Dennis A. Winston, a founding director of Californians Aware and its third president, died Wednesday night after years of struggle with cancer. Mr. Winston, a Los Angeles-based trial lawyer and a long-time partner with the firm of Moskowitz, Brestoff, Winston, Blinderman LLP prior to its dissolution several years ago, continued in solo practice specializing in business litigation, including wrongful termination (representing employers and employees), insurance coverage and general business disputes.
Over more than a decade, Mr. Winston increasingly emphasized litigation involving open meetings, public records and First Amendment litigation, representing news organizations, elected representatives, private citizens and public interest organizations such as CalAware and the California First Amendment Coalition in cases under the Ralph M. Brown Act, the Bagley-Keene Act and the California Public Records Act.
Published decisions in open government law in which Mr. Winston participated include McKee v. Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force; McKee v. Orange Unified School District; and Epstein v. Hollywood Entertainment District II Business Improvement District. More recently he participated in the litigation securing the release of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s speaking contract at a university fund-raiser, Californians Aware v. California State University, Stanislaus.
In his last tried case Mr. Winston won a decision that the City of Encinitas would have to release a consultant’s study of street conditions that it had been sitting on for upwards of a year, calling it a “draft” whose release would harm its “deliberative process.” Upon the trial court’s rejection of these arguments in May 2011, Mr. Winston told a reporter, “It’s our government. It’s the people of Encinitas’ money. Yes, they voted for the City Council, but it doesn’t mean the City Council gets to say, ‘You people are just an irritant. Get out of the way and let me do my job.’ It’s the people’s money and they are entitled to find out why [the] government makes spending decisions.”
Terry Francke, CalAware’s general counsel, said he had seen Mr. Winston in action in a trial court only twice—once being the Palin contract case—and was “amazed at his agility and informal command of the argument on his feet, especially his skill at boiling down sometimes complex factual and legal issues in a way that both educated and persuaded the court. And outside the courtroom he had the most cheerful and unassuming presence one could imagine.”
A fellow partner in the Moskowitz firm and an open government litigator in her own right who often served as co-counsel to Mr. Winston in such cases, Barbara Blinderman told CalAware, “It is an understatement to say that he was brilliant, feisty, and very disciplined. He had been a champion debater at USC, which talent revealed itself every time he appeared in court. Unlike the image of the modern lawyer, he was always willing to jump into an issue he believed in, whether or not a retainer came with it. Public access was one area he believed in. And he took on cases he felt had merit, despite the chances of success … and was able to challenge the odds on many key public access cases.
“He was quite a guy and I felt privileged to have been able to work with him.”
Tim Crews, publisher of the Glenn County semi-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror and Vice President of Californians Aware, remembers his newspaper being represented by Mr. Winston prior to CalAware’s founding.
The Valley Mirror, known for litigating till the cows come home and beyond, recalls Dennis taking three cases here at the beginning of our scorched earth campaign — a long haul from Los Angeles, and kicking butt all the way. But, as you will recall, with grace, dignity, subtlety and firm direction of his knowledge of law, and human nature.
Memory dims, and court files fade, but the first case involved the Glenn County Fair Board going into an illegal, unagendized closed session at the behest of a very imposing woman from the California Fairs and Expositions Authority, We were at the meeting, objected, and asked her authority and she said something to the effect of, ‘Because I say so.’
Enter Mr. Winston a few days alter. And then a meeting of the fair board and our attorneys. Despite a wilted, not withering, defense by a California Deputy Attorney General, we prevailed, the Bagley-Keene Act was upheld and the fee, as I recall, was $7,000. This was a joint effort with Barbara Blinderman.
He also represented us in getting personnel information from Glenn County. We wanted the names of those applying for a vacated sheriff’s slot. I don’t recall the fee amount, I do recall the dueling was short-lived.
The most profound victory, and one that serves us well to this day, was tackling the City of Willows for basic police blotter information. We went to trial and Dennis was his concise, soft-spoken and incisive self. Great brief, wonderful appearance in our old courthouse. The city attorney for Willows argued that, “Well, (in view of) 9/11 we just don’t think we should have to” release the logs.
The judge said, “Very Eloquent, Mr. Krup, but no.”
That win is the underpinning of much of what we do.
One of the local defense bar at the hearing said to me as we all left the courtroom, “Your boy did good,” And then swiftly said, “No offense.”
Dennis heard it, shrugged and walked on.