frontlinesmoke in the eye

interview: christopher patti

Q: IF I TOLD YOU THAT THERE WERE LARGE MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS WHO HAD THESE DOCUMENTS BEFORE YOU...AND DIDN'T PUBLISH THEM...WHAT WOULD YOUR COMMENT BE?


Attorney who represented the University of California in their May 1995 case against Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation.
Patti: I understand from reading stories about it in the newspapers that there has been some fear of tangling with the tobacco companies, when there may be legal liability involved. All I can say is that at the university we felt we really didn't have a choice--that it was part of our mission to get this kind of information out and to make it available, and I think it is regrettable if media organizations don't feel the same way.

Q: WHAT WAS THE TENOR OF THE COURT CASE. HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT ARGUING THIS CASE?

Patti: The argument itself, I think it became fairly clear that the court was much more sympathetic to our position than to Brown & Williamson's. And so I felt confident in the argument that the right result would come out of it. I felt our arguments were better, and ultimately that proved to be the case.

Q: GIVE ME SOME SENSE OF HOW YOU FELT WHEN YOU WERE ARGUING AGAINST A FORMER FEDERAL COURT JUDGE...

Patti: That's right.

Q: ...WITH A PHALANX OF LEGAL HELP. GIVE ME SOME SENSE OF HOW YOU FELT GOING INTO THAT COURTROOM.

Patti: Well, I felt pretty good about it actually. It's the kind of case, and the kind of issue, that lawyers love to have, and especially lawyers that are representing an institution like the University of California. It's the reason that you have a job like this. So I felt great in the argument. It was one of the most enjoyable things that I've been able to do as a lawyer.

Q: SO YOU VIEW IT AS ONE OF YOUR GREAT MOMENTS SO FAR?

Patti: Well, I guess so. It was certainly the thing that I've done that has had the most press attention. I've never been in court with the cameras on me before, and that was exciting. It was just a lot of fun.

Q: AND WHEN THE VERDICT CAME DOWN?

Patti: That was very rewarding, because the judge really saw the case the way that we saw it. It was clear that he thought that this was an important first amendment issue, that these documents were very important and had extreme significance for scholarly research and public policy, and it was, it felt good to see that the judge had really understood the issues and decided the case the right way.

Q: WHAT ABOUT THE FACT THAT THERE WAS A LAWSUIT GOING ON, OSTENSIBLY, WORTH 15 BILLION DOLLARS? DID THAT PLAY ANY PART IN THE BACKGROUND?

Patti: It really did. And maybe we were naive, but we didn't think about that. We were really just thinking about, should we be attempting to publish these documents or not? And we made the decision that we should, and perhaps naively, we didn't think about the consequences and we just went forward.

Q: SO THE FACT THAT YOU DID STAND UP TO THEM, CAN YOU GIVE ME YOUR FINAL ASSESSMENT ON IT?

Patti: Well, I think that it demonstrated that the tobacco companies had as much to lose from this kind of litigation as the people that they sue. The fact that the university refused to give in and litigated this case really made the lawsuit backfire against Brown & Williamson because it brought a lot of attention to these documents. As a result of that attention, the university put the documents on the internet, and they were more available than they would have been, in all probability, had Brown & Williamson never brought the lawsuit.


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