Law Office of Robert Rubin

  • RobertRubin Interview.mp36:27

Attorney Robert Rubin Continues Lifelong Fight for Social Justice

The year was 1973.

Robert Rubin had just graduated from Northwestern University, and he thought he’d landed the perfect first job out of college. He moved to upstate New York to teach at a school for adults with developmental disabilities. But his excitement about the job quickly faded. The school was nothing like he thought it would be.
“I discovered that the administrators of the school where I was teaching were using psychotropic drugs to medicate and discipline the students,” Rubin said. “They were using an electric cattle prod for punishments.”

Rubin reported the abuse to the ACLU. “Long before I knew what the word was, I was a whistleblower,” he said. Sitting in court, taking the witness stand against the school, Rubin had a revelation: He needed to become a lawyer. “I wasn’t interested in being a lawyer so much,” he said. “What I was interested in was promoting social change.”

Rubin received his law degree from the University of San Diego in 1978 and called the ACLU again, this time for a job. They hired him and sent him to Jackson, Mississippi. “I was the sole attorney for the ACLU in the state of Mississippi in 1979, and it was an incredible experience,” he said. As a rookie lawyer, Rubin gave oral arguments in the federal Court of Appeals. Most lawyers don’t get that kind of opportunity until they’re well into their careers. But Rubin was the pre-eminent civil rights attorney in the state, taking on First Amendment, jail conditions and police misconduct cases. He worked in courts where the presiding judge was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. During his two years in Jackson, Rubin saw people — and even the press — fearlessly reveal their racism.

One Sunday morning during his time in Mississippi, he was flipping through the Sunday paper in bed. He stopped on a political cartoon of terrorists being defended by a comically snooty lawyer. “Wait a minute. That’s gotta be me,” Rubin said, pointing to the lawyer in the cartoon. At the time, he was defending a group of Iranian college students in Mississippi who were facing deportation because of the Iran hostage crisis. “With a nose that goes halfway across the page, it was clearly intended to depict someone who was Jewish,” Rubin said.[The cartoon from the July 6, 1980, edition of 'The Clarion-Ledger.' Rubin was defending a group of Iranian college students in Mississippi who were facing deportation because of the Iran hostage crisis. It still hangs in Rubin's office.]

A year later, Rubin moved to San Francisco, and he brought that political cartoon with him. He has it framed hanging next to his desk.“I think it’s a reminder that at times of crisis we tend to clamp down on civil rights,” he said. There are plenty of other reminders at the law office of Robert Rubin. It feels less like a law firm and more like a small studio apartment. Picture frames cover an exposed brick wall, memorializing Rubin’s work helping Haitian refugees, advocating for Muslims in the wake of 9/11 and one of his most celebrated victories: defeating Proposition 187.[Rubin in Brownsville, Texas with Central American refugees in 1989. A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order allowing refugees to leave Texas and reunite with family elsewhere in U.S.]
Rubin in Brownsville, Texas with Central American refugees in 1989. A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order allowing refugees to leave Texas and reunite with family elsewhere in U.S. (Courtesy of Robert Rubin)

Back in 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson’s re-election campaign was centered around support for Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that would ban undocumented people from using public services in the state. Wilson was re-elected, and California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 187. But it never went into effect. Rubin was one of the lawyers who challenged the law in federal court, where it was found unconstitutional and ultimately overturned. Many Californians were upset that the courts had overruled the will of the people. But Rubin said that’s exactly what the courts — and the Constitution — exist to do. “The equal protection clause in particular is specifically geared to essentially thwart the majority will because the majority oftentimes acts in unconstitutional ways,” he said.

Rubin turned 65 last year. His voice is low and slow from Parkinson’s disease. If you asked him at his birthday party where life was taking him next, he would have said retirement.“But with the way the election turned out and the way this president has seen fit to trample on civil rights and civil liberties, it just seems like I couldn’t abandon my colleagues,” Rubin said. Rubin has now devoted himself to enforcing the California Voting Rights Act, a law enacted in 2002 that allows minority communities to sue cities to establish district-by-district elections, as opposed to citywide elections that could dilute the votes of minority voters.

He’s sued over a dozen cities so far, all pro bono. Currently, he’s challenging Santa Clara and Santa Monica.

He has yet to lose a case.