Neil L. Shapiro shed a light on government’s shadows First Amendment attorney died Saturday in Monterey

| IN MEMORIAM

By Royal Calkins

When I came to Monterey two decades ago to work as an editor at the daily newspaper, I was greatly surprised to learn that lawyer Neil Shapiro was practicing on the Peninsula. I knew him to be one of the leading lights in media law regionally and nationally, but I thought he was only practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’m so glad I was wrong, and readers of the Monterey Herald and Voices of Monterey Bay also have good reason to be pleased that Neil practiced his special brand of law in our midst.

Only days before his untimely death on Saturday at the age of 74, Shapiro learned that he had been chosen to receive the Monterey County Bar Association’s highest honor, the Lewis B. Fenton Award. A friend, retired Carmel lawyer Chris Campbell, said Neil was “delighted” by the recognition. Unfortunately, the award ceremony won’t be held until December.

“He was thrilled (about the award),” his wife, Saundra Meyrose, agreed. “He said, ‘I have to get a new suit.’”

Meyrose said the cause of death wasn’t entirely clear. She said he got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom on the Thursday before his death. She said he fell, hitting his head. He lost consciousness and failed to recover. She said she suspected he had suffered a heart attack.

Shapiro was a Berkeley native who graduated from the Millbrook School in New York and later studied at UC Berkeley and Columbia University Law School before receiving his law degree from the UC Berkeley School of Law in 1972. He was admitted to practice the next year.

Shapiro and Meyrose lived together in Carmel and San Francisco for nearly two decades before marrying 10 years ago. After shuttling between homes for so long, Shapiro made a permanent move to Carmel in 2003.

With far fewer media clients to represent, he took on various business and commercial clients on the Peninsula while helping to start a mediation program as a less contentious alternative to the traditional judicial system. With Bill Monning, Bill Daniels, Chuck Warner and Kay Kingsley, he created the local Court-Directed Mediation Program.

"Old school in the best of ways, a gentleman even in the heat of battle.” Roger Myers

His nomination for the Fenton award notes that “Neil Shapiro’s dedication to the legal process is without question. Neil has gone well beyond simply protecting his clients’ interests, most notably in the arenas of improving the functioning of the judicial system and educating the public about the system as a whole. He has demonstrated his willingness to give his time to the judicial system in ways that reduce the judicial resources devoted to some aspects of the system thereby allowing judges to devote more time to other aspects.”

The nomination was made by Campbell, Molly Erickson, Joel Franklin and Michael Stamp, Monterey County’s other leading figures in the field of First Amendment law.

The nomination listed Shapiro’s most notable cases over the years, including several on behalf of Bay Area and national media outlets, particularly the San Francisco Chronicle, which he represented for years.

Another highly accomplished media lawyer, Roger Myers, represented the Chronicle’s principal competitor, the old San Francisco Examiner. He and Shapiro often worked in tandem on issues of interest to both newspapers but then found themselves competing for speedy access to public records sought by their clients.

“We mostly worked together when both newspapers were fighting restrictions on access to government, often court hearings in high-profile criminal prosecutions,” Myers recalled Thursday. “I always liked to follow Neil in making our oral arguments to the courts because he would do such a good job of summarizing in a few words the overall reasons why we should win, which made it easy for me to focus on a few key points.”

Myers called Shapiro “old school in the best of ways, a gentleman even in the heat of battle.”

My discovery of Neil’s presence on the Peninsula was fortuitous for the Herald and its readers because it increased the flow of important information to the community, matters that the powers that be often wanted kept themselves.

In the beginning of our relationship, the Herald had access to lawyers working for the chain that owned the paper, Knight-Ridder. That wasn’t working well, however, because my bosses often insisted that we consult only with the corporate lawyers, who were much more adept at labor and business law than media law. On the sly, I’d regularly turn to Shapiro for technical advice on how to extract information from stubborn agencies and for general encouragement. If we ever paid him, we didn’t pay him much.

For six years, he also wrote columns for the Herald’s opinion pages, attempting to explain complex legal issues to the masses. He admitted that he found it more challenging than defending a defamation lawsuit.

The highlight of my association with Neil came well after my departure from the Herald. For Voices of Monterey Bay, I was working on a series of stories about Carmel’s city attorney at the time, Glenn Mozingo, who had been hired despite a resumé filled with as much fiction as an episode of “The Good Wife.”

While I continued to uncover exaggerations and fabrications in his application, the City Council majority seemed to be mesmerized by Mozingo, who claimed without support to have had an Oxford legal education. Finally, Mozingo presented his version of documentation to the council but in closed session. Shapiro was even more agitated than I was.

“They cannot do that,” he told me in a soft voice that to him probably felt like a shout.

To court we went with his brief, a citation-studded affair that read like an appeal to the Supreme Court. Mozingo and his two assistants should have surrendered but there were fees to be collected, so they did respond. The ruling was such a slam dunk for Shapiro that the Mozingo team should have paid the city back. Mozingo, the weakness of his resumé now fully exposed, quickly took his writing skills elsewhere.

Shapiro retired from practice shortly after that decision in 2019 and put his law license on inactive status.

The Fenton Award nomination notes that Shapiro had tried dozens of cases, and  briefed and argued approximately 40 appeals, “all with a remarkable success rate.”

“Fifteen of those trials were to juries in the Superior Court of the State of California for the counties of Monterey, Alameda, Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Sonoma, and in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The trials addressed claims in a wide array of substantive areas including business disputes, real property disputes, defamation, breach of contract, trademark and trade name infringement, banking and constitutional law.

“The appeals Mr. Shapiro has briefed and argued include one each in the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court, five or six in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and one or more in each of the six districts of the California Court of Appeal.”

The nomination letter, written by Erickson, says Shapiro was intent on improving the function of the judicial system and educating the public about it. He co-wrote the Guidelines of Civility & Professionalism, a project initiated by Michael Stamp, that was unanimously adopted by the Bar Association and the Monterey County Superior Court.

“Evidence of his reputation for integrity and ethical standards includes the fact that by way of the stipulation of parties, orders of the court, or both, Mr. Shapiro has served as an arbitrator, mediator, special master; receiver, partition referee, discovery referee and judge pro tem.”

“Neil Shapiro’s ethics and integrity are without question,” the nomination concludes. “He is a practitioner of the old school model, when professionalism was expected of lawyers and common courtesies were actually common.”

Featured Image: Neil Shapiro | Provided by Saundra Meyrose

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

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