired her first employee about a year later, and officially took the helm in 2003.
With a goal of having a society in which all people are treated equally, you might think that Paterson wants to de-emphasize racial differences. But the opposite is true. In fact, one of her top agendas is “Put race back on the table,” and she derides the Democratic Party for being afraid to make it an issue. Not talking about race, she says, leads to continued injustices. She points to Ward Connerly’s Proposition 54, which would have banned the collection of racial and ethnic data by any state agency, and which she helped defeat in 2003.
“That would have made it virtually impossible to document racial discrimination or bring civil rights suits to court.”
She frets that the right wing masks its agenda behind benign-sounding names. “The Federalist Society supported the prohibition of collecting race-based data under the Racial Privacy Initiative, under the pretense that they want a color-blind society. But it’s a smoke screen. That’s another reason we have to keep race on the table,” she says.
She remains a passionate believer in affirmative action, which she defines simply as “taking race and gender into account when making decisions about employment, contracting and education.” She dismisses the oft-expressed criticism that it imposes quotas.
“A quota says that no matter what, a certain number of people get in — even if they’re not qualified. Affirmative action calls for a goal — something that can be reached — but only if there are qualified applicants.” In fact, she emphasizes, unqualified people couldn’t benefit, because once in, they have to take the same tests as everyone else.
“I was a beneficiary, but once I got in, I cracked the books, did the work and passed the tests.
“There will be a time when affirmative action isn’t necessary, but I’ll never see it, you’ll never see it.”
Paterson’s latest passion is producing movies through her company Joy and Magic. “I have a shallow side,” she says proudly. “I love Entertainment Tonight and Vanity Fair parties.” She’s currently involved in producing a documentary and feature film, but won’t divulge details about either.
While she knows that true equal justice will not be achieved anytime soon, Paterson remains positive.
“I am the idealist, I am the dreamer. You need people like me.”