Remembering NLG Attorney Patti Roberts

From Bay Area Reporter

Patricia (Patti) Rose Roberts, a longtime Bay Area resident and civil rights and labor attorney who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor, died unexpectedly while on vacation in Yelapa, Mexico on January 7. She was 64.

Ms. Roberts, an out lesbian, was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, on November 13, 1946, to Jewish working class New Yorkers Florence and Bernard Roberts.

Ms. Roberts first honed her skills in debate at the dinner table and beyond with her sister, Wynne, and her father. Always smart and ever funny, Ms. Roberts attended New York City public schools and went on to Brooklyn College. In 1967, a seminal year in radical left history, Ms. Roberts made her way to California with only a backpack and admission to UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

While in law school, as the events of the late 1960s and 1970s unfolded, she engaged intensely in the anti-war, free speech, and feminist and gay movements. She graduated from Boalt Hall in 1970 with a J.D. degree and a desire to use her legal skills to help those traditionally without representation.

Initially, Ms. Roberts involved herself with the burning issues of the times, working on behalf of prisoners with Fay Stender and the National Lawyers Guild. In addition to her involvement with the Prison Law Project of the National Lawyers Guild, she spoke out on feminist and gay rights issues.

"She had a tremendous zest for life," said Alameda County Superior Court Judge David Krashna. "She was a robust person with a wonderful laugh and a great smile."

Krashna knew Ms. Roberts through their work with the National Lawyers Guild. Ms. Roberts also became involved with Krashna's judicial campaign in 2000.

"She was a surrogate speaker for me and a very reliable person," he added. "With Patti, you could listen to her and rely on what she said. There wasn't much fluff in her statements, but her statements always got your attention."

In 1970, Ms. Roberts formed a collective Oakland household, which included Doron Weinberg, Steven Bingham, Susan Matross and Barbara Rhine, among others. While others moved out she stayed in that home for the next 41 years.

While continuing to do political work with the guild, Ms. Roberts took a position as the head of the Women's Litigation Unit at San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Aid, representing poor women on a wide range of legal issues. Following her time at Legal Aid, Ms. Roberts founded and co-directed the Comparable Worth Project in Oakland, which pioneered much of the earliest legal work on the issue of pay inequity rooted in gender and race bias.

After departing the Comparable Worth Project, Ms. Roberts took a position as a union lawyer for the California School Employees Association in Alameda County. During her long legal career, she remained active in the National Lawyers Guild, serving as president of the Bay Area chapter and on the local NLG board as well as being an active member of the civil rights committee of the guild and a mentor to law students and new lawyers through the guild's mentoring program.

Ms. Roberts was a founding board member of the Lesbian Rights Project, which later became the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where she later served as interim director. She began private practice as an employment discrimination attorney in 1990 and also started teaching labor studies and GLBT studies at City College, and employment law, legal research, and current legal issues at San Francisco State University Extension.

Retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens recalled Ms. Roberts's involvement with the Lesbian Rights Project.

"She was on the first advisory board, and that was in 1977," Hitchens said, adding that she first met Ms. Roberts in 1974.

"Her whole career was advocating on behalf of people who were underrepresented in the justice system," Hitchens added. "She was an excellent attorney."

Ms. Roberts was a co-author of White-washing Race – The Myth of a Colorblind Society.

She is survived by nieces Cathryn and Margit Galanter and their partners, Jim Rosenfeld and Beth Ahlstrand; her grand-nephews Ben and Jed Rosenfeld; her brother-in-law Marc Galanter; her two closest friends Susan Matross and Karen Rachels; her beloved dog Picnic; and the many friends with whom she shared her life for decades.

A memorial Service is scheduled for Sunday, February 27, at Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison Street in Berkeley. Doors open at noon, service begins at 1 p.m.

Condolence cards may be sent to: Law Offices of Patti Roberts, 1901 Harrison Street, Suite 1550, Oakland, CA 94612. To leave a message online, visit