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Robert Lewis Harris

Lawyer, activist, and business executive Robert Lewis Harris was born to Lucy and Benjamin Harris on March 4, 1944, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. After moving to California in 1960, Harris, a 1961 graduate of Oakland Technical High School, received his A.A. degree from Merritt College in Oakland in 1963 and his B.A. degree from San Francisco State University in 1965 (in 2007 he was inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame). Harris worked as a probation officer for four years before entering the University of California Berkeley Law School (Boalt Hall). Shortly after Harris’s receipt of his J.D. degree in 1972, he joined the legal staff at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) where he spent thirty-four years as an attorney and business executive, retiring in January 2007.

In 1973, Harris became active with his local bar associations, serving in 1976 as President of the Charles Houston Bar Association (CHBA), an association of Black lawyers in Northern California. He made a name for himself in the legal community by leading a team of Black lawyers who successfully defended the NAACP against libel and slander charges in 1978. A year later, he made history by becoming the first lawyer from the West Coast to ever serve as President of the National Bar Association (NBA). A Founder of the California Association of Black Lawyers in 1977, Harris in 1982 served as a founding member of the board of the National Bar Institute, the funding component of the NBA. Later that year, he became the first President of the Wiley Manuel Law Foundation, the funding component of CHBA. In 1983, he became Chairman of the Legal Redress Committee of Oakland branch of the NAACP, and in 1986, he received the NAACP’s highest legal honor, the W. Robert Ming Award for his advocacy on behalf of the NAACP. Harris has also received the highest honors of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (Laurel Wreath Award) and the NBA (C. Francis Stradford Award).

In 1985, Harris argued and won a landmark corporate free speech case in the U.S. Supreme Court protecting PG&E’s First Amendment rights. In 1987, Harris married Glenda Newell, with whom he had two children. After completing the Harvard Business School’s Advance Management Program in 1988, he began his ascension through the corporate ranks at PG&E, first as Vice President of Community Relations and later as Vice President of Environmental Affairs. In the latter position, Harris expanded and led PG&E’s environmental stewardship endeavors to a new level. Harris has continued his involvement in community issues by serving in the highest ranking positions in Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (Grand Polemarch) and in Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (the Boulé) as Grand Sire Archon-Elect; serving on the board of the Port of Oakland; being involved with the United Negro College Fund of the Bay Area; working with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (Co-Chair); working with the California League of Conservation Voters; working with the American Association of Blacks in Energy (General Counsel); being involved with the African American Experience Fund of the National Parks Foundation; serving on the U.S. EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council; working with the California EPA Environmental Justice Advisory Committee; serving on the National Environmental Policy Commission; and being involved with the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, among many others.

Accession Number

A2007.195

Sex

Male

Interview Date

7/6/2007

Last Name

Harris

Maker Category
Middle Name

Lewis

Schools

Williams Elementary School

Peake High School

Oakland Technical High School

Merritt College

San Francisco State University

University of California, Berkeley School of Law

Harvard Business School

First Name

Robert

Birth City, State, Country

Arkadelphia

HM ID

HAR25

Favorite Season

Christmas

State

Arkansas

Favorite Vacation Destination

Bahamas

Favorite Quote

If You Have No Confidence In Self, You're Twice Defeated In The Race Of Life. With Confidence, You Have Won Before You Even Started.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

3/4/1944

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Ithaca

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Fried Chicken

Short Description

Energy executive and civil rights lawyer Robert Lewis Harris (1944 - ) worked for the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for over three decades. Throughout his career in the legal profession, Harris was involved with a wide variety of free speech, environmental, and community advocacy issues.

Employment

Alameda County Probation Department

Pacifica Police Department

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Favorite Color

Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Robert Lewis Harris' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris lists his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers the Williams School in Arkadelphia, Arkansas

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his father's start as a minister

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his early personality

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers the influence of his elementary school teacher

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the community of Arkadelphia, Arkansas

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about his father's churches in Arkansas

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers Peake High School in Arkadelphia, Arkansas

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls his teachers and classmates at Peake High School

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his decision to move to California

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers school integration in Arkansas

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers his move to Oakland, California

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the student body of Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, California

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers enrolling in classes at Oakland Technical High School

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his experiences at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, California

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his experiences at Oakland Junior College

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the demographics of Oakland, California

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers transferring to San Francisco State College in San Francisco, California

