In Remembrance: Philip Carrizosa, Admired Legal Journalist

Philip Carrizosa with then-California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George. 

Philip Carrizosa was the dean of California Supreme Court reporters in a golden era of legal journalism. It was a remarkable achievement for a young Hispanic man from tiny Globe, Ariz., who had made his way through law school and up the ladder of reporting through a path unrecognizable today: thoroughness, preparation, fairness and decency. Carrizosa died on Sept. 1 at the age of 64 from complications of a liver transplant.

After graduating from the Arizona State University College of Law in 1980, he made his way to San Francisco, where an activist era was in full bloom following the assassination of Harvey Milk and the emerging AIDS crisis. As importantly for legal media, it was also the crossroads where two daily legal newspapers battled for the loyalty of the region’s lawyers. Carrizosa carried the banner for the Daily Journal, which went brutally head to head against The Recorder, recently purchased by American Lawyer Media.

His turf was California appellate courts, and his stage was the Cal Supremes, then led by Chief Justice Rose Bird. Those were different times. Courts did not put out press releases or publish case decisions online. Instead, an elite appellate court reporter needed to know the schedule of anticipated case decisions and be first in line to get the hard copy; quickly assimilate the ruling and rationale; seek comment from lawyers victorious and failed as well as others knowledgeable about the ruling’s impact. And then file a story that would be appreciated by appellate connoisseurs and daily practitioners alike – all in five hours or less in time for the printing presses to roll.

“Journalism is a business for dreamers. But it's also a business that demands big picture thinking, a mindful respect for the profession and, day to day, close attention to detail,” said Alan Abrahamson, a professor at the USC Annenberg Journalism School who shared a small – “very small” – office with Carrizosa at the San Francisco Daily Journal in the 1980s. Abrahamson has gone on to win accolades as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and for his coverage of the Olympics. His coverage of the South Korea Olympics in February will mark his 10th games.

He ascribes much of what he learned to those early days in that small office with the quiet law school graduate who was a voracious reader and whose preparation left everyone else in the dust.

“So much about journalism has changed since then, and in particular the business of journalism. But those basics have not,” he said. “Whatever I might have been able to achieve is, in significant measure, due to what I learned working in close proximity with Philip – more to the point, what Philip graciously, selflessly taught me. Over the years, and I have said this to many people in many places, Philip was one of the best journalists and finest people I ever encountered.

“Philip taught me, first and foremost, that you had to be accountable, of course to your editors and colleagues but primarily to yourself. In the days before Google, for instance, this meant you had to do your own research. His clip files were detailed and complete. This is why his stories were always rich with context. So I made it a point that, like his, my clip files would be detailed and complete. Philip read, and a ton. 'How else,' he would ask, 'could you know what was going on?' To this day I read at least five newspapers a day. At least.”

Carrizosa’s excellence was noted by his journalistic peers, as well as those he covered. His Chief Justices were Bird, Malcolm Lucas and Ron George. They admired Carrizosa and his thoughtful professionalism and skill at creating accurate and timely coverage of complex decisions.

George expressed his sorrow when learning of Carrizosa’s passing, saying: “Philip Carrizosa excelled as a thoroughly informed and objective journalist, lucidly reporting on new developments as well as long-term trends in California’s judiciary and the legal profession. I am grateful for his many years of reporting on judges and lawyers, which provided a uniquely insightful perspective on the evolution of the law and of judicial administration in our state.”

Among those who battled Carrizosa for ”the other team” was Scott Graham of The Recorder, who like Carrizosa went on to be the editor of his paper. He shared his memories of the battlefield – and his gentleman opponent.

Graham started covering the California Supreme Court in 1993, a decade or so after Carrizosa claimed the turf as his own. One day early on, they were in the press room together when a “marginally newsy” conference order came down (the list of actions taken by the Justices in their meeting or conferences on cases to hear, decide, etc.).

“I'm not going to cover it, but you can if you like," Carrizosa told Graham, who recalls having the same assessment, but wondering if the wily dean was psyching him out. “Would I pick up the DJ the next day to find I'd been scooped and burned?”

