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University of San Diego School of Law
Advocate Fall 2017 Issue

Power to the Public

Since 1980, the Center for Public Interest Law has leveraged change throughout California regulatory agencies and the legislature

Robert Kelter, ’87 (JD), was barely out of law school when he landed his first major litigation against the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) and its plan to build a power plant in a lower-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. As one of only a handful of lawyers at Washington, D.C.’s Office of the People’s Counsel, a public interest agency that advocates for consumers of public utilities, Kelter had what seemed like an unwinnable case.

“The Office told me to just do the best I could,” Kelter recalled, “but we didn’t have any chance of defeating this plant. It was a David vs. Goliath effort.”

But in 1990, Kelter won the case—and he credits Professor Robert Fellmeth and the organization he helped found, the Center for Public Interest Law (CPIL), for his first career victory. “I used all that I learned from CPIL to win that case,” Kelter said. “CPIL taught me how to be an effective advocate.”

Today, Kelter is a lawyer at the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), a leading public interest environmental legal advocacy and eco-business group covering the greater Midwest region. As one of its senior attorneys, Kelter handles litigation and legislative issues related to clean energy nationwide. For 10 years, he served as director of litigation of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board; he is also the former president of the board of the Illinois Environmental Council. And it all began at CPIL.

When it was founded in 1980, CPIL had a lofty mission: Train future lawyers in public interest law so they can represent the public in all aspects of governmental decision making and wrest control away from lobbyists representing monied special interest groups. This was a tall order for an upstart law school-based organization staffed with only two academics and a class of second-year law students. But in the past 30 years or so, Fellmeth and his wife, Julianne D’Angelo Fellmeth, ’83 (JD),’76 (BA), have managed to train new generations of public interest lawyers like Kelter who are now at the forefront of reforming a regulatory regime that has historically been stacked against individuals. 

Since its founding, CPIL has played a key role in tipping the balance of power in favor of the public in California. In the past three decades, CPIL has successfully sponsored more than 50 state bills reforming some of the most powerful professional licensing boards in the state, gone to court to enforce state antitrust laws, and been appointed to legislatively created posts to perform oversight audits of regulatory agencies.

Ed Howard, a former public interest litigator who has spent the past 17 years in Sacramento—first as a legislative staffer and then as CPIL’s Sacramento-based senior policy advocate—sums up the influence CPIL has achieved over its 37-year history in Sacramento: “CPIL takes on some of the state’s most powerful political forces—doctors, lawyers, CPAs, for-profit colleges, to name a few—to protect the public’s interest, and year after year CPIL scores precedent-setting victories, armed only with hard work, resourcefulness and matchless substance.”

The center also helped birth several important public interest entities, including the now nationally recognized Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, as well as the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, which advocates on behalf of consumers for lower rates and safer service from
San Diego Gas & Electric Company. CPIL also expanded its reach in two additional areas of public interest advocacy that rarely get attention by creating the Children’s Advocacy Institute and the Energy Policy Initiatives Center.

But even with the CPIL’s long list of accomplishments, Fellmeth considers its graduates to be the center’s true “lodestars.” From the estimated 1,000 students that have graduated from the program so far, there are at least five sitting judges and scores of advocates and public officials around the country, according to Fellmeth.

“We decided to teach public interest law through state regulatory agencies very purposefully,” Fellmeth explained. “Most regulation occurs at the state level, and there is pervasive corruption in this forum. The public has little representation or control over the process. We need lawyers who will represent the interest of the public, and [at the time when CPIL was created] no other law school in the country was training law students how to do this.”

The year-long public interest law internship offered at CPIL has yet to be replicated by other law schools. The experience is designed to immerse students in the full functioning of all three branches of government as they interact to regulate a trade or profession. The experience allows students to connect their legal education to the real world and work in areas that are not normally covered by law schools, including tracking legislation; contributing to rulemaking by proposing new rules; drafting legislation; or persuading a court to enforce existing regulations and state laws through litigation.

Each student is assigned to monitor a major California agency and attend all meetings during the academic year as a public advocate. Twice during the academic year, students submit reports on their agency that include information on pending or recently passed legislation and judicial decisions affecting the agency or its licensees. In class presentations, students propose new rules or improvements in the process.

In the 30 years since she started teaching the course, D’Angelo Fellmeth says she has seen students empowered by the experience of actually influencing and changing state laws and regulations. “I have supervised student projects that have changed the law before the student even graduates from law school,” she said. “Administrative agency and legislative proceedings tend to be shorter, much more effective and targeted, and that’s what we try to teach our students—that there are other ways to make laws and change laws, not just through the judicial system.”

Bridget Gramme, ’03 (JD), ’98 (BA), who succeeded D’Angelo Fellmeth as administrative director in March, is a CPIL graduate who had strong aspirations for a career in public interest law. Unfortunately, she said, when she graduated from law school CPIL didn’t have enough funding for additional staff, so she went into private practice as a civil litigator. But in the summer of 2014, CPIL secured additional funding and hired Gramme as D’Angelo Fellmeth’s successor-in-training.

“Bridget was one of our star students,” D’Angelo Fellmeth said. “She knows that what we do is not simply teaching what’s in the textbook, because there’s no textbook to teach. We teach by doing, watching and helping to create law.”

Gramme knows she’s taking on a huge challenge, especially at a time when the need for public interest lawyers is more acute than in previous years. “Today, more than ever, we need to hold government accountable to the people,” Gramme noted. “At CPIL, we do this by training highly
skilled public interest lawyers and by leveraging change on behalf of consumers and the future.”