Name: Erin Bernstein
Position: Deputy city attorney, San Francisco
J.: You’ve been a deputy city attorney for the City and County of San Francisco for more than eight years. What cases do you work on?
Erin Bernstein: My primary beat right now is affirmative litigation, which is when the city goes out and sues companies or other entities. I also do complex defense work, but a lot of what I’ve been doing lately has been directly related to women’s reproductive rights in the public sphere. My specialty is reproductive rights, constitutional litigation and consumer law.
J.: When you started at Harvard Law, after earning an English degree at UCLA, did you know that was the kind of law you wanted to practice?
EB: Originally I saw myself following in my grandmother’s footsteps and becoming a teacher. But looking at my career path, to really be able to help people immediately, law school seemed to be a more direct route. Without knowing much about what law school would be like, or what type of law I would practice, I figured it was an interesting path and I’d find my path once I got there.
What are you litigating now?
EB: One of the cases I’m working on is the city’s crisis pregnancy ordinance, which deals with clinics that purport to offer pregnancy counseling but are actually pro-life advocacy groups. I assisted in drafting the ordinance that bars these groups from misrepresenting what their services actually are. One of these groups sued the city and I’ve been defending the city against a First Amendment challenge.
J.: Is your Judaism intertwined in the work you do?
EB: Growing up Jewish really imparted the values of social justice and equality on me, and the importance of doing something good for the world. That background pushed me towards doing public interest work and working for the government. I also saw strong female role models in my family, and that led me towards reproductive rights work.
J.: Who were your role models?
EB: My grandmother was one of my biggest mentors. She went back to school in the late ’60s after raising four kids in Omaha, Nebraska, which surprisingly has a large Jewish community. My grandmother got her dissertation in English and was an amazing and award-winning high school English teacher in a large public school in Omaha. She showed me the value of education, and I watched how she tackled issues and dealt with challenging situations.
A few months ago, you were among a cadre of lawyers named by the advocacy group Public Justice as trial lawyers of the year for 2014 for a landmark, $1.15 billion case against three paint manufacturers that sold lead-based paint. Is that the case you are most proud of, or is there another?
EB: In 2009 I was working on a case that had to do with gender rating and health insurance. It was happenstance, because I was working on another lawsuit and stumbled on a statute that said in California you could charge women more than men for insurance on the individual market. When I read it, I thought, “This can’t be right.”
But the statute on the books said you could treat women differently than men. In California, we actually have better laws on gender issues than we do nationally. In this case, I developed a lawsuit where we sued the state and said this statute is unconstitutional under the state constitution.
Eventually, legislation was passed and then signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzen-egger to abolish gender discrimination. That suit affected over 1 million women in California. That provision was adopted into the Affordable Care Act and [people] nationally have benefited, and I’m really proud of my role in that.
J.: How do you identify with being Jewish now?
EB: I went to Hebrew school, never had a bat mitzvah, but always held being culturally Jewish close to my identity. My husband isn’t Jewish, but we are committed to raising our son Jewish. Now that I have a son, Judaism is becoming more and more important to me. He goes to the JCC preschool in Berkeley, and it has been wonderful to watch him adopt the cultural and religious values of Judaism.
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