San Francisco and the Rising Culture of Engagement in Local Public Law Offices

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Local government officials, including city attorneys,typically operate within carefully circumscribed limits. Courts and scholars sometimes assume that constitutional or other legal structures dictate those limits. But often it is institutional culture, not legal barriers, that bounds city and county law office activities.

Drawing on the example of San Francisco, this Essay examines plaintiff-side public policy cases filed by cities and counties. It explores the gap between the law and policy cases city attorneys typically bring and the authority they actually have. It introduces two basic ideas: First, cities are often culturally indifferent (or even resistant) to bringing affirmative cases even when they are not legally restrained from undertaking such work. Second, some state laws, including California’s, authorize city attorneys to sue not only on behalf of their cities (“City Cases”) but also on behalf of constituents (“Constituent Cases”). I argue that City Cases and Constituent Cases represent equally legitimate and desirable exercises of local government power.


Published in: Claussen, et al., ed. Why the Local Matters: Federalism, Localism, and Public Interest Advocacy (Columbia University School of Law. Attorneys General Program.; Yale Law School. Liman Public Interest Program, 2010).