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his role as an officer of the Alameda County Probation Department

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the juvenile probation system in Alameda County, California

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his decision to attend law school

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the culture of the San Francisco Bay Area

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls his first year at the University of California Berkeley School of Law

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his experiences at the University of California Berkeley School of Law

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about his position on the California Law Review

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls his second year at the University of California Berkeley School of Law

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers his summer work experiences during law school

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls joining the legal department of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers Frederick Searls and Richard Clarke

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls his first legal case at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his first legal case on corporate free speech

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the case of Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Robert Lewis Harris describes Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers the decision of Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about the energy crisis

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his legal work for the NAACP

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls how he was chosen to argue the case of Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the precedent set by Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about the Charles Houston Bar Association

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Robert Lewis Harris describes the creation of the Charles Houston Bar Association Foundation, Inc.

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers Benjamin Travis

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris remembers Earl B. Dickerson

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about his time management skills

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his role in the National Bar Association

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about the past presidents of the National Bar Association

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about the history of the National Bar Association

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his role in funding African American bar associations

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris reflects upon his leadership skills

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his concerns for African American organizations

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls the history of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about W.E.B. Du Bois' involvement with the Boule

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris reflects upon the state of education in the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his transition to the operating division of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his role as the central division manager of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls the Oakland firestorm of 1991, pt. 1

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Robert Lewis Harris recalls the Oakland firestorm of 1991, pt. 2

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about the contamination of the water supply in Hinkley, California

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his career at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about the blackouts of 2001 in California

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Robert Lewis Harris talks about his family

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Robert Lewis Harris describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 8 Story: 9 - Robert Lewis Harris describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 8 Story: 10 - Robert Lewis Harris reflects upon the importance of history

