Written by The Business Journal Staff
Wanger, Jones, Helsley PC
What we do:
Private law firm representation management in employment and labor matters and commercial, agricultural, employment, environmental, real estate and
land use and insurance coverage/bad faith litigation, criminal defense and white collar criminal defense litigation.
UC Berkeley School of Law
Wife of 20 years Lorrie; five kids: one in high school, one in college, two are lawyers and one is a CPA.
What led to your decision to retire as federal court judge and return to private practice, Oliver?
The overriding consideration was to try to bring some focus on the intense need for additional judges in this district. As long as I was there handling 1,200 cases a year, the message didn’t seem to be getting through. Of course, I was a senior judge, technically retired, working for free and I didn’t have to do the job, but I didn’t want to let my colleagues down. There are other places in the U.S. where judges are getting nominated and confirmed, but not here, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it.
You recently substituted out of a case representing Westlands Water District. What led to that decision, Oliver?
Basically that was a case where there was no conflict of any kind, but given the reaction and the commentary, I thought that the distraction from the merits of the case was basically unfair to the client, unfair to everybody in the case and unfair to the system of justice because it’s never about the lawyers. It’s about the merits of the case.
In your 20 years as a federal judge, what case or subjects did you find the most impactful, Oliver?
Obviously approaching 100 cases involving federal reclamation law, federal water rights and state water contracting were very significant. We handled Operation Rezone, which I think established that it was not business as usual in Fresno. And then there was the city of Fresno homeless case, which was a case that was heard and decided in my court. There was a decision recently in the United States Supreme Court affirming my decision not to establish a cause of action against private contractors who operate prisons for the federal government (Mennici v. Pollard). Basically, the 9th circuit had reversed me and said there should be a claim recognized for prisoners. My holding was there were adequate remedies in state court under state law and that should be sufficient, and that was confirmed by the Supreme Court. So I’m actually now 5 and 0 in my five cases that have been heard and decided in the Supreme Court.
What are your specialties, Oliver?
Basically, I am a trial practitioner handling any kind of civil case and white collar criminal defense. I am also a private judge offering mediation, arbitration and other private judging services, and I am an expert witness providing background analysis and expertise primarily in the fields of professional liability, courtroom practice and procedure.
You still teach often at the San Joaquin College of Law. What subjects are you dealing with and has that been rewarding, Oliver?
I have just finished teaching a course in what’s called constitutional torts, or civil rights law. I haven’t taught for about 15 years because of the workload at the court, but I have found it most rewarding. We had a class of very qualified students and it was both challenging and interesting.
What makes the subject of California water supply so complicated and controversial, Oliver?
The assignment of the cases required that I become knowledgeable about federal and state water law. The cases are controversial because they involved interests that are so diametrically opposed. You have agribusiness interest, you have environmental constituents, you have your municipal and industrial uses like cities and counties, fire districts, hospitals, schools and then you have power generators. All of these competing uses for water have different priorities in a hierarchy under the law, so they usually agree on nothing. That’s been my experience for more than 20 years.
What’s changed about Fresno’s legal community since when you came here in 1967, Oliver?
When I started here, there were approximately 300 lawyers and six superior court judges. Today there’s probably approaching 2,000 lawyers and over 40 judges in the state court, and only two judges in the federal court. But the most eventful changes have been those wrought by technology — the speed of practice, the access of information. I mean, I remember the days when we used to have law books stacked up to the ceiling where you did your legal research rather than on a computer. The difference in the availability and access to information has revolutionized the practice of law.
What do you do in your spare time, Oliver?
I’m still trying to find it. When I get a chance I like to watch my wife’s race horses run. She’s has had the horses run at the fair. They run mostly at Golden Gate (Berkeley).