This is the property of the Daily Journal Corporation and fully protected by copyright. It is made available only to Daily Journal subscribers for personal or collaborative purposes and may not be distributed, reproduced, modified, stored or transferred without written permission. Please click "Reprint" to order presentation-ready copies to distribute to clients or use in commercial marketing materials or for permission to post on a website. and copyright (showing year of publication) at the bottom.


May 20, 2024

Pete McCloskey 'was all about saving the earth'

The late attorney was well-known as a Marine, a congressman and quixotic presidential candidate. But more than anything, he was an environmentalist.

New York Times News Service

More than 11 years ago, 85-year-old Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey - a partner with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP best known as a longtime congressman and environmental advocate - marched down to Martin's Beach south of Half Moon Bay looking to get arrested.

McCloskey, who died May 8 of congestive heart failure at his home in the small Yolo County town of Winters at the age of 96, and partner Joseph W. Cotchett were representing the Surfrider Foundation along with other attorneys in a lawsuit against Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder Vinod Khosla for closing a private road from Highway 1 to the beach. But it wasn't enough for McCloskey to file a lawsuit. He wanted to make a point on behalf of the surfers he represented whose beach access was denied.

"He took those cases on behalf of surfers who had no resources," said Mark A. Massara, an environmental attorney who is now a sole practitioner with offices in Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay. "Pete jumped the gate. We were all terrified he was going to fall and break a hip."

McCloskey, a decorated Marine Corps veteran who won a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts during his service in the Korean War, had no trouble with the gate. But he couldn't persuade San Mateo County deputy sheriffs to arrest him, a prominent former U.S. representative, though they took the surfers who accompanied him into custody briefly before they were released, Massara said.

McCloskey and the other attorneys won the case, which was appealed by Khosla to the U.S. Supreme Court. Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1 LLC, 14 Cal.App. 5th 238 (2017). Subsequent lawsuits, still ongoing, are still pending in the dispute.

While McCloskey is best known to the general public for his political career, including his role in the passage of key environmental legislation and a quixotic challenge to President Richard M. Nixon on an antiwar platform when he was seeking reelection in 1972, the Stanford Law School graduate also had a wide-ranging career as a lawyer that culminated in a focus on environmental causes.

"He was one of the greatest people I ever met," Cotchett said. "He was all about saving the earth."

McCloskey joined Cotchett's firm in 2004 and worked there until his death. During his career, he tried more than 100 jury trials. McCloskey worked as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, and founded a firm - McCloskey, Wilson & Mosher - that evolved into Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC, one of Silicon Valley's leading technology firms.

He was elected to Congress in 1967 as a Republican. Lennie Roberts, a legislative advocate for Green Foothills, an environmental advocacy group, said she switched parties to walk precincts for him.

Roberts, who has known McCloskey since then, said he "had a joy for life and an amazing wit. He had a lot of knowledge it would take a new lawyer a long time to find, if they could find it at all. And he had a great sense of strategy."

When his congressional career ended in 1983 after an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, McCloskey joined Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison in the firm's Palo Alto office. "Pete told me, when he left Congress, his goal was to become a litigator," Massara said. "He was not resting on his laurels."

In 1991, McCloskey - as a sole practitioner -- worked with Massara on a major lawsuit against two pulp mill companies near Eureka, Louisiana Pacific Co. and Simpson Paper Co. that dumped toxic effluents into the Pacific Ocean and won a $5.6 million penalty as well as a larger settlement to reduce toxic discharges. U.S. et al. v. Louisiana Pacific Co. et al., 78-CV-00567 (N.D. Cal., filed March 13, 1978).

Representing the Surfrider Foundation, McCloskey was not shy about citing his Marine background or his history in Congress when it suited his purposes.

Asked by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel about whether the law would apply in the case, he replied: "When we were writing the Clean Water Act, this is what we intended."

McCloskey wrote a letter to the CEOs of the defendant companies, who were also ex-Marines, that "these plaintiffs like surfing more than sex. Semper Fi."

At the Cotchett firm, McCloskey worked against large private companies to protect redwood trees, the Redwood City Salt Ponds from development and the coast. "He took on everything that was destroying the environment," Cotchett said.

"He is a legend and a hero, not just to surfers but to anyone who cares about the coast," Massara said. "He took great pleasure in being the underdog. Even when things were looking bleak, he always had this mischievous smile. And I never saw him happier than when he was picking olives in Winters."

McCloskey is survived by his wife, Helen, four children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Craig Anderson

Daily Journal Staff Writer

For reprint rights or to order a copy of your photo:

Email for prices.
Direct dial: 949-702-5390

Send a letter to the editor: