ADL honors Piedmont attorney and soon-to-be ambassador to Australia

When asked about the work he does as President Barack Obama’s special counsel, Piedmont attorney Jeff Bleich says rather casually, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Droll words coming from a man who has devoted his career to international justice and helping the disadvantaged with his legal expertise.

That’s why he will receive the 2009 Distinguished Jurisprudence Award from the Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to fighting anti-Semitism.

The awards gala takes place Thursday, Sept. 24, at San Francisco’s Intercontinental Hotel.

The ADL established the award to recognize individuals in the legal community who “exemplify the principles on which the [organization] was founded.”

Paraphrasing those principles, Bleich says “Unless there is tolerance and respect for all groups, everyone’s rights are in peril. The most impressive thing [about the ADL] is they rely a great deal on appealing to the better natures of our character. It’s one thing to urge fair treatment of your own ethnic group; it’s another to demonstrate that same tolerance and respect for all ethnic groups.”

This honor comes just as Bleich accepted the post of American Ambassador to Australia. The appointment must first be approved by the Senate.

A partner in the S.F. office of Munger, Tolles & Olson, Bleich has done legal work for the ADL in the past, and is very familiar with its people and mission. But his résumé also includes the chairmanship of the California State University Board of Trustees and the presidency of the State Bar of California.

He clerked at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal at the Hague. He has taught international human rights at U.C. Berkeley’s law school, Boalt Hall, as well as lectured extensively on the international criminal court.

Jeff Bleich chats with President Barack Obama.

More than any of that, though, he’s probably asked most often about his friendship with a certain fellow attorney by the name of Barack Obama.

The two go back to the early 1990s, when they met as lawyers on the way up, competing for the same job in the District of Columbia. A lasting friendship led to Bleich serving as co-chair for Obama’s California campaign, and this year, he was asked to join the administration to do legal work on some security and health issues.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be and more fun than I thought,” Bleich says of his job as special counsel, which ends this month. “I have long days but they are incredibly satisfying.”

As busy as the president is, he and Bleich have met several times over the past few months, including a recent informal photo op in the Oval Office. As Bleich recalls: “[Obama] said ‘Don’t you have enough photos of us together?’ But I will always pose for one more.”

Like his boss, Bleich showed promise in the legal profession early on. He earned a master’s in public policy from Harvard and a law degree from U.C. Berkeley. Following graduation he clerked for then–Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Like Obama, he has a history of community activism and volunteerism. In 1998 he took a sabbatical from his law practice to serve as chair of the White House Commission on Youth Violence. He’s also done work with foster youth, setting up scholarships through a lawyers for children program.

All this success came in part because Bleich never had to suffer from entrenched anti-Semitism. And he has the ADL, among others, to thank for that.

“Anti-Semitism, like any other prejudice, is always based on ignorance and lack of experience,” Bleich says. “It’s very easy to hate people you don’t know. So one of the important things about ADL is fostering communication and getting to know one another.”

The 2009 ADL Awards Gala takes place 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24 at the Intercontinental Hotel, 888 Howard St., S.F. Tickets: $300. Information: (415) 981-3500 ext. 240 or www.adl.org/awardsgala.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.