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Tony Serra: A lawyer greedy for life

Tony Serra is famous, but he never went for the gold. Photo: Mike Kepka

For the past several months, our attention has been riveted on the sensational drama of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, whose attorney, Tony Serra, has been displaying a courtroom high-wire act. Here is the backstory on Serra, the colorful defense attorney.

For its size, you might think that feisty San Francisco has had more than its share of eccentric, over-the-top lawyers. Silver-tongued, sometimes gun-toting, principled or unprincipled defenders of raw justice or bookish, law book, bookworms — have all paraded through the legal history of the city. A few who come to mind are Vincent Hallinan, Charles Garry, J. Martin McGuiness, Melvin Belli, Jake Erlich, Al Bendich, and Paul Halvonik — all courtroom brawlers for the downtrodden, for the disenfranchised, for the impoverished, and the marginalized. But of all these legal drumbeaters, there’s one at the head of this parade.

He’s J. Tony Serra, perhaps the fiercest of these courtroom fighters — and perhaps also the most dedicated and most effective of them all. He’s the guy you want to defend you in the U.S. legal system if you have a staggering uphill fight, impossible or preposterous charges against you, and maybe face the rest of your life behind bars. Yes, that would be Tony Serra — a true legal maverick, law textbook radical, and a battler, skilled in maneuvering in the arcane, sometimes draconian world of the American justice system.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some of his peers have to say about the man:

Not since Clarence Darrow has a trial lawyer attracted such envious attention in court. Not since Byron has there been a more poetic, passionate defender of liberty.

— San Francisco attorney John Keker

A life filled with passion, trouble and general sh**-kicking may be the best life to have, but probably only if you’re Tony Serra, wily defense lawyer, generous supporter of perilous causes, devoted custodian of just about everyone except himself.

— San Francisco author Herbert Gold

 

EXHILARATING TO BE A HIPPIE

The bare bones of the Tony Serra story are these:

A native San Franciscan, Tony excelled in high school and went to Stanford University where he was a letterman athlete. He majored in philosophy with a specialty in epistemology, no less. He recalls: “When I graduated there was nowhere out there in the real world with jobs for those who had studied epistemology. I was from the so-called upper lower class. My father worked and put food on the table. My family wanted all the good things in life — jobs and material manifestations of success. But for some reason, this was absent in me and has been all my life.

“But I was filled with what we might call romantic fallacies. So I took on the image of an Ernest Hemingway — an expat who wanted to explore, experience life, and write about the experience. So, logically to me at that point, I took off for Tangier to write poetry. I sat around in the cafes writing in my journal. I became part of the scene. I dabbled in raw opium, kif, and hashish.

“Then I realized that I wasn’t going to be a poet, at least not a good one. I had misguided myself with the romantic fallacy. So I came back to San Francisco and went to law school at the University of California in Berkeley where I became heavily involved in the free speech movement.

“But then I experienced another romantic fallacy. I decided I would become a mafia lawyer. But I was disabused of that idea by the Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love. It was exhilarating to be a hippie. There was free love and everyone was naked and that was exciting.”

AN LSD SESSION AND A VOW OF POVERTY

Serra passed the bar and began to practice law. He gravitated to unpopular causes and went on to become one of the most famous defense lawyers of our time — a demon for social change through litigation.

But Serra adopted a curious lifestyle. It was the lifestyle of most of his clients. “Early on in an LSD session I took a vow of poverty. I pledged never to capitalize on the practice of law. I denounced capitalism, private ownership of property and major business. I rejected probate law that allows one generation to pass accumulated wealth to another generation.

“Today I own nothing but old clothes and artifacts. I have no real property, no money in the bank, no stocks, no trusts. I live from hand to mouth.”

Serra’s clothes are secondhand and comfortable. He drives old beat-up cars that fall apart on him. Aren’t lawyers supposed to get rich, wear bespoke suits, and drive Porsches? That’s not Tony Serra.

LAWYER SERRA, THE CELEBRITY

Tony Serra operates out of what he terms Pier 5 Law Offices — not on the Embarcadero’s Pier 5 anymore, but now in a large open space in North Beach on Broadway. Finnochio’s, the city’s long-gone female impersonator nightclub, once occupied the space. Most law offices echo the severity and gravitas of the courtroom. Tony’s law office echoes a 1960s Haight-Ashbury party pad. The psychedelic décor reflects Tony’s interests. There’s Middle Eastern and American Indian art on the walls along with drawings and paintings by death row inmates.

So lawyer Tony Serra has become a celebrity in our celebrity-ridden culture. Books are written about him. He also writes his own books and he has a new one in the pipeline — “The Scaffold,” (Grizzly Peak Press) due out in April. A 1989 movie based on his life dealt with a Chinatown murder case in which he won an acquittal for the defendant. “But it was butchered,” he says.

There are those observers of this celebrity culture who would refer to Tony Serra as kooky or loopy. But they are only marginally correct. If you had called Tony Serra kooky or loopy in the old days, you probably would have gotten into a fistfight with him. These days — he’s 80 now — he might just give you a lashing with his sharp tongue. Or, he might just use the occasion as a jumping-off point to nail you on a point of legal logic.

NO TAX RETURNS

Over the years, Tony Serra has defended a wide range of individuals, causes, and direct action groups — some of which have resorted to violence — that jolt the minds of those in our lock-step society. Black Panther leader Huey Newton; the White Panthers; the Hells Angels; Earth First; the New World Liberation Front; the Symbionese Liberation Army; and Brownie Mary, a champion of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes.

Twice he has served prison terms in California’s Lompoc Federal Prison Camp for his strong stance against paying taxes, which he says go to support America’s wars. His method of resistance? He does not file tax returns, which has landed him in the slammer. He accepted his incarceration in good spirits and wound up advising inmates on their problems.

And while Tony Serra has been defending lost causes, he has won numerous awards from influential law groups and received accolades from his legal peers. Recently, I asked Tony how long he planned to keep on truckin’ in the courtroom. He’s been at it for 50 years with an uncanny degree of success. “Well,” he said, “we all have different wicks in our candle, so I can’t really say. But I don’t abuse myself. I’m not an alcoholic. But I acknowledge that occasionally I get zonked smoking a mild weed for relaxation. I smoke for sacramental purposes.

“I want to continue in the courtroom while I am of sound mind. I’m greedy. I’m greedy for life. But when the time comes, I want to die in the courtroom while having a heart attack as I’m making my final arguments in a case — and my client will be acquitted.”

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