Robert Gnaizda, a lawyer whose deft powers of persuasion in defending the civil and economic rights of the poor and minority groups often rendered messy and costly lawsuits against their adversaries a needless last resort, died on July 11 in San Francisco. He was 83.
The cause was listed as a heart attack. His son Matthew said he had been in declining health for some time.
Mr. Gnaizda (pronounced guh-NAYJH-duh) risked his life gathering evidence in the South in the 1960s to help fight the intimidation that kept Black citizens from registering and voting. He was also an advocate for farm workers and the rural poor, fought discrimination in hiring by police and fire departments, and successfully challenged banks that victimized Black and Hispanic borrowers.
“Bob Gnaizda was, in my opinion, the most imaginative, creative and consequential public interest lawyer of his generation in the United States,” said J. Anthony Kline, presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco, who, with Mr. Gnaizda and two other lawyers, formed a pioneering public interest law firm in California in 1971.
The marginalized plaintiffs he represented “were devoted to him because he incorporated them in strategic decision making and ensured they received credit for victories,” Justice Kline said by email, and “the respect he had from many of his adversaries enabled him to negotiate settlements that became established progressive norms without the need to engage in expensive and time-consuming litigation.”
Robert Leslie Gnaizda was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 6, 1936, to Sandra (Ackerman) Gnaizda, the daughter of Russian and Polish immigrants, who ran a commercial real estate business, and Samuel Gnaizda, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, who became a pharmacist. He was raised in the Brownsville section, then a gritty Jewish enclave, where he defended vulnerable friends against neighborhood bullies and biked to Ebbets Field to cheer on Jackie Robinson.
“Dodger fans had a reputation for being rude and rowdy,” his son Matt said. “But 10-year-old Bob observed that the Black fans at the stadium were extremely polite, well behaved and well dressed — unlike the other fans. And this made him begin to question the common stereotypes.”
As a teenager he also worked in a job training program for Black youngsters, Matt Gnaizda said. He added: “These experiences — plus the discrimination he felt as a Jew — led him to see that there was injustice in the world. And he wanted to do something about it.”
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Gnaizda attended Columbia University, where he was so struck that his classmates were almost all white and male that he was prompted to write an article for the Columbia Daily Spectator, the student,
“I asked two questions: One related to women, the other related to Black students,” he said in an interview with Columbia College Today, an alumni publication, in 2018. “I wondered why a school at the edge of Harlem had only one Black student per undergraduate class. And because my own mother was outstanding at everything she did, I wondered why we didn’t have any women. But the paper wouldn’t print it; they thought it was too inflammatory.”
Mr. Gnaizda graduated from Columbia in 1957. He considered studying medicine but decided to apply to law school at Harvard and Yale and become a lawyer if he was admitted by either. He was accepted by both and chose Yale. He earned his law degree in 1960.
Asked in the 2018 interview what drove him to abandon corporate law when he was 28 to pursue a social justice agenda, he replied facetiously: “I think boredom. I was a tax attorney, and the work didn’t interest me much. I decided to go to Mississippi in early 1965, and there I realized that I had some natural talents.”
By cultivating local white civic leaders in conversations that dealt as much with baseball as with voting, he was able to gather enough evidence during a public hearing on the disenfranchisement of Black people in Clay County, Miss., to help propel passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Mr. Gnaizda lived in San Francisco. In addition to his son Matthew, he is survived by his wife, Claudia Viek; another son, Joshua; and a granddaughter. His first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to Ellen Eatough. (Both his sons are from that marriage.)
He founded California Rural Legal Assistance in 1966 and, five years later, Public Advocates, a firm that defended underdogs, with Justice Kline, Sid Wolinsky and Peter Sitkin. He also helped found the Greenlining Institute in 1993 to discourage financial institutions from discriminating against Black and Hispanic home buyers. He was later general counsel for the National Asian American Coalition and the National Diversity Coalition.
Through those and other organizations, Mr. Gnaizda accused the Census Bureau of undercounting Hispanic residents in 1970 and pressured the San Francisco Police Department to hire more minority recruits in the 1970s.
He fought redlining by banks that refused to lend to residents of minority neighborhoods. He fostered investment in those communities by leveraging the lenders’ lack of public-spiritedness against them when they needed government permission to merge with other banks.
From 1975 to 1976, he was deputy secretary of health and welfare for Gov. Jerry Brown of California. But years later, when Mr. Brown was governor for a second time. Mr. Gnaizda didn’t hesitate to sue him for diverting the proceeds the state received from lawsuits relating to national mortgage fraud settlements. The state was eventually ordered to repay the money.
His penchant for representing victims of bullying led him into some unusual cases. There were, for example, the two 7-year-olds in California who sued Pacific Bell Telephone in 1985 for failing to inform them that they would incur a 50-cent charge every time they dialed a Santa Claus line. (He also founded a Giraffe Appreciation Society whose directors, all children, paid tribute to the ruminants “who don’t do any harm and who stick their necks out.”)
What distinguished Mr. Gnaizda as a zealous public interest lawyer, his son Matt said, was that he “never saw the other side as evil; he saw them as people who he disagreed with on certain issues, but could be convinced to change their behavior.”
Mr. Gnaizda agreed that many of his lawsuits were successful because he didn’t force his opponents into a corner. “They were just on a different side, and when they lost, they would usually keep their word,” he said in the Columbia College Today interview
Rebecca Kee, who worked with Mr. Gnaizda at the National Diversity Coalition, put it this way: “Bob will sue you, and somehow you’ll still like him.”