Two smiling people standing next to each other wearing suits and ties.

Remembering Patrick J. Flinn, Defender of Mono Lake

Mono Lake lost one of its fiercest courtroom interrogators, and the Mono Lake family lost a very good friend and creative advocate with the death of attorney Pat Flinn to brain cancer. As a Morrison & Foerster attorney, Pat helped represent the Mono Lake Committee in Judge Terrence Finney’s courtroom and in the State Water Board hearings—the linchpins of protection and restoration for Mono Lake and its tributary streams.

Black and white, a group of men in suits, three sitting and three standing, deliberate at a table strewn with papers. A woman standing at a podium to the right looks at them.
From Storm Over Mono by John Hart: “The Mono Lake brain trust at the water board hearings. Left to right: Scott Stine, David Shuford, David Winkler, Bruce Dodge, Peter Vorster, Patrick Flinn. Water and Power attorney Janet Goldsmith (right) looks on.” Photo courtesy of Gerda S. Mathan.

Pat’s interrogations and boundless energy bolstered the Mono Lake case in the courtroom, and his behind-the-scenes political strategy and team-player approach bolstered the motley crew with much-needed planning and humor. With the news of Pat’s diagnosis, his wife Karen collected and read to him writings from his Mono Lake-era friends and colleagues that provide a fascinating window into these critical, and now historic, moments in the Mono Lake story.

Four men and one woman stand smiling in a room, each holding framed pictures of the tufa at Mono Lake. The man to the left is holding a smaller book.
2016 Defender of the Trust Award dinner awarding the members of the outstanding legal team—Pat Flinn, Bryan Wilson, and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster. From left to right, CalTrout Attorney Richard Roos-Collins, Pat Flinn, Mono Lake Committee Executive Director Geoff McQuilkin, Mono Lake Committee Board Member Martha Davis, and Bryan Wilson. Photo by of Santiago Escruceria.

Martha Davis, Mono Lake Committee Executive Director at the time, writes:

I thought Patrick walked on water. Of the many intellectual qualities Patrick brought to the legal team, the one I most appreciated was Patrick’s understanding of political strategy. Saving Mono Lake meant we had to win both politically and legally. Patrick “got” that fundamental reality and helped.

One example: In June 1992, I asked Patrick to attend a meeting with me in the LA Mayor’s Office to discuss whether LA would take the $60 million in State AB 444 funding and use those funds to replace DWP exports from Mono Lake. Patrick predicted DWP would blow up the meeting—I agreed. Was it worth Patrick’s time? He said yes. If DWP agreed, Mono Lake would be closer to being saved. If DWP said no, it would burn its political capital, angering the Mayor’s office (and many others), and that anger would contribute to Mono Lake’s eventual victory.

It did. In December 1993, the new LA Mayor Richard Riordan held a press conference with the Committee, former Governor Pete Wilson, Assemblyman Richard Katz, and many other political leaders to declare that Los Angeles would accept the AB 444 money. Nine months later, just two hours before the State Water Board’s historic Mono Lake vote, the City overruled its DWP attorneys and joined with the Mono Lake parties to announce that the people of Los Angeles would support the Board’s decision to save Mono Lake.

Two smiling people standing next to each other wearing suits and ties.
Pat Flinn, left, with Peter Vorster at the State Water Board hearings in 1993. Photo by Geoff McQuilkin.

Peter Vorster, hydrogeographer and Mono Lake Committee expert witness, writes:

Patrick’s wit, storytelling ability, clever analogies, and popular culture knowledge were clearly part of his arsenal in the hearing room. No potential source escaped his scrutiny to lighten-up the proceedings. For example, at the team house in Tahoe, Bruce Dodge would demand that his experts and whomever he could recruit to wake up before the sun rose to help him prepare for the day’s hearing. I frequently found myself preparing exhibits in my pajamas. Thanks to Patrick, my pajamas are in the court transcripts, as he would ask what I was wearing when the exhibit was prepared.

Equally, if not more important, Patrick unquestionably grasped the Mono Lake science, in all of its detail and minutia, and so foundational to the cases. With his scientific understanding and interrogation skills, he could make opposition air quality experts—whether defending their measurement protocols or public health assessments—crumble in his hands and make his case with their answers. He brought out the best in his experts and devoured their nine-syllable terms, such as fluvial geomorphology, in contrast to the judges and hearing officers who would embarrassingly giggle whenever that term was uttered.

Two men put their arms around one woman and smile at the camera.
Pat Flinn, Ilene Mandelbaum, and Bryan Wilson in 2016. Photo by Santiago Escruceria.

Ilene Mandelbaum, Mono Lake Committee Information Coordinator at the time, writes:

Thrust into the role of “paralegal” early on in my work for the Mono Lake Committee and in a panic when given a stack of “discovery” questions by DWP, I relied on Pat to part the waters and provide the kind reassurance and guidance that would be required over the next decade.

You would provide a lightness and modeling of calmness and leadership during the grueling hours of working with expert witnesses, sitting in courtrooms, hearing rooms, and at negotiating tables, developing strategies and orchestrating harmony amongst our raucous household of Mono Lake advocates. It was the experience of a lifetime.

In 2016 the Mono Lake Committee honored members of our outstanding legal team—Pat, Bryan Wilson, and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster—with the Defender of the Trust Award. Together with fellow Defenders of the Trust, Pat and Bryan went on to help create the Vorster Center for Mono Basin Hydrology in 2018.

Clearly, Mono Lake is lucky to have had people like Pat on its team ensuring that future generations have the chance to celebrate Mono Lake for many years to come. Peter may have said it best, “The legacy of the Mono cases has forever transformed California water management. Thank you, Patrick, for helping make that happen.”

To read Pat’s obituary click here.

If you would like to make a donation to the Vorster Center for Mono Basin Hydrology in honor of Pat, we would be deeply grateful.