Attorney James Brosnahan. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma/Pool)
Attorney James Brosnahan. (2012 AP Photo/Paul Sakuma/Pool)

Former San Francisco school board President Keith Jackson is scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday morning in connection with the FBI sting that entangled him, state Sen. Leland Yee, Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and more than 20 others.

And when Jackson appears before a federal judge, standing next to him will be his newly court-appointed attorney James Brosnahan, a legendary “legal lion” with more than 50 years of criminal and civil experience.

Brosnahan was the lead federal prosecutor of Caspar Weinberger as part of  the independent prosecutor’s office in the Iran-Contra case, but his best-known client was John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” from Marin accused of conducting terrorism against the United States when he was captured with the Taliban in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11.

He’s also politically active. According to campaign money tracker MapLight, since 2002 Brosnahan has given nearly $30,000 in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

So how did Keith Jackson, a relatively small-time political consultant and fundraiser, end up with a top-notch legal defender? Was it just dumb luck or something else? It depends on whom you ask.

In cases with multiple defendants such as this one, the office of the federal public defender represents one client, while the other defendants lacking counsel are assigned defense attorneys from a panel of lawyers who volunteer to do the work.

In the northern district office in San Francisco, those panel assignments are overseen by panel administrator Ruben P. Deang, Jr. In most cases the volunteer attorneys are randomly assigned if they’re able and willing to take a case on. They’re often run-of-the-mill cases involving drugs, immigration, white-collar crime, etc.

But this is no run-of-the-mill case. It’s a blockbuster involving alleged bribery, arms trafficking and murder-for-hire that has turned the San Francisco and Sacramento political worlds on their heads. Enter Jim Brosnahan.

“He did not come from being the next name on the list of panel attorneys. I can tell you that right now,” says Peter Keane, Golden Gate University Law School dean emeritus. “The people involved saw this was an important case and they needed someone of good stature to represent Jackson. They’d look at the A-list and he (Brosnahan) is at the top of that ‘crème de la crème’ list.”

According to Keane, in a high-profile case like this, the federal public defender would want someone able to deal with media scrutiny, in addition to providing top-notch legal defense.  And is that decision vulnerable to outside influence? Say, a well-placed call or conversation with a politically connected mover and shaker with more than a passing interest in Jackson getting a vigorous, smart defense?

“Never say never,” says Keane, while adding that “if anyone did that and word got around, people would be pissed.”

In a phone call, Steven G. Kalar, federal public defender for the northern district of California, said “we certainly don’t take suggestions from outside” in terms of assigning attorneys to clients.  Kalar added, “I wasn’t consulted about the appointment of Brosnahan to that client.”

Kalar insists that Brosnahan’s appointment was totally random, that he was simply next up on the “wheel” of attorneys on the panel and the first to say he could take the case.

Kalar, who briefly worked at Brosnahan’s law firm, Morrison & Foerster, before entering public service, noted that “people forget how many indigent clients Brosnahan has represented in run-of-the-mill cases in misdemeanor court” over the years, noting the famed attorney’s passion for equal justice.

Keith Jackson is the highest-profile defendant in this case after Yee and Chow. His career in politics and government was supported and nurtured by Willie Brown and other San Francisco politicians apparently eager to help a young up-and-coming African-American from the city’s housing projects enter politics.

During his 1994 campaign for the San Francisco school board, Jackson’s message in the official voter handbook included this statement:

“I understand the disruptions, irresponsibility, violence and despair I’ve seen around me since childhood. My insights can enable others to succeed.”

The first name among his 30 sponsors listed in that voter guide was Willie Brown, then speaker of the state Assembly. Rather than seek re-election in 1998, Jackson left the Board of Education to join Brown’s mayoral administration and work in the city’s solid waste program.


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED's Politics and Government Desk. When he's not asking questions you'll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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