SAN JOSE -- Ask most lawyers about their achievements and they'll tick off a list of courtroom victories. Joseph Cotchett boasts of his losses.
The award-winning attorney, now representing San Jose in its antitrust lawsuit against Major League Baseball for impeding the Oakland A's planned move to the city, proudly recounts his efforts on behalf of the family of slain civil-rights worker Viola Liuzzo. Cotchett contended the FBI was liable in Liuzzo's death because an FBI informant was with the Ku Klux Klansmen who fatally shot her on an Alabama highway in 1965.
"It was one of the greatest cases I ever tried," Cotchett said, adding matter-of-factly: "I lost."
Although a federal judge in 1983 rejected the claim, the FBI acknowledged that the man it paid to spy on the KKK was at times involved in its violence. Soon after, the agency overhauled its informant policies.
"Within six months of the decision," Cotchett said, "the FBI changed their ways."
Cotchett, 74, is a big-picture guy, seemingly less concerned with actual rulings or verdicts than overall outcomes. And with San Jose's baseball lawsuit, Cotchett hopes to turn another old loss to his advantage. He unsuccessfully represented the Los Angeles Rams and National Football League against antitrust allegations for trying to block the Oakland Raiders' move to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the decision that the NFL couldn't block the Raiders' move, now could be asked to declare whether the rules should be any different for professional baseball.
Noting another of his favorite losses -- when he sued the U.S. Navy on behalf of children fathered by U.S. sailors in the Philippines, a case that ultimately led Congress to appropriate money for their education -- Cotchett said "it's not about winning or losing, it's about shining a light on things."
"In the MLB case, this is a case where a light has to be shined, because Major League Baseball has been getting away with hiding behind this exemption while every other industry in the U.S. cannot violate antitrust laws," Cotchett said. "There is no other sport that has this exemption."
In a twist, MLB hired Cotchett's pal John Keker to lead its legal defense. Keker is an ace San Francisco attorney who is among the few said to be Cotchett's equal in the courtroom and, Cotchett says, "one my dearest friends."
"He's one of the classiest lawyers you'll ever find -- smart, ethical and tough," Cotchett said. "It means to me that they realize they're in big trouble."
While it is hardly uncommon for lawyers to summon righteous indignation in arguing their cases, Cotchett more than most seems driven by a sense of moral purpose. In 1991 he penned a 170-page book, "The Ethics Gap," on "the erosion of ethics in our professions, business and government."
It followed landmark Cotchett victories against 1980s white-collar swindlers. On behalf of hundreds of investors, mostly elderly, he won jury verdicts totaling about $200 million from the collapse of Technical Equities in San Jose, run by charismatic financier Harry Stern.
Soon after, Cotchett landed perhaps his most famous victory as lead trial lawyer for 23,000 investors in the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association collapse in 1990 involving politically connected financier Charles Keating. The initial $3.3 billion jury verdict was among the largest of its kind, though it later was knocked down to $1.75 billion.
"Joe wants to fight for what's right," said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Public Justice, a public-interest law firm for which Cotchett, a co-founder and past president, helped lead litigation against Exxon to increase settlement awards for environmental damage from the 1989 Valdez oil spill.
Cotchett's book drubbed Stern, Keating and other schemers for callously endangering trusting individuals to make a buck. But he also lashed out at the legions of gutless, cynical and lazy accountants, government regulators, politicians and, yes, lawyers who enabled them along the way.
Born in Chicago to an entrepreneur father and an actress mother, Cotchett grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island, in neighborhoods of Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants. A big lad -- he's now 6 feet 4 and more than 200 pounds -- often called upon to protect smaller kids from bullies, he learned on the streets to be tolerant, tough and appreciative of the law's power to shape the fortunes of the powerless.
Racial prejudice riled him. When he left for North Carolina to study engineering, he got into it with a local cop when he drank from a "colored" fountain in defiance of segregation. Cotchett finished his engineering studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, joined the Army and earned his law degree at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in 1964.
As a newly minted lawyer, Cotchett quickly made a name for himself among Bay Area attorneys, drawing comparisons to law legend Melvin Belli.
"He was like a whiz," recalled San Francisco attorney James Brosnahan, a friend who has faced him many times in court.
Cotchett showed a flair for the dramatic, a knack for unnerving opponents and engaging jurors in the courtroom. Brosnahan recalled the effectiveness of Cotchett's opening remarks in the Savings and Loan trial, where he played a videotape of Keating invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 33 times.
In the Raiders case, Cotchett famously suggested on cross examination that owner Al Davis admired Adolf Hitler, flashing on a large screen an old sports magazine article in which he gushed about German war tactics.
Jurors are captivated by Cotchett's courtroom presence, fellow attorneys said.
"He has this big, booming voice," Brosnahan said. "His favorite expression with juries is, 'This is America!' It doesn't sound like much when I say it. But when he says it, it just rocks the world and they give him millions of dollars. You want to stand up and salute."
Cotchett's brash style has earned him some critics, particularly those on the receiving end of his legal crusades. But fellow lawyer George Corey argued one of Cotchett's strengths is getting under his opponents' skin.
