It was a lawyer’s peak moment: arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Spokane attorney Jeffry Finer was pretty sure he’d lost in 1996 when Chief Justice William Rehnquist abruptly clicked off his microphone and leaned back with a scowl.
“I got jumped by nine judges in robes. I lost hugely,” Finer said of the case, in which he argued that civil forfeiture and criminal prosecution for the same offense violate double-jeopardy protections in the U.S. Constitution.
Finer, 52, is better known in Spokane for the high-profile civil rights cases he’s helped win or settle, including the epic Spokane Gypsy case and a clinic-picketing case pitting the privacy rights of women seeking abortions against the free-speech rights of abortion protesters.
Now, in a new step in his 23-year career, Finer is closing his solo practice and joining the Center for Justice, a unique public-interest law firm funded with former public defender Jim Sheehan’s inheritance.
“He’s a very experienced civil rights lawyer. He’ll help us continue to litigate high-level cases and provide leadership to both lawyers and law students,” said Breean Beggs of the Center for Justice.
Finer said the center is making waves in Spokane with its philosophy of picking – and winning – cases that have broad impacts beyond an individual client. “Two years ago, this place was not in my Rolodex. Then I started noticing,” he said.
Finer will work as the senior federal litigator with Beggs, the center’s “chief catalyst.”
“If he’s the chief catalyst, I may be the chief lubricant,” Finer joked.
Finer has a good reputation in Spokane’s legal community, said Frank Conklin, a former Gonzaga Law School dean and constitutional law expert. “He’s very highly qualified,” Conklin said.
Finer said he’s impressed with Beggs’ talent for choosing cases that challenge the status quo and change things for the better.
Among them: a legal challenge to a mandatory impound rule that took people’s cars away for certain driving violations; litigation against the Spokane County Jail that invalidated the jail booking fee; and a victory last week before Division III of the Washington State Court of Appeals on behalf of two DUI clients who claimed their convictions should be overturned because Spokane’s municipal court judges are not elected by city voters.
If the ruling stands, it may result in thousands of misdemeanor cases being thrown out and millions of dollars in fines refunded for city cases between 1995 and Jan. 1.
Finer will continue to work on the controversial in-custody deaths of Otto Zehm and Trent Yohe. He filed a $2.9 million claim against the city on behalf of Zehm’s estate in July.
With the 60-day clock for such claims expired, Finer said he’s negotiating with City Attorney Jim Craven. “When we reach a settlement, it will be very broad-based if it happens at all,” said Finer, declining to reveal additional details of the negotiations.
Not everyone in Spokane likes what the Center for Justice is doing, Finer said.
“This is a conservative town. The question comes up: What makes you think anyone appointed you to be (Spokane’s) conscience? The answer is, absolutely no one. But it’s not lawful to take someone’s car without a hearing. Deaths in (police) custody need to be aggressively investigated. A pretrial detainee should not be put into segregation without a hearing. Anyone who wants could get involved – but Breean’s doing it,” Finer said.
Finer’s parents were Jewish refugees from Lithuania who lost most of their relatives in the Holocaust. His parents divorced and he was raised by his mother in Michigan, where he went to high school with Robin Williams. His father was a doctor who built a hospital for the Amish community in central Ohio.
“He believed in delivery of safe, effective medical care to everybody. He thought suffering was a crime,” Finer said.
Finer was married 23 years ago to Spokane physician Stacie Bering – the same weekend he became a lawyer. “I was taking oaths right and left,” he said. The couple has two children, 22-year-old Cassie, who manages an REI store in California, and Zack, 19, a student at the University of British Columbia.
Bering, 58, is coping with MS, a progressive disease. She’s given up her obstetrics practice and is now practicing palliative care at Deaconess Medical Center.
One of Finer’s most high-profile cases had his wife’s name on it – Bering v. SHARE, a local anti-abortion group that picketed the Sixth Avenue Medical Center in the mid-1980s.
The case went to the Washington Supreme Court “when I’d been a lawyer maybe a year,” Finer said. His former law partner, the colorful civil libertarian Pat Stiley, let him argue it while the court was ringed with about 100 Washington State Patrol troopers assembled to prevent trouble during the emotional abortion debate.
“It was insane for Pat to let me do that. But we won,” Finer said. The court upheld a lower court judge’s restrictions on the protesters that let them protest but barred them from blocking access to the building.
The abortion protest case “fundamentally changed my life,” Finer said. “It gave me a taste for winning. It opened up the sidewalks, but it didn’t change the big picture. It introduced me to unpopular litigation,” he said.
Finer and his wife are now recasting their life, planning to spend more time at their small “hippie cabin” on Orcas Island during the hot Spokane summers that aggravate Bering’s symptoms.
“It’s not retirement. We are going out there to try to work and to keep life simple. But that plan made me realize how very difficult it is to scale back or close a solo law practice, especially one that’s 23-some-odd years,” Finer said.
The Center for Justice came to him this summer with the proposal. “It required some thinking because it was a dramatic change,” Finer said.
He’ll give up his long-standing position as an adjunct professor at Gonzaga Law School in fall 2008, but he will teach a course in white-collar crime next spring. And he hopes to continue to be a teacher to the younger lawyers at the Center for Justice.
“I could stop at each door and have something to offer that helps a particular problem someone is facing at the moment. That’s great fun.”