Fred Hiestand, Sacramento lawyer who advised Huey Newton and Jerry Brown, dies at 79

Fred Hiestand, a Sacramento-based lawyer and lobbyist who counseled Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton and former California Gov. Jerry Brown among others, died July 2 following a cancer diagnosis. He was 79.

Having worked as the Civil Justice Association of California’s general counsel since its founding in 1979, Hiestand spent his career writing about and arguing issues including medical liability and tort reform.

Those topics might sound dense or complicated but, according to Kyla Christoffersen Powell, president and CEO of CJAC, the briefs Hiestand wrote were “works of art.”

“One time, I was reading a brief that he wrote, and I looked down and realized I was reading lyrics to a Bob Dylan song.” Powell said. “That’s not something you expect to see in a legal brief.”

John Norwood, a partner at Norwood Associates alongside Hiestand, described him as “a real renaissance man.”

“When we went to dinner (recently), he mentioned to me that it was his intent to make his briefs sing,” Norwood said. “They were full of quotes from philosophers, former justices and poets. They weren’t long — they grabbed your attention and took you back in history.”

Gov. Brown, who Hiestand worked with as special counsel on medical liability during his first administration beginning in 1975, similarly noted that Hiestand “had a gift for legal writing.”

“In the minds of many lawyers, he was exceptionally creative,” Brown said in a telephone interview with The Sacramento Bee. “He always made arguments eloquently, and he was a person of upstanding intellect — he was also just an interesting person.”

Powell said that one of her favorite “Fredisms” was his proclivity to incorporate the story of the Sword of Damocles into his writing as a metaphor. As the legend goes, after a subject of the rich and powerful King Dionysius commented on how blissful the king’s life must be, Dionysius invited him to a lavish feast, and seated him on a golden couch — but hung a sword from the ceiling over his head by a single strand of horsehair. The phrase has come to represent a sense of treacherous, looming danger.

Powell was therefore thrilled when, in 2022, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye quoted Hiestand’s “Damoclean” analogy in the majority opinion for the case of Sheen v. Wells Fargo, and in doing so, “enshrined that Fredism forever in case law.”

But not everything Hiestand read was so high-brow; according to his son, Kevin Hiestand, he was also a fan of detective and mystery novels, and was “rarely without one of them on his nightstand.”

Hiestand was born on Sept. 14, 1943, in Glendale to James and Mabel Hiestand. He grew up in Cut Bank, Montana, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, before returning to California for high school in Burbank.

He graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law and began working on tort-reform issues in the 1970s, consulting on medical malpractice before being tapped by Brown.

He later counseled Newton and former Sacramento mayor and ex-NBA star Kevin Johnson, as well as helping to form CJAC.

He wrote briefs for both state and federal cases, and argued before the California Supreme Court several times.

According to CJAC, Hiestand also led the Californians Allied for Patient Protection, the coalition to protect the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, between 1999 and 2007 as chief executive officer and general counsel. He also served as a board member for St. HOPE to help revitalize the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento.

‘Once he was in your corner, he was there for life’

Norwood said that Hiestand “really heard from other people” when forming and writing arguments, and always “listened before he spoke” — but his colleagues said that when he did speak, he had his views sorted out.

“If we were all together in a group having a discussion, Fred wasn’t afraid to speak out and say the thing that maybe all of us were thinking,” Powell said. “But the way he said it was respectful, calm and with a sense of humor.”

Hiestand issued arguments about desegregation during the 1970s and Native American rights during the 2010s, and penned an article published in The Sacramento Bee in 1975 about medical malpractice insurance, arguing at different times in support of both the “common man” and businesses.

“That’s what was so unique about Fred,” Powell said. “It wasn’t about what groups or what parties; it was about justice happening.”

But Hiestand’s zealous dedication went beyond his work — according to his son, it extended to his relationships.

“As a human being, the thing Dad taught all of his kids was that he was devotedly loyal,” Kevin Hiestand said. “To friends, to family, to clients. Once he was in your corner, he was there for life.”

Kevin Hiestand is now a lawyer himself, and said that his father had him while he was in college, and because of the smaller age gap, “it soon became almost more of a friendship.”

In keeping with this, they regularly went out for breakfast to drink coffee, talk and read the newspaper together. One brunch at a diner in downtown Sacramento sticks out in Kevin’s mind as especially notable.

“He kept ordering refill after refill of coffee, and after a while I put the paper down and said, ‘Dad, what’s up with all the coffee?’” the younger Hiestand recalled. “He said, ‘That waitress is stunning, and I want to get to know her.’ For the next few months, he relentlessly pursued her, and they were married for over 30 years.”

Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party and both a client and close friend of Hiestand, was meant to be Hiestand’s best man. However, Newton was assassinated just months before, on Aug. 22, 1989.

“My dad admired Huey as a once-in-a-lifetime leader,” Kevin Hiestand said. “Often we would be sitting in the car, and he would be staring off into space, and then he would turn around and just tell me an anecdote or a story about Huey.”

Hiestand was by Newton’s side in 1977 when the Black Panther Party leader decided to return from Cuba to California to face charges of murder and assault. Both trials ended with hung juries.

Ultimately, Kevin Hiestand said that all of his memories of his father are reinforced by one theme: loyalty.

“When he puts his mind to something, he is dedicated and will pursue it at all costs,” Kevin Hiestand said. “That is his loyalty.”

Hiestand is survived by his wife, Peggy; children Kevin, Kerry, Alison and Zane; and four grandchildren.

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