Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker named 2015 Public Lawyer of the Year
on May 19, 2015
The California State Bar’s Public Law Section has named Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker the 2015 Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year (PLOY). The award is named after retired the California Supreme Court justice, and honors members of the State Bar who have demonstrated at least a five-year commitment to public law and have achieved exceptional accomplishments in the practice of public law.
“It’s the highest recognition that I could receive, because it’s from your peers who know your work,” said Parker. “I feel it’s an award to me and the recognition of my work, but equally my office, because the people that we have here work so hard … to improve Oakland.”
According to Elizabeth Pianca, co-chair of the PLOY subcommittee of the State Bar’s Public Law Section, the committee received three nominations this year and Thuy Thi Nguyen nominated Parker for the award. Nguyen is a close colleague of Parker’s who works as the general counsel of the Peralta Community College District.
Parker has served as Oakland’s City Attorney since July 2011 after the majority of the city council appointed her to serve the remainder of former City Attorney John Russo’s term. (Russo left in the middle of his third term to become the city manager of Alameda). In November 2012, she was officially elected by Oakland voters to serve a four-year term.
But Parker is no stranger to the Oakland City Attorney’s office; she has 20 years of work experience there, including 11 years as Chief Assistant City Attorney to Russo. “Barbara Parker is ethical, smart, and extremely hard-working,” said Russo, who is now in Southern California serving as the city manager of Riverside, California.
Russo first met Parker back in the late 1990’s when he was an Oakland city councilmember. Russo was a supporter of California Proposition 215, the initiative that legalized the medical use of marijuana, and Parker was assigned to work with Russo on that issue. Russo was very impressed with Parker’s writing and work ethic, and when he was elected as Oakland City Attorney in 2000, Russo promoted Parker to his second in command.
Now as the active City Attorney, Parker is the one responsible for advising Oakland on all its legal matters. “I’m the attorney for the mayor, police chief, all of the departments, all the commissions, and I’m the attorney for the people of Oakland, ” said Parker.
Some of the issues she’s focusing on this year are protecting consumers and workers. Oakland voters recently passed a city ordinance that raised the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour, and Parker has been working with employees who have expressed complaints related to the new wage. “We’re getting complaints from people who are not really being paid the minimum wage … or they’re being forced to work off the clock,” said Parker. She is also interested in creating job opportunities for people of color who may have criminal records or bad credit and have trouble acquiring jobs.
Another issue her office is tackling is prostitution. “If you ever drive down International in Fruitvale or around that area… there’s all these young girls, like 12 or 13, 14, out on the strip. They call it ‘The Track,’” said Parker. In an effort to combat prostitution, she and her office are taking legal measures against massage parlors that are offering illegal sexual services, but not against legitimate massage parlors. Combating prostitution is not a new issue for Parker; according to her biography on the city website, Parker closed down two Oakland hotels that were centers for prostitution and the sexual exploitation of minors.
Parker also introduced a nuisance ordinance revision this past September to the Oakland City Council which recommended adding gambling, possession of illegal ammunition, and “prostitution, pimping, pandering and solicitation activity” as causes for eviction. The council unanimously voted for the revision of the ordinance, although the decision was criticized by sex workers who are voluntarily working in commercial and residential spaces.
The undocumented community of Oakland is also important to Parker. Last month, Parker and Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that the City of Oakland joined the Cities United for Immigration Action (CUIA), a national coalition that supports President Barack Obama’s appeal of a federal district court order that halted his recent immigration reform plans. Through CUIA, Oakland joined an amicus brief in the State of Texas v. United States of America urging an immediate implementation of Obama’s immigration reforms.Parker has said that this kind of decision would affect Oakland’s diverse community and its immigrant families.
But one of the most things she’s proud of is her work with the Black Adoption Placement and Research Center in the East Bay, which focuses on placing foster children, primarily from the African-American community, in permanent homes. Parker said she adopted her daughter through the agency, and that’s why working to protect the lives of minors is so important to her.
Even though Parker’s legal career spans nearly four decades, growing up it never occurred to her that she would be a lawyer. “It happened,” said Parker. Parker graduated from high school in 1966, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. “Things were opening up for women and for people of color,” said Parker. “I was offered scholarships to go to college and see a world that my parents hadn’t experienced.”
It was in college at the University of Washington when she first thought about law school, after having a conversation with a friend.
“I said, ‘Where are you going?’”
“And she said, ‘I’m going to take the LSAT,’” recalls Parker.
“I didn’t know what that was. And she said, ‘I’m going to go to law school and be a lawyer.’”
After that, Parker became interested in law and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1975. She began practicing law in the private sector, which she said was a challenge. Parker was not comfortable working in a conservative environment, representing big companies. “It was pointless that I was helping private companies or private parties,” said Parker. “You don’t feel like you’re making an impact.”
That feeling of hollowness influenced Parker to make the shift from working in the private sector to working in the public interest. In the 1980’s, Parker began practicing health law in the General Counsel’s office of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and then served as an U.S. Assistant Attorney for the Northern District of California.
Now as City Attorney, Parker is happy about working in a progressive city that resonates with her values and is committed to doing well for the public. “I love the work—and the problem is that you can be consumed by it,” said Parker.
Parker will be recognized with the Public Lawyer of the Year award in September at the State Bar’s Annual meeting in Anaheim.
Photo courtesy of Oakland City Attorney’s Office.
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