"Joe blusters," Corey said. "It's taunting, sarcastic and brings out the worst in his opponents. But behind that ... he's as calculating as can be."
San Jose Councilman Sam Liccardo, who represents the downtown area where the proposed A's ballpark would be, began courting Cotchett, a friend of his father's, two years ago about the baseball case.
"I felt we needed the best, someone with enough gravitas to attract the attention of Major League Baseball," Liccardo said. "The bigger the opponent, the happier Joe is."
Cotchett, who will represent a major city against a major league, nonetheless sees it as the kind of underdog David-and-Goliath fight he adores. He likened baseball commissioner Bud Selig to a bully forcing San Jose to accept permanent minor league status. And Cotchett impishly revels in the cat-and-mouse game he said his legal team had serving the lawsuit after being denied access to MLB's New York headquarters. He threatened to have servers hunt Selig to serve him in person, and told reporters he might put up "wanted" posters with the commissioner's mug at ballparks around the country.
"They called me two hours later," Cotchett said, "and said they were going to accept service."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
Joseph Cotchett, the Burlingame lawyer who is handling San Jose's antitrust lawsuit accusing Major League Baseball of illegally holding up the city's effort to become the home of the Oakland A's, has had a career full of famous cases and clients. Among them:
NFL: Cotchett defended the Los Angeles Rams and National Football League from 1980 antitrust claims by the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission and Oakland Raiders. A federal jury in 1982 sided with the Coliseum and Raiders, allowing the team's Los Angeles move. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the antitrust verdict. The Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995.
Viola Liuzzo: Cotchett was lead trial lawyer on the legal team that in 1979 sued the FBI on behalf of slain civil rights worker Liuzzo's family for having hired an informant who was with the Ku Klux Klanmen when they fatally shot her as she drove with a black man on an Alabama highway in 1965. Cotchett's team lost the case in 1983, but the FBI later overhauled informant procedures based on the trial.
Technical Equities: Cotchett won jury verdicts of more than $200 million on behalf of hundreds of investors ranging from elderly couples to sports stars who had lost their savings in the 1988 collapse of a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by charismatic Silicon Valley financier Harry Stern through his San Jose investment firm, attorneys and accountants.
Lincoln Savings and Loan: In Perhaps Cotchett's most famous victory, he represented thousands of investors, many elderly, wiped out by the failure of financier Charles Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan, an Irvine thrift his Arizona real estate firm, American Continental, acquired before its 1989 bankruptcy. The initial Arizona jury award of $3.3 billion in 1992 was among the largest of its kind at the time but later was reduced to $1.75 billion.
Subic Bay Naval Base: After the base was closed, Cotchett sued the U.S. Navy in 1993 on behalf of some 8,000 children who were left behind in surrounding villages and were fathered by American sailors. The U.S. government ultimately provided several million dollars for the children's education.
Consumers Union: Cotchett successfully defended the consumer advocacy group in 2000 from a defamation suit brought by Japanese automaker Isuzu Motors over criticism of its 1995-96 Trooper SUV model.
Valerie Plame: Cotchett was part of the legal team that represented the former CIA agent in a 2006 lawsuit against officials in former President George W. Bush's administration whom they accused of outing the former spy after her diplomat husband publicly criticized their case for war in Iraq, ending her career. The lawsuit later was dismissed on executive privilege grounds in Washington, D.C.
Bernard Madoff: Cotchett sued the New York financier in 2009 on behalf of thousands of investors bilked by Madoff's multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. He was the only attorney to interview Madoff in federal prison.
Hometown: San Mateo
Family: Five grown children and six grandchildren
Education: Bachelor of Science in Engineering, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 1960; Juris Doctorate, Hastings College of the Law at the University of California, 1964; Honorary Doctor of Laws, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (2002); Doctor of Humane Letters, Notre Dame de Namur University (2006); Doctor of Humane Letters, University of San Francisco (2011)
Public service: U.S. Army (Intelligence Corps, Special Forces Airborne, Judge Advocate General Corps) 1960-1961 active duty, reserves until 1991, retired at rank of colonel; California State Park and Recreation Commission 2000-03, chairman; Army War College Foundation board, 2001-05; California State Bar Association Board of Governors, 1972-75; California Judicial Council, 1976-80; California Commission on Judicial Performance 1985-88
Awards: 1996 Anti-Defamation League Distinguished Jurisprudence Award; 1999 California State Bar Association Litigation Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame; 2011 American Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame; 2011 Judicial Council of California Distinguished Service Award; 2011 California State Bar Association Antitrust Lawyer of the Year; 2011 California League of Conservation Voters Environmental Leadership Award; 2011 Consumer Watchdog Lifetime Achievement Award
Charity: $5 million fund to support science and mathematics teacher education at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to serve inner-city and rural minority children; Cotchett Family Foundation supports and aids individuals and groups in need of assistance, especially animal and environmental groups
Quotes: "It's not about winning or losing, it's about shining a light on things that need justice"; "The true champion is the person who is not afraid of power but fights for principle."