Russell Brooks, Dead at 41by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 2007
Property rights lawyer passionate about his work
With a hearty laugh and a Southern lilt that made his oral arguments sing, Seattle-area lawyer Russell Brooks spearheaded the fight for property rights in the Northwest.
After turning to law as a second career, Brooks became best known for winning a ruling that forced federal fisheries officials to reconsider virtually all Endangered Species Act protections for West Coast salmon.
He also argued against a racial tiebreaking provision used by Seattle schools in a case currently being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
He died of a heart attack Sunday at the age of 41.
After working as a computer programmer in Texas for about 10 years, Brooks, a Mississippi native, went to law school in California. There he interned at the Sacramento-based, Libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation, which later hired him and sent him north to revive its office in Bellevue.
A brilliant and tenacious litigator who might break into song in a light moment, Brooks worked extremely long hours but also made time for camaraderie with his colleagues, co-workers said.
"He is going to be deeply missed by the property rights movement," said Timothy Harris, a close friend who helped Brooks re-establish PLF's Seattle office and now works for the Building Industry Association of Washington.
"Russ was so passionate about free enterprise and about protecting citizens from government oppression and regulation. He made it his life."
John Stuhlmiller of the Washington Farm Bureau, a client of Brooks in more than a dozen lawsuits, remembers e-mailing Brooks late at night, only to have Brooks e-mail him right back, with both questioning why the other was still in the office at that hour.
When Brooks would lose a case, Stuhlmiller said, his reaction would usually go something like this: "We got our heads handed to us on this one, but the judge wasn't right. We're going to keep looking for those cases that will prove the law is what the law is."
In the salmon case, Brooks homed in on the Oregon Coast coho, arguing that there was no genetic difference between fish produced in hatcheries and those born in the wild. Because there were plenty of hatchery-bred fish, Brooks argued, Endangered Species Act protections should not apply to the wild fish.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan bought much of that argument, setting off a round of litigation over the question that ultimately forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to reconsider almost all the protected salmon stocks.
However, the agency ultimately decided to protect the wild stocks under different reasoning, and Brooks set about pushing a second generation of cases he was still pursuing before his death.
"He was passionate about making sure the Endangered Species Act was complied with as intended by Congress, and not abused," said Rob Rivett, president and chief executive officer of the legal foundation. "Russ always had that cowboy attitude that he'd try anything, and he felt he could win anything."
But sometimes he did not win. One of Brooks' most significant losses came in December in a challenge by the builders association and farm bureau to Endangered Species Act protections for Puget Sound orcas.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly in Seattle ruled that the builders and farmers couldn't pursue the suit because they could not prove that any harm had come to them as a result of the orca protections.
Brooks was proud of his Southern heritage, said those who knew him, even naming his children after Southern cities.
"He caught people off guard because he lulled them with that good ol' boy persona. When he snapped into lawyer mode, they didn't expect what was coming," said Sonya Jones, who worked for Brooks in the three-attorney Bellevue office of the legal foundation. "He was amazing. He was very smart."
Although Brooks' main focus was defending property rights, he also believed in "a colorblind society," and that led him into the Seattle schools case, Rivett said.
In that lawsuit, Brooks filed friend of the court briefs and argued before the Washington Supreme Court. He opposed a provision allowing race as one factor in deciding whether students applying to any given public school would be accepted. The result was that some white students were able to attend schools where minorities were in the majority, and vice versa.
After moving here in 1999, Brooks initially lived on Queen Anne before moving several years ago to Snoqualmie. He is survived by his wife, Rhonda, of Snoqualmie; daughter Savannah and son Austin; mother Antje Hill, of Collins, Miss.; and brothers Jason Sullivan, of Arlington, Texas, and Erick Sullivan of Knoxville, Tenn.
Services are scheduled at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Church on the Ridge, 35131 S.E. Douglas St., Snoqualmie.
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