A Bridge to No-Name: A Lawsuit Challenging the Willie L. Brown Bridge Resolution May Be Pointless

Former state Assemblyman and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown is known as a master of navigating around rules. His new namesake, the 77-year-old western span of the Bay Bridge, will be a definitive symbol of that talent. Recently, California legislators in both houses voted overwhelmingly to rechristen said bridge for Brown, in spite of Senate rules that require legislators to only name transit architecture after dead people.

Not only is Willie Brown alive, he's still pulling strings behind the curtain of San Francisco politics. And he's still rankling critics, some of whom waged valiant campaigns to prevent the Brown Bridge from being consecrated.

The latest of these is a lawsuit filed by former Ethics Commissioner Bob Planthold, who is suing the state of California for violating its own procedures. Alleging that Assembly Concurrent Resolution 65 — aka the Brown Bridge bill — violates not only the dead-person rule, but also goes against the wishes of many San Franciscans, Planthold calls for injunctive relief to strike out the new name, and prevent Caltrans from erecting any “Willie L. Brown Bridge” signs with taxpayer money.

Legal experts say the suit, while honorable, is a bit far-fetched. That's the contention of First Amendment lawyer Terry Francke, whose nonprofit group Californians Aware holds government institutions accountable for their actions. Francke can't think of a precedent for a private citizen trying to enforce house procedure. “If that were possible, then you'd see a fair number of lawsuits challenging ordinary rule waivers,” he says. Los Angeles-based legal scholar Robert Stern agrees, explaining that courts have traditionally been “extremely reluctant” to second-guess the legislative process in passing measures.

Thus it appears Planthold's lawsuit will likely get tossed out. A more likely solution, according to retired judge and former San Francisco Supervisor Quentin Kopp, would be for Gov. Jerry Brown to preempt the bridge christening by ordering Caltrans not to install any signs. “A resolution adopted by the Assembly and the Senate — at least in my tentative opinion — isn't binding on the executive branch,” Kopp says, “and the Department of Transportation is the executive branch's responsibility.”

Kopp says he's currently drafting a letter to Governor Brown suggesting just that. He can expect a sympathetic ear, given that Brown — no relation to Willie Brown — openly opposed the bridge rechristening last week.

But even if an anti-signage order isn't forthcoming, we can perhaps wage a quiet protest by never using the name “Willie L. Brown Bridge” colloquially. Theoretically, the bridge already has a name, for former San Francisco mayor James B. Rolph. Few people know that, and fewer people honor it. Perhaps the Brown Bridge may also persist in name only.

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