The next morning, he had his answer. “Philip had simply told the truth, as a kindness to a rookie reporter. From then on we had an always-friendly, always-honorable competition, as reporters and later as editors.”

That sense of “friendly competitiveness” marked Carrizosa’s tenure during the height of the California legal newspaper wars. He excelled at the daily battle of journalism, won far more than he lost, and still maintained the respect and admiration of colleagues and competitors alike.

And the regard in which his peers held him was true for all who crossed his path. “Philip reinforced for me a lesson that I had learned at my very first newspaper job, working the police beat a few years before in Jackson, Mich.: Relationships are the key to everything,” said Abrahamson. “'You can, and should, hold people accountable when that's what it takes,' he would say. But, he would add, 'If the people you are writing about know beforehand what is coming, and they have a chance ahead of publication to respond and to understand the nature and context of what is going to be printed, 99 percent of the time everyone will be OK with everything.'”

As a professor in his seventh year teaching journalism, Abrahamson uses Carrizosa’s words to teach the next generation of journalists. From the value of relationships to the courage to ask the hard question; consider the reader; and write as simply as possible – Carrizosa’s lessons are hallmarks of the work of dozens of journalists he inspired.

In particular, they served as stepping stones in the transition of legal journalism from prosaic recounting of an academic bent to the lively analysis of high court battles that now punctuate daily news blasts and the remaining gray ladies. He would tell Abrahamson, “It's great that you've been to law school. It's awesome that you passed the Bar Exam. Now, he would say, the point is to explain what happened in simple English. Make it easy.”

Carrizosa left the Daily Journal after 24 years in 2004 as the years of legal media battles waned and the digital era ascended. He joined the California Courts, where he oversaw numerous publications and served as acting public information officer for the State Supreme Court until his retirement in 2012.

While his professional mark was made in quiet typeface and a large font size, his personal life was a haven for him. He married his husband, Ralph Lindsey Jr., in May 2008, having met in 1996 and had a civil commitment ceremony in 1997 at the Palace Hotel. He shared stories of the cruises they took and meals they prepared to friends on Facebook. He faced mounting health issues with a quiet stoicism and journalistic recounting.

And always, Carrizosa found strength in his faith. Raised Roman Catholic, he was an avid community activist and parishioner of the Most Holy Redeemer Church and volunteered at the church’s AIDS Support Group, the Breast Cancer Emergency Fund and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He loved Star Trek, Neil Young, the Golden State Warriors, his church, and the quiet and dignified life he sought and achieved with his husband.

Abrahamson remembers the strength he saw in Carrizosa even in the early ‘80s. “Philip and I shared our small office during complicated years for both of us personally and in San Francisco. My father died in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in the city, AIDS was on the rampage. Philip's strength then, and over the years, was just remarkable,” he said.

He’d say: “Be gentle to each other as much as possible. Be kind. Life is short. Let's make the most of it.”

Carrizosa died at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco while recovering from a liver transplant. Lindsey recalls Carrizosa’s high hopes for the transplant and the cruise they were looking forward to, to celebrate their 21st anniversary. The night before he passed, Lindsey recalls Philip was happily watching Star Trek as Lindsey told him he loved him, and that he’d see him in the morning. Complications mounted overnight, and Carrizosa was given last rites on the afternoon of Sept. 1, before Lindsey laid his head on Carrizosa’s chest, ran his fingers through his wiry hair, and told him, one more time, he loved him.

In addition to Mr. Lindsey, Carrizosa is survived by his sister Alma Carrizosa of Pacifica, Calif.; his sister-in-law Madalyn Lindsey of Durham, N.C.; sister-in-law Joyce Thomas of Clinton, Md.; his cousin Rosalie Lopez Hirano of Phoenix, Ariz.; his cousin Rudy Carrizosa of Globe, Ariz.; one niece and two nephews.

A memorial service will be held Sept. 9, 2017, at Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, Mr. Lindsey has asked that donations be made to the Most Holy Redeemer AIDS Support Group in San Francisco.