I've shed my hero worship of smart lawyers. Law is a tough and unrelenting business, molded by the need to earn a living. No lawyer can fully control the miscues of a client or the vagaries of the system. More than a few litigators fall prey to hubris.

But the verdict is clear: One lawyer, New York-based David Boies, has had an outsize impact on issues that matter in the valley. In ways both direct and oblique, the 71-year-old Boies has not just scored points in court. He has shaped the grounds of public debate.

An ascetic-looking man with the strategic sense of a chess master, Boies doesn't always win. No lawyer does. What makes him different is that even when he loses, he tends to be on the side of history.

Four cases involving Boies have deep local repercussions -- and for residents of San Jose, the still-unfolding fourth might be the most newsworthy.

No one in Silicon Valley needs to be reminded of the first case, the antitrust proceedings against Microsoft in the late 90s. Boies represented the U.S. in seeking to rein in the software giant.

While Microsoft evaded a breakup, the company was tempered. And it has been eclipsed in the valley by Google, Apple and Facebook.

Then came Bush v. Gore in 2000. Boies represented Gore, and as we know, he lost. But he secured history's judgment. Bush started a bad war. Gore became an influential venture capitalist and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Gay marriage


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The third case edged forward Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The justices also agreed to review California's Proposition 8, which Boies and former solicitor general Ted Olson -- who represented Bush in Bush v. Gore -- successfully challenged in a lower court. Whatever the high court's call, you have to think gays and lesbians ultimately will win the right to marry.

The last Boies case, a newsworthy one for San Jose residents, is the pension fight in Rhode Island. Boies is representing the hard-pressed state in its efforts to preserve pension cuts, including a suspension of annual cost-of-living increases for retirees.

It is a tough battle against union members who believe their contracts were breached. Among other issues, the judge on the case is earning a pension that will be affected. How the fight unfolds could shed light on the fate of San Jose's Measure B pension reform.

Phenomenal memory

Why does one lawyer have so much impact? It might start with a disability. Boies has dyslexia; he did not read until the third grade. He made up for it with a memory that rivals that of Deep Blue.

Maybe more importantly, Boies has gotten to the enviable place where he can take cases without having to worry how much they will pay. In the pension fight, he is charging the state of Rhode Island $50 an hour, a fraction of the $1,250 he usually bills.

It's dangerous to put any lawyer on a pedestal. But Boies might be the most acclaimed attorney of his generation. And one reason is that history smiles on his causes.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.