From Picking Peaches to Picking Up Million-Dollar Lawsuits

Arturo González is a Latino hero with one eye on the law, one on injustice and both on a possible political career

Published in 2004 Northern California Super Lawyers — September 2004

Arturo J. González learned the principles of justice in the fields of Central California, where he spent his summers picking tomatoes and peaches with his family. There, he witnessed INS raids in which agents seemingly appeared out of nowhere and hauled terrified laborers off to jail, including some legal residents who didn’t have their papers with them.

“That was the first time I saw what I thought was an abuse of power,” says González, “and when I knew I wanted to help people in the Latino community. Ever since I’ve been interested in the law.”

González, today a prominent trial attorney, has never forgotten his community or the injustices he witnessed when he was young. So when Maria Alvarado de Munoz brought her case to him, he jumped at it.

The 59-year-old Munoz was arrested by Fresno County sheriff’s deputies on September 20, 2002, in a case of mistaken identity. The woman they were looking for was wanted for a probation violation. Munoz, who suffers from diabetes and heart disease, had never been in trouble with the law. Despite her protests that the deputies had arrested the wrong woman, Munoz was handcuffed, subject to a visual strip-search and a body-cavity search and denied her medications during the 14 hours she was held in jail.

The traumatized woman, who speaks little English, turned to González for help. A partner at San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster, González is famous in the Central Valley for defending Latinos in a series of high-profile civil rights cases. His fame has also brought a steady stream of requests to take pro bono cases.

“I literally get calls every day,” says González, “so I have to be very selective. I took the Munoz case not because I thought it would be a big-money case, but because I wanted to make sure that the police received better training and that nothing like this happened again.”

The Munoz case met all of González’s tests for pro bono cases: Munoz was a credible client, her arrest dealt with a serious constitutional issue — specifically a Bill of Rights violation — and the circumstances allowed González to present a strong argument to the jury.

“The police were after a woman with the same name,” says González, “but they were working from an 11-year-old warrant. The woman they wanted was 5 inches taller, 50 pounds heavier than the woman they arrested, and looked nothing like the photo. That was sloppy police work. They didn’t even do the obvious of checking fingerprints.”

González took the case to trial, and in November 2003, the federal court jury awarded Munoz $625,000 in damages. Following the verdict, González and fellow attorneys filed documents with the federal court requesting $623,897 in legal fees. On March 9 of this year, the case was settled for $1 million, believed to be the largest settlement ever for a wrongful-arrest case.

A shrewd, self-assured litigator, González earned the nickname “El Gallo” (Spanish for “the rooster”) among Latinos in the Central Valley for his success in winning civil rights cases like Munoz’s. Yet sitting in his office suite on the 29th floor of a downtown San Francisco high-rise, González, a youthful 43, has a surprisingly quiet demeanor. Dressed in a short-sleeved navy knit shirt and gray chinos, he shrugs his shoulders in answer to questions he has been asked many times before. How did a child of uneducated Mexican immigrants make the leap to partner in one of the country’s largest and most prestigious law firms? And where did he get his formidable self-confidence?

“I don’t know how to explain it,” says González. “I’ve always been competitive. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be the smartest and the first in the class.”

The 11th of 12 children (five died in childbirth or shortly after), González was the first born in the United States. His father, Santiago, came to the United States from Mexico through the Bracero Program in 1947, working first as a farm laborer and later as a machinist for the Southern Pacific Railroad. His wife, Gregoria, and children stayed behind. In 1960, Santiago finally obtained permanent residency status, allowing him to bring his family to California.

González’s parents never had the chance to attend school in Mexico. And with Santiago gone all week working on the railroad and Gregoria taking care of their large family, they had little time to guide their children’s education.

An excellent student, González won a scholarship to the University of California at Davis where he studied political science. While there, he worked as an intern for the federal public defender’s office in Sacramento. Observing lawyers in the courtroom day after day convinced him that he could be a trial lawyer — and a good one.

Always aiming for the top, González applied and won admission to Harvard Law School. During his first years there, he had a fortuitous conversation with Cesar Chavez, founder of United Farm Workers, who was speaking at the university. Later, at a meeting with Latino law students, González approached Chavez to ask advice on the direction his career should take.

“I expected him to tell me to work with the farm workers,” says González. “He surprised me by telling me to work for a big firm that didn’t have Latino lawyers and to be the best one in the firm. At the time, I didn’t ask him why. Now I understand that he wanted me to set an example because back then Latinos hadn’t cracked the big firms.”

In researching firms in northern California, González learned that Morrison & Foerster, where he had interned the previous summer, was one of the best firms in the country for public service work. In fact, the firm had just set up the Girvan Peck Memorial Fund, named for a former partner, to fund pro bono work.