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$5

DAStory

8$2

DATitle
Robert Lewis Harris remembers enrolling in classes at Oakland Technical High School
Robert Lewis Harris remembers the decision of Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California
Transcript
Was that difficult though, that being your senior year, I mean besides the--you know, 'cause it's all new. You--$$Yeah, it was quite different. I--you have to go to your counselor and get your classes. So I went to the counselor, a person I'll never forget as long as I live. Her name was Mrs. Hillegas, H-I-L-L-E-G-A-S [Miriam Hillegas], and saw all the courses that could be taken. And you had choices between college prep and non-college prep, what they call workshop and all that other stuff. And of course, having believed all along that I was bright and would go to college, so I signed up for all college prep courses and gave her the slip.$$And, and so that worked out--$$No.$$Okay.$$She properly denied it (laughter).$$So tell me what happened. Let's talk about--$$Well, she was very kind. She looked at it, and I recall she looked back up at me like I wonder what's his problem. And either I brought with me or had my transcript from my prior--or my grades. It was my grades from my eleventh grade, having been finished eleventh grade at Peake High School [Arkadelphia, Arkansas]. And I presented those to her, which was essentially an A minus average, and she sort of frowned and smiled at the same time, as though this poor kid doesn't know. And she said, "We can't enroll you in college prep courses." "You can't enroll me in college prep courses?" She said, "No. You wouldn't be able to compete because you're coming from this school," and, she was trying to be helpful, I guess, "in Arkansas, and the kids in college prep are very smart students, and you just wouldn't be able to keep up with them." And I did not believe that. I, I mean, I just couldn't believe it. It was the first time in my life anybody had ever told me that I could not compete educationally. I'd never heard that concept before. And of course, she was the first white teacher, or counselor, that I had ever seen face to face. So, that was disappointing obviously. And I went back home that evening and gave the news to my sister [Jean Harris Blacksher], who went berserk and insisted that the next day that her husband, Artis [Artis Blacksher], who is 6'5", at that time at least 250 plus [pounds], today a little bit larger, who was instructed by her to go with me back to school. And Artis was high school graduation, truck driver; he was a member of the Teamsters [International Brotherhood of Teamsters]. And he went back with me the next morning to school to see Mrs. Hillegas. And I will always remember that morning because he was not diplomatic. He just went in and started raving at her. And of course, it scared the hell out of her, and she just said any course he wants he gets, any course he want and just, you know, like get out of here. This man is crazy (laughter). And so she signed, and I was able to get all of my college prep courses. And then I went to those courses, which was odd to me. I'd never seen this before, coming from an integrated--a segregated school into my first class in an integrated school. It looked--I'd seen black students at school, and population was about 10 percent or so, so you seen them. But when I got in the class, I think in any class I didn't see more than one black student outside of myself, and I thought that was strange. But then it dawned on me, ultimately, wait a minute; those students probably went through the same thing that I went through that my brother-in-law just went berserk on, and they weren't into the college prep courses because of the belief that they could not compete. And so I, in, in, at Oakland Tech [Oakland Technical High School, Oakland, California] I was usually one or two, three at the most, of blacks students in any of those college prep courses.$So describe the experience and the result.$$The experience was great. It never dawned on me that I was gonna lose the case [Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California, 1986]. I was convinced that I would win, and I was convinced--and some people say you were lucky; it was you were cocky, or whatever. I had done so much research on every single justice, how they think, what they wrote about the subject, and even before I argued the case, I had predicted who would vote for it and who would vote against it, who would be in my favor and who would not be in my favor. As the appellate, we had lost in California, so we had to go first, and so I went. The, if you look at the transcript, the first question asked of me was from Justice Rehnquist [William Rehnquist], who was not the chief justice at the time because Burger [Warren E. Burger] was. Rehnquist, with his bad back, leans up and say, "Mr. Harris [HistoryMaker Robert Lewis Harris], where did you get this notion that a corporation, like an individual, is entitled to negative First Amendment rights, the right not to speak? We know we've granted them the right to speak, but going so far as giving them right not to speak is, you know, somehow absurd." I smiled. I said, "I got it from Justice Powell [Lewis F. Powell, Jr.], of course," (laughter), and then went on to explain why. And Justice Powell is just sitting there grinning. I knew then he would write the, the, the opinion, and he did write the opinion. The, the, the other justices, with the exception of Marshall [Thurgood Marshall], was pretty much engaged in the--Marshall didn't ask a single question. But they were really engaged in it, the (unclear). As you look at the news articles, all you see is Associated Press said it was one of the most animated [U.S.] Supreme Court arguments in long time before the Supreme Court. I needed, in particular, Sandra Day O'Connor, who was the first woman on the Supreme Court and hadn't been there too long. I knew I needed her vote, and I became convinced I had it when my opponent came up to argue, said I'll go first; he came second. And when she started cross examining him and calling him by my name, I said ah, I must have made a hell of an impression. And I knew he was in trouble, and primary because of the questions that she was asking of him, and he couldn't really respond. So I figured I had her vote as well, so I--and I, and I knew I had Marshall and Brennan [William J. Brennan, Jr.] because of the way that I had argued the case and had set out the briefs, so that government--and, and this shocked a lot of people. A lot of the corporate lawyers and so called experts in constitutional law--you notice I said so called--they knew Brennan and Marshall, the two most liberal justices, would never vote for a corporation. They're, they're probably right if you framed it that way. But I framed the, the issue that they had to answer the question whether or not you were gonna allow government to pick and choose who can speak. Because the only way you can enforce this statute or this order, since the envelope is very tiny, and only so many voices can be heard, which means that the state has to decide who speaks this month, who speaks next month. And then I just, just had fun quoting Brennan and Marshall the case after case after case where they said government has no business picking and choosing who can speak. And the only way that you can rule in favor of the state in this instance is for the state to pick and choose who speaks (laughter). And that was absolutely correct. And, and, and that was what the fatal flaw that most constitutional lawyers didn't quite understand, that Brennan and Marshall were tied to that notion; they were consistent. They couldn't now say, "Well, if it's a corporation, the state can pick and choose." No, they have been consistent. They don't want government picking and choosing who can speak, and you shouldn't. And, and the other thing I said, you--, "If free speech is about free speech, you really shouldn't have to decide," and if you look in the transcript, you'll see this, "you have to look and see who's speaking to determine whether or not that speech is permissible." Speech is a permissible or it is not. So you don't need to look and say oh, that's John Jones speaking; oh no, that's a corporation speaking. You're gonna let John Jones speak but not the corporation. So anyway, they brought in a 5-4, 5-3 decision. Justice Blackmun [Harry Blackmun] recused himself apparently because he owned utilities stock, because when the case was called, he got up and walked out. The opinion was written by Justice Powell and concurred in by Marshall, Brennan, Sandra Day O'Connor, and the chief justice, not Rehnquist, of course, but Burger.$$Now how much time passed between your argument and the decision?$$It was October the 8th [1985]; the decision came out in February [1986].