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John L. Burris Has Been One of the Nation’s Best Civil Rights Attorneys for the Past Twenty-Eight Years

published September 02, 2013

By Follow Me on

( 134 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)

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Professional Overview

John L. Burris Has Been One of the Nation’s Best Civil Rights Attorneys for the Past Twenty-Eight Years
After several years in private practice with Oakland's Harris, Alexander, and Burris, John L. Burris established the Law Offices of John L. Burris in 1985. Mr. Burris is best known for his work in the area of plaintiff's civil rights over the last twenty-eight years and as a legal analyst on CNN, Court TV, MSNBC, Fox and many local television, radio and print media. His primary areas of focus for his practice include cases involving police misconduct, employment discrimination and criminal defense. Mr. Burris' initial involvement in investigating police misconduct occurred in April 1979 when he was hired by the City Council of Oakland and the Mayor to conduct an independent investigation into the fatal police shooting of fifteen-year-old Melvin Black, and the entry into the Oakland office of the NAACP by Oakland police officers. He wrote the book BLUE vs. BLACK: Let's End the Conflict between Police and Minorities.

After he graduated from law school in 1973, Mr. Burris served as an associate with the law firm of Jenner & Block in Chicago, IL. He subsequently became an Assistant State Attorney in Cook County, IL, and later in December 1976, he served as a Deputy District Attorney with the Alameda County District Attorney's Office.

According to his website, Mr. Burris' high profile cases include the Oakland Riders class action, wherein he used several ideas from his book as a background in developing the reforms in the landmark multi-million dollar settlement of the lawsuit and consent decree placing the Oakland Police Department under court monitor for five years, the Rodney King civil lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, two multi-million dollar class actions against two worldwide package delivery companies, which began a series of reforms for minority employees that set forth promotional and hiring goals. He also served as co-counsel against the Department of Corrections in a hostile work environment that resulted in a plaintiff's judgment and a series of reforms proposed to prevent exhibitionist masturbation by male convicts against female correctional officers. Mr. Burris' prominent clients have included MLB star Barry Bonds, NBA stars Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Latrell Sprewell, and Kevin Durant, as well as NFL star Keyshawn Johnson. Some of his other well known clients have included musicians Dwayne Wiggins, Tupac Shakur, Lester Chambers, actor Delroy Lindo, former Chief of Police of San Francisco Earl Sanders, Sports Agent Aaron Goodwin and a number of public officials.

Over the years, Mr. Burris has been awarded with several distinctions. In 2007, the American Trial Lawyers Association selected him as a member of the top 100 trial lawyers in California. In 2005 and 2009, Mr. Burris was named one of the top 100 most Influential Attorneys in the State of California by the San Francisco and Los Angeles Daily Journal. The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine also featured him as "Oakland's Johnnie Cochran" in June 2005. He has been featured in many publications including the California Bar Journal, SF Chronicle, San Jose Mercury, Oakland Tribune, and Associated Press, among others.

Mr. Burris frequently speaks on the matters of trial practice, the criminal justice system, police misconduct, and other legal issues of interest nationwide. He has been a delegate with the Dwight D. Eisenhower People to People Ambassador Program where he has visited many foreign cities and countries including Barcelona, Rome, Florence, and Athens. Mr. Burris has visited South Africa and Mainland China as an employment delegate. He also filed a lawsuit and represented individuals in the 1998 United States embassy bombings. The bombings occurred on August 7, 1998. Simultaneous truck bomb explosions killed a few hundred people at the U.S. embassies in the East African capitals of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.

The Oakland City Council, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California State Assembly, and many community groups have recognized Mr. Burris with community service awards. The City of Oakland declared June 23, 1994 as John Burris Day.

He was born and raised in Vallejo, CA. Mr. Burris is the oldest of six children. He graduated with a B.A. in Accounting from Golden Gate University and he received his MBA from UC Berkeley Graduate School of Business. Mr. Burris also earned his J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall). He is married to Cheryl Amana Burris, a Law School Professor who teaches at North Carolina Central University.

When the fearless attorney isn't working, he enjoys attending museums and book stores, exercising, and traveling. Mr. Burris is a frequent visitor of San Francisco's Fleur de Lys and Yountville's The French Laundry. He is currently reading several books, which includes Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mr. Burris' Memories and Motivations

Does Mr. Burris have a most memorable law school experience? He recalled a student led strike while he served as president of the student body at UC Berkeley School of Law. Mr. Burris explained that the law school was shut down. He used his leadership to maintain and then increase Asian and African American enrollment at the law school.

Why did Mr. Burris decide to become an attorney? Although he didn't plan on attending law school, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War influenced Mr. Burris' decision to become an attorney.

So what is the best part of his job? "Representing people who were abused by the police. I am training and mentoring young lawyers at the firm. I believe that there are three great future lawyers in my office. Part of my legacy is how well they do in the future."

What is the civil rights lawyer known for professionally? "I am committed to civil rights issues. The majority of individuals I represent were abused by law enforcement. I represent individuals who are at the bottom of the social ladder. I represent Africans, Asians, and White individuals, and I have a wide array of clientele."