Today, Morrison & Foerster is among the most racially diverse firms in the country. But when González was hired in 1985, he was the only Latino lawyer in the entire firm and, seven years later, he was the first Latino to make partner. Cesar Chavez couldn’t have given better counsel in directing González to a big firm. Morrison & Foerster has been a perfect fit for the ambitious González and his interest in trial law. In March, González became chair of the firm’s trial practice group.

“There’s a lot that law schools don’t teach students about how to get ready for trial and what to do once you’re there,” says González. “My goal is to make sure that every litigator in the firm is well prepared to try cases successfully.”

González has spent the majority of his 19 years with the firm working on big commercial cases. Two that hold special significance for him are represented in the memorabilia atop a bookcase in his office. The toy Continental and United airplanes are reminders of the first case he worked on, representing Continental Airlines in an antitrust lawsuit against American and United Airlines. The toy Oakland Raiders cars and trucks and small statues of Raiders’ players Jerry Rice and Rich Gannon are mementos of a recent victory. In August, González completed a four-month trial and obtained a defense verdict for Ed De Silva, a prominent East Bay businessman, in a billiondollar lawsuit filed by the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders claimed that De Silva, the city and the county misled the team’s executives into thinking the Raiders’ home games would be sold out.

Also on display is a flexible wooden mannequin with long wooden picks sticking out of its body. The picks pinpoint where 15 bullets hit Ramon Gallardo, a 64-year-old farm worker killed when police raided his home in Dinuba, a small town in the Central Valley, in 1997. In representing the widow and 13 children, González used the mannequin to prove that Gallardo could not have fired first, as the officer charged. Not only was Gallardo unarmed, but the pretext for the raid — locating a shotgun used in a drive-by shooting — turned out to be false.

Another key issue was whether the police had knocked on the door and announced themselves before entering the house. Gallardo’s family testified they hadn’t. González knew the officer left guarding the door while the assault team went inside had been wearing a helmet. Anticipating the opposition’s argument that, therefore, the officer couldn’t have heard the assault team knocking, González asked that the officer’s helmet be brought to the courtroom. Calling the officer to the stand, he asked him to put on the helmet.

In telling the story, González stands up and re-enacts the dialogue, speaking his part and the officer’s. Pacing the floor of his office, he says softly, “Can you hear me?” “Yes.” Then González walks into the adjoining room and knocks three times on the far wall. “Did you hear that?” “Yes.” “How many times did I knock?” “Three.”

With that, González snaps his fingers, laughs and says, “I nailed it. Being a trial lawyer is like playing chess. I’m always 15 moves ahead of the opposition.”

The jury ruled in favor of the Gallardo family, awarding them $12.5 million. Although the award was later reduced to $6 million, it stands as the biggest verdict rendered in California for an unlawful police shooting.

Since making partner, González spends 25 percent of his time working on pro bono cases. “There’s never a time when I don’t have a pro bono case on my plate,” he says. Recently, he’s filed an amicus brief on behalf of the San Francisco Bar Association and others. They wanted to add their voice in the Rumsfeld v. Padilla case that was argued before the Supreme Court. Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen accused of conspiring with al-Qaida to detonate a dirty bomb and designated an “enemy combatant” by President Bush, has been held without charge for two years. González’s brief addressed two fundamental questions: Is it appropriate to detain a U.S. citizen indefinitely without right to seek counsel? And is it appropriate to hold a U.S. citizen without pressing charges?

“I don’t know Padilla,” says González, “but these issues are at the foundation of the Bill of Rights and what differentiates the U.S. from other countries. Yes, we have to worry about terrorism, but in reacting to 9/11, we have to be careful not to undermine our civil liberties.

“In four cases, I’ve convinced juries that the U.S. Constitution was violated. That’s important work. If we as lawyers don’t speak up to protect civil rights, we should find another profession.”

Another profession for which González has all the right ingredients is public office. As a smart Latino lawyer with a 20-year track record of defending civil rights at a prestigious law firm, he would have a natural constituency in a state with the largest and fastest-growing Latino population. Asked whether he’s considered running, he says, “Even when I was in high school, I had a map of our congressional district pasted on my bedroom wall. I like representing people, but I wouldn’t be a good politician because I’m generally — I say generally — honest, and I don’t like raising money.” After a momentary pause, González’s characteristic self-confidence kicks in and he says, “However, if the right opportunity came along, I think I’d be a good candidate.”

Married and the father of four children, González says that, for now, what’s most important to him is raising his family well and helping other people. As a parent and coach for his sons’ soccer and tee-ball teams, he’s teaching his kids to look out for others, using the legendary Dodgers’ shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, as an example.

“I expect my kids to be leaders. If they ever see kids being picked on, I want them to put their arms around them and tell them not to worry. That’s what Pee Wee Reese did in the middle of a game when Jackie Robinson was being cursed by fans because he was black. That’s the classiest thing an athlete’s ever done, and that’s what I try to do in my practice.”

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