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Hastings descendants dispute law school name is racist. They want the name kept — or a $1.7 billion payout

San Francisco Chronicle 10/4/2022 By Nanette Asimov
The UC Hastings College of the Law founder wasn’t a racist, a lawsuit argues. © Jana Ašenbrennerová, Freelance / Special To The Chronicle

The UC Hastings College of the Law founder wasn’t a racist, a lawsuit argues.

Days after Gov. Gavin Newson signed a bill to reverse an 1878 law requiring that UC Hastings College of the Law forever keep its founder’s name — or the state must repay descendants $100,000, plus interest — six family members sued on Tuesday to get their money back.

If California persists in removing Hastings’ name from the law school on Jan. 1, the interest rate would be an annual 7%, family and supporters said Tuesday at a press conference outside San Francisco Superior Court.

After 144 years, California would owe Serranus Hastings’ descendants more than $1.7 billion, The Chronicle calculated. That’s a lot of money, even if it were split among countless Hastings descendants. But the family members who filed the lawsuit said they’d be happy just keeping the name “Hastings.”

Their suit accuses the state and the Hastings directors of breaching the 1878 contract and seeks an injunction to stop the name change. One of the Hastings directors is himself a great-great grandson of Hastings, and voted this summer to get rid of the name. The suit rejects the claim that the founder was a racist who sponsored massacres of Native people. It says that unless the state keeps the name, it must pay up.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” said Guido Piotti, who joined the family’s suit on behalf of a group of Hastings alumni who say changing the name would dilute the brand and lead to lower salaries for graduates.

“I was shocked that they filed it,” said Assembly Member Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who co-authored AB1936, which will change the school’s name to UC College of the Law, San Francisco next year. Newsom signed it into law on Sept. 23.

Ting said he heard no family objections during the six months of hearings about AB1936. The bill also requires that the school formally apologize to tribes, provides for academic support for Indigenous students who want to study law and pays for dozens of “restorative justice” programs.

Ting said he and Assembly Member James Ramos, D-Highland, worked with the school — “which has a lot of lawyers” — to ensure everything was legally sound. “I feel very good about our process,” he said.

College officials said in a statement that they will move forward with the name change but are “disappointed” by the lawsuit. “The bill’s passage was the result of a lengthy, deliberate and transparent process at the college that included years of research, several public hearings and input from a wide range of community stakeholders,” the statement said.

Descendants of the Round Valley and Yuki tribes massacred during the 19th century participated in the process.

“This was done fairly and justly,” said Nikcole Whipple, secretary of the Round Valley Indian Tribes Yuki Committee, which was formed in 2020 to work with the school on a name change. Although the Yukis chose Powe’ N’om, meaning “one people,” as their preferred name, “we most definitely opposed ‘Hastings,’” Whipple said.

Historians say that Hastings, a wealthy rancher who was angry at cattle thieves, petitioned the government for militias to carry out the massacres.

Harmeet Dhillon, the family’s lawyer, said that Hastings, who was also the first chief justice of the California Supreme Court, has been the victim of “hit pieces.”

“There’s no denying there were atrocities against the Native people,” plaintiff Scott Hastings Breeze of Oregon, Hastings’ great-great-great grandson, said at the courthouse. “But Serranus Hastings petitioned the government for militias for protection” for his cattle. “There’s no direct proof” that he committed crimes, he said. Besides, he said, “it was a different world in 1860.”

It was the militias petitioned by Hastings that historians say carried out the massacres.

In addition to Scott Breeze, family members who are suing the school and the state are Breeze’s son, father and three sisters.

Breeze’s son, Colin Hastings Breeze of Oregon, is a recent graduate of the law school.

In 1878, their ancestor spent $100,000 in gold to found the University of California’s first law school. With the deal came a new state law: The school in San Francisco “ shall forever be known and designated as the Hastings College of the Law.” It would be independent of the UC Board of Regents. And a descendant of its founder would forever hold a seat on its governing board.

Among those the family is suing is Claes Lewenhaupt, a great-great grandson of Hastings and a member of the Hastings Board of Directors.

Hastings’ legacy “is a stain associated with the name and the college,” Lewenhaupt said in November when the board agreed to seek a name change. “To move forward with this is the right thing to do.”

Under AB1936, the college will no longer be required to have a descendant of Hastings as a board member. The lawsuit says that is also illegal, amounting to punishment without a trial.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

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