What area of the law is Mr. Burris most passionate about? "Plaintiff's civil right law emphasizing police misconduct."

Is there an area of practice he would like to develop further into? "Not particularly. I have no time with everything else."

In regards to his strengths and one weakness, Mr. Burris asserted, "I have a strong personality and I am empathetic to individuals and their situation." As for his weakness, he claimed, "I don't say no enough."

If he weren't a lawyer, what would Mr. Burris probably be doing? "I would be a History Professor. I love teaching, reading, and speaking about social issues. I would also be a columnist because I am a thought provoking person."

The civil rights lawyer was asked where he sees himself in five years' time. Mr. Burris said he will be semi-retired. He plans on trying cases from time to time while managing and mentoring lawyers at the firm. Mr. Burris added, "I will not be working at the same level as I am now. However, I hope to continue public speaking and mentoring young people."

What motivates him to be an attorney everyday? "The work, clients, representing individuals, bringing about change in departments if the opportunity presents itself, and improving the quality of policing. Equally important is challenging the official positions."

How does the former Deputy District Attorney want to be remembered? "As an individual who helped improved the lives of the less unfortunate."

High Profile Cases

The Mayor and the City Council of Oakland hired Mr. Burris to conduct an independent investigation into the fatal police shooting of fifteen-year-old Melvin Black and the entry into the Oakland office of the NAACP by Oakland police officers (OPO). What did he learn from this investigation? "I learned that public officials and in particular police officers are more interested in their public image than they are about the truth, particularly where allegations of excessive force are at issue." Mr. Burris continues to believe that neither the mayor nor OPD accepted the truthfulness of his investigation. The mayor and OPO wanted to maintain their public image that the police conduct was correct.

Mr. Burris won a number of large settlements against the city of Oakland, including the city's largest settlement, $10.9 million for planting evidence in the "Oakland Riders" case. How did this case impact his career? Mr. Burris said the Oakland Riders case has been the largest and most significant case in his career. "Trying to reform the Oakland police department is a big challenge. The case has been ongoing since 2000."

One of his high-profile lawsuits included a $3.8 million verdict for Rodney King. Was Mr. Burris pleased with the outcome of this case? "This was the worst police misconduct case in U.S. history. The video detailing the King beating opened the public to the brutality and it showed that the police are capable of egregious misconduct. Some people even with the video were unwilling to recognize what the police did wrong with Mr. King. We fought for Mr. King and proved that the police violated his civil rights."

Mr. Burris won a $42,000 settlement in a suit brought on behalf of Tupac Shakur. Was he pleased with the outcome of this case? "Tupac Shakur was a budding superstar when I met him. The settlement was consistent with what the officers did."

He is most recently noted for filing a civil suit over the BART police shooting of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle, which has been turned into a featured film. Race has been discussed in several trials such as the George Zimmerman case. Does Mr. Burris believe there are similarities between Grant and the Trayvon Martin case? "Oscar Grant's life is very similar to many African American males in every city in the U.S. Racial profiling, a national problem, played a significant unspoken roles in both cases. Officer Anthony Pirone stopped Oscar without just cause. Although Zimmerman isn't white, he profiled Trayvon. During the respective trials, Oscar and Trayvon were both depersonalized and their cases became more about Mehserle and Zimmerman, and less about their initial stops."

Authoring a Book and Being Married to a Law Professor

Mr. Burris wrote BLUE vs. BLACK: Let's End the Conflict between Police and Minorities. What did he learn while writing this book? The civil rights lawyer said it was a dream of his to write a book since he was in business school. Mr. Burris planed on writing this book after the Rodney King case, but instead, he focused on commentating on the O.J. Simpson case. "I learned that the culture of the police department can change good police officers who focus more on shielding each other than protecting the community, which can be detrimental to the community."

As previously mentioned, Mr. Burris is married to Cheryl Amana Burris, a law professor who teaches at North Carolina Central University. Are there any interesting debates over cases between him and his lovely wife? Mr. Burris explained that he is on the same page spiritually and mentally with his wife. Although Mrs. Burris is quiet and doesn't like arguments, she expects her students to be prepared and on time. She is jokingly referred by her students as "The Wicked Witch of the West" largely because of her impatience towards students who are unprepared in class and because she commutes from the West Coast.

Mentoring Others, Non-Profit Organizations and Mr. Burris' Goals

Is Mr. Burris a mentor? "A great portion of my life has been devoted to mentoring people. Every summer, I invite 40 boys and men to my house so we can discuss how they can improve their future. I have been doing this for the past four years. I mentor several clerks, legal assistants and lawyers. I have also hired several employees with criminal records. All of whom worked out fine, they just needed an opportunity and someone to believe in them. Likewise, I am also mentoring my nieces and nephews. It's been a great pleasure watching them grow."

Is Mr. Burris involved with any non-profit organizations? "I am a board member of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco and board member of the National Police Accountability Practice. I am also active with the Loraine Hansberry Theatre Group and the Museum of the African Diaspora MoAD."

Does the Californian have goals? "My goals are to take care of my wife and my family. I will continue to mentor lawyers so they can have great careers and carry on the legacy of providing legal services to the powerless."

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( 134 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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