Kelli L. Sager doesn't seem intimidating. With her face framed by soft brown bangs, her warm manner evokes her small-town upbringing in Wenatchee, Wash.
But some magnolias can be as tough as steel. Sager's distant cousins arrived in the 1800s by wagon train — sans mom and dad, who perished on the trail. “The Sager boys were later massacred, and the girls were taken captive by Indians,” Sager explains, “but they were released after the Hudson Bay Company negotiated with the tribe.” Her eyes crinkle with pleasure at this colorful past, unearthed by her genealogy-sleuthing husband.
Clearly, she comes from tough stock. At age 15, when the local McDonald's refused her a job due to her age, she found a better one, working nights and weekends at radio station KPQ. Sager learned to write news and read it on-air. She loved it so much that she got a degree in journalism.
Sager went on to law school, thinking of becoming a legal reporter. But the courtroom beckoned. Right after she joined her current firm in 1994, “O.J. Simpson killed his wife and Ron Goldman — depending on your belief.”
As a lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine's office in L.A., she soon was fighting for media access to Simpson's trial. She forced the unsealing of documents and convinced Judge Lance Ito to allow cameras into the courtroom. “It was a crazy, crazy ride!” she says, shaking her head.
She fiercely believes cameras must be allowed in courts so “people can see the judicial system at work. The last thing you want with celebrities is a decision that says they have privacy rights the rest of us don't.”
Named on every short list of top First Amendment attorneys in California, Sager works from a document-stuffed office overlooking Staples Center. She pulls out a handwritten outline of her greatest hits. It runs to several pages. When the state refused the Los Angeles Times' request for the names of California cops and where they worked — information needed to track officers who are repeatedly transferred — Sager not only won but the court also granted expansive public rights to such data. “The court said, 'Those are just names. You have to give it up.' ”
Sager is proudest of a victory arising from the nasty palimony spat between Sondra Locke and Clint Eastwood. A judge ordered parts of the trial be kept secret; KNBC and others sued. Agreeing with Sager, the California Supreme Court opined in a seminal ruling that the public has broad right of access to civil trials. That precedent-setter is “now used widely by courts around the nation,” Sager notes.
She laughs lightly as she describes her crushing of top-drawer adversaries. Apparently, it's richly rewarding to beat the likes of California Speaker John A. Pérez, who wouldn't tell the Sacramento Bee how much he spent on legislators' office overhead. Sager grins, “We got the records.”
She has fought against secret proceedings for priests, secret child-dependency courts and sealed police use-of-force records. If sunshine is the best disinfectant, she's ready with a mop.