The Never-Ending Case
For a quarter century, Jeffrey Goldstein has been working the same case, pro bono
Published in 2006 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
on March 9, 2006
Updated on March 16, 2016
Back in the late 1970s, the Land Rights Council, a small nonprofit organization based in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, contacted Denver attorney Jeffrey A. Goldstein. Members of the group asked Goldstein, an established litigator recognized for his left-leaning political work, if he would be willing to help them in their legal battle to regain access to an 80,000-acre tract of mountainous land they call La Sierra.
Goldstein agreed to make the 240-mile trip to the village of San Luis to meet with the group’s organizers. What he quickly discovered was that La Sierra — and the people who lived in its surrounding community — was so inspiring that he agreed to head an uphill, mostly pro bono legal fight that has now continued for nearly a quarter century.
“When you drive into the San Luis Valley, you come upon this pass called La Vita Pass,” Goldstein says. “It is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. The people who live there are unique, wonderful people. On my first visit, I fell in love with this community and the people who live there. I decided I wanted to do my best to help them.”
In an 1863 Spanish language document, Carlos Beaubien made a promise to settlers of his million-acre 1848 Sangre de Cristo Mexican-era land grant in the San Luis Valley. The settlers would have access to land that included the nearby 14,047-foot Culebra Peak, where community members could graze animals, gather wood and hunt wildlife. These rights meant survival to Colorado’s earliest non-native settlers. Though a series of wealthy successive landowners had continued to own La Sierra, community members had always been granted free access. Beaubien’s promise was kept.
Then a North Carolina lumber baron named Jack Taylor purchased the land, named it Taylor Ranch, and in 1964 obtained a federal court decree that extinguished the land-grant rights and blocked community members’ access to the mountain and surrounding land. The decree was a staggering blow to the surrounding communities.
Determined to regain their access to La Sierra, the people of San Luis formed the Land Rights Council and they asked Goldstein to take the case. In 1981 he filed Rael v. Taylor (later, Lobato v. Taylor) a class action lawsuit on behalf of the settlers’ descendants, claiming denial of due process rights and an incorrect application of state law.
From the start, Goldstein knew the case would be a long, uphill battle, but once he got to know the people of San Luis, he became determined to see it through to the finish. As it turned out, the end of the Lobato case was much further away than Goldstein ever predicted. Almost 25 years and multiple judgments later, the case is still making its way through the Colorado court system, with Goldstein at its helm. Along the way, the case has had hearings and appeals in every possible jurisdiction, with three state Supreme Court decisions and two unsuccessful attempts to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Clients make the cases, not lawyers,” Goldstein says. “The people in this valley are incredible. They stuck to it. They’re tenacious. For a community to stick with a case for such a long time, that’s the inspiration for the lawyers to stick with it, too.”
Lobato has been a long case, but in recent years, Goldstein and his clients have seen their commitment pay off. In 2003, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the defendants’ rights of access to the land must be granted, and ordered a lower court to determine which community members should be permitted to use it. What comes next is a years-long process of settling access claims for as many as 2,000 descendants and successors of the original settlers. Community members whose claims have been settled will receive a key to the gates of the ranch, which is now owned by a Texan named Bobby Hill. Several hundred keys have already been distributed to date. Ranch owners may also file an appeal, though most experts predict the Supreme Court’s judgment will be final.
Goldstein wants to make it clear that though he’s led the Lobato case since the beginning, he hasn’t worked on it alone. He and his clients have benefited from the pro bono assistance of many noted Denver attorneys, including Watson W. Galleher of Don, Galleher & Saliman; Julia T. Waggener of the Walters Law Firm; Bill Schoeberlein previously of Littler Mendelson; and Norman D. Haglund of Kelly, Haglund, Garnsey & Kahn.
“Without these people we would’ve been dead in the water,” Goldstein says.
Goldstein, 61, sees the Lobato victory as a fitting way to wind down his law career, which he says was inspired in part by his progressive Southern California childhood, and also by the turbulent world in which he came of age.
“I went to law school at USC in the ’60s,” Goldstein says. “A lot of law students back then were pretty idealistic. There was the Vietnam War going on, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. We wanted to shape a world that was better than the one we had been born into.”
Fresh out of law school in the early 1970s and determined to live by his principles, Goldstein formed a small firm with a group of four likeminded attorneys. “Our sole purpose was to do political work,” he recalls. “We got involved in a lot of local political cases around the Chicano movement, the Native-American movement and civil rights. I’ve always wanted to be an activist lawyer in terms of social issues.” Goldstein’s interests soon took him away from California, and in 1973 he represented Indian activists during the occupation of Wounded Knee.
Around the same time, Goldstein moved to Colorado. “It was one of those ‘Rocky Mountain High’ moves,” he jokes, but he loved the state from the start. He’s lived in the Denver area with his family ever since.
Goldstein has outlasted several small firms, and currently he is of counsel to the Denver firm of Brauer, Buescher, Goldhammer, Kelman & Dodge, a group he describes as “the leading firm representing labor interests in Colorado.”
Goldstein still remembers his first trip to San Luis, the tiny town where most of the Lobato defendants live. “I was struck by the beauty there,” he says. “But I was also struck by the tenacity of the people. They just never, never, never gave up. A lot of the young people had just come back from fighting in Vietnam, and they were politicized by that experience. They said, ‘How did we lose our mountain? We used to go up there when we were kids. We have rights of access to it.’ I was excited by their enthusiasm, and I wanted to be part of their cause.”
Charlie Jaquez, a retired San Luis teacher and past president of the Land Rights Council, first met Goldstein in the late 1970s.
“Early on, one of our elders asked Jeff if he would be willing to stay on the case until it was done,” Jaquez recalls. “Jeff looked him in the eye and said, ‘I will.’ Twenty-five years later he’s just barely working his way out of the case. Sometimes he laughs that he’s afraid at the rate things are going, his kids are going to have to take over the case after he dies.”
Denver attorney Robert Maes, a San Luis native who has worked extensively on the Lobato case since the early days, says that over the years, Goldstein has proved himself an honorable man. “He stayed with this case first of all because he promised,” Maes says. “He’s a man of his word. I’ve seen him faced with many disappointing judgments, but he’d always get back on the horse and attack. He’s gained strength from the experience. It’s like the town found the right lawyer, and the lawyer found the right client.”
Jaquez believes that the close relationship Goldstein forged with the community was a major reason why he stayed with the case for so long. “A lot of people here have befriended him,” he says. “Very few people here don’t know Jeff’s name. He’s always been welcome in people’s homes and invited over to have meals.”
The fact that the Land Rights Council has prevailed in the courts is “incredible, verging on miraculous,” Jaquez says. He insists that even Goldstein was never hopeful for the outcome. “He always said it was going to be a very difficult case. When we finally won, he was as astounded as we were.”
Now that community members are slowly regaining access to La Sierra, Jaquez says that the young people of his town will have to be introduced to the wonders of a land that he and his contemporaries grew up with.
“An entire generation missed out,” Jaquez says. “They see the mountain over there, but they’ve never gone up there. It’s like wallpaper to them. It’s huge but it’s not really there. They need to get out in it.”
Goldstein, who is in the process of cutting back his practice, plans to write a book that will document the history of the Lobato case. His wife, a Western U.S. historian, will lend her expertise.
His work on the case, Goldstein says, has made him feel proud of his chosen profession.
“Lawyers get a bad rap, but the fact of the matter is that lawyers as a collective group do a lot of pro bono work,” Goldstein says. “I don’t see people in other professions giving away as much work as we do.”