Burk “Buck” Delventhal ’69, Chief Deputy of the Government Law Division of the San Francisco City Attorney’s office and an adjunct professor at UC Hastings, has been named Public Lawyer of the Year by the State Bar of California’s Public Law Section. He is also being recognized by the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA) as its Charles S. Rhyne Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
Delventhal, 70, an adjunct professor at UC Hastings since 2006, has a rich and deep relationship with the city. “I am very grateful to be able to have an interesting and stimulating job in the city I live in,” Delventhal said.
Delventhal joined the office in 1970, straight out of law school, when Joe Alioto was mayor. “I had lunch with a classmate who was working in a big downtown firm, and I was telling him about a case I would be arguing in the Court of Appeal, on a constitutional issue. He was doing debt collection for a bank. I realized I was pretty lucky,” he says. “To this day coming to work is an adventure, as I can never predict the interesting and complex legal issue that pops up on the front page and then falls into our laps.”
As a young lawyer, Delventhal helped advise Mayor George Moscone on whether he could reappoint Supervisor Dan White to a board seat White had abruptly resigned. “I explained the rules for re-appointing him,” Delventhal said. Three days after a hearing in which White tried unsuccessfully to get an injunction from the Superior Court to restrain Moscone from appointing a successor while White litigated his claim he had not really resigned, White returned to City Hall and assassinated Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. It was 1978, and the assassinations combined with the People’s Temple tragedy threw the city into chaos.
Delventhal and his team then had the tricky task of trying to advise city leaders on the rules governing succession, with one supervisor resigned, one supervisor dead, and Dianne Feinstein unable to cast a vote for her own selection.
“The Charter did specify all the rules,” Delventhal said, but “it was a very sad time. George Moscone was a very informal kind of guy, and sometimes I would look up from my desk and find him walking into my office to ask me a question. He was a very accessible kind of guy, not pretentious.”
Delventhal worked under each subsequent mayor: Dianne Feinstein, Art Agnos, Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, Gavin Newsome, and now Ed Lee. “It’s tremendously difficult to consistently give accurate legal advice to political actors without being swept up in their political agenda,” said longtime friend, Professor David Jung. “Buck has been able to serve mayors of vastly different political stripes without compromising his professional ideals. There are very few people who can do that.”
Delventhal worked with Jung to establish UC Hastings’ local government externship, which helps UC Hastings students obtain positions at the San Francisco City Attorney’s office and at other city attorney and county counsel offices. “Buck was hugely helpful in promoting that program and persuading the powers at be at City Hall it was a valuable one,” Jung said.
Manuela Albuquerque ’75, former Berkeley City Attorney and Director of Complex Public Litigation and Projects for Burke Williams & Sorensen, has worked with Delventhal for many years and was lavish in her praise: “Buck is a walking encyclopedia of municipal law. I recently moderated a panel on the constitutional powers of California cities in which Buck not only provided invaluable historical insights during his presentation, but also made many thoughtful points during related panels.”
The San Francisco City Attorney’s office has transformed during Delventhal’s tenure, from a small office defending the city to, under Louise Renne and then Dennis Herrera, a sophisticated law office of 150 lawyers trying to achieve important social goals, whether it was the city’s fight against big tobacco, employers that refused to provide domestic partner benefits, the Olympic Club’s membership policy excluding women, the city’s efforts to prevent the Giants’ ownership from moving the team out of the city, or the epic battle to bring marriage equality to all Californians. Positions in the office are highly sought-after, both for interns and permanent attorneys. The office recruits from top schools, and includes several former U.S. Supreme Court clerks among its ranks.
Delventhal says it is “thrilling” to see former students at conferences and see them succeeding in public law offices around the state. “To see them making their way is very satisfying,” he says.
In addition to being known as an affable expert on municipal law, Delventhal is known for his daily dips in the Bay, at Aquatic Park, where he has been swimming since 1978 as a member of the city’s famous South End Rowing Club. He has enticed countless hapless recruits to swim with him at dawn in nothing more than a Speedo and neoprene cap, the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge still gleaming, with the occasional sea lion as spectator.
“It gets me up in the morning. I get to work at by 8 am, and I’ve already had a dip in the Bay and am ready to go,” Delventhal said.
Delventhal and his wife spend weekends in Bolinas. His son, Ivan, followed him into the law, graduating from UC Hastings in 2008. Ivan works at Public Law Group in San Francisco, also in municipal law.