Ben Yellen Correspondence with Arthur Brunwasser, 1980 - 1992 (MSS 305)

Extent: 0.25 Linear feet (1 archives box)

This small collection of correspondence contains approximately fifty letters and notes consisting mainly of correspondence (most covering the period 1987-1991, with attachments dating back to 1972) that Imperial Valley physician and social activist, Dr. Ben Yellen, sent to others, and then copied to San Francisco attorney Arthur Brunwasser, hoping to entice Brunwasser to join in additional litigation.

Ben Yellen, Imperial Valley physician and social activist, brought a lawsuit against the Imperial Irrigation Water District (IID) that asserted that the IID was violating reclamation law by giving project water to landowners owning more acres of land than the law permitted. In the mid-1960s, he was able to persuade attorney Arthur Brunwasser to join him in a lawsuit against the IID. Yellen reportedly found Brunwasser's name in a newspaper that stated Brunwasser was defending one of Cesar Chavez' union organizers arrested for entering a rancher's land to organize the farmworkers.

Arthur Brunwasser, a young San Francisco-based attorney-at-law, assisted Yellen in bringing suit against the Department of the Interior to force the government to enforce a Reclamation Act of 1902 provision that required that land receiving the water benefit of a federal reclamation project be limited to 160 acres.

Brunwasser attended Brandeis University (Waltham, MA) and the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law (1961), then began his practice in Beverly Hills. He then moved to San Francisco and became involved in the farm labor movement. In 1963, he lobbied in Washington, DC, at the House of Representatives, against extension of the "Bracero Program," the World War II program that allowed contract labor from Mexico to enter the United States and work as agricultural workers. The program, intended to be temporary, had been renewed every two years until Congress terminated it in 1964.

Brunwasser was also an employee representative on an agricultural occupations wage board of the California Department of Industrial Welfare Relations in the mid-1960s and a board member of Citizens for Farm Labor, a Berkeley group active in publicizing farm workers' working and living conditions. Brunwasser was also a volunteer lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Brunwasser became the lead attorney in the case that became Bryant v. Yellen, 447 U.S. 352, and participated in the case after the government received an adverse ruling at the trial level and the new Nixon administration chose not to appeal. The Court allowed Yellen to intervene and Brunwasser won at the Ninth Circuit appellate level. The case was appealed again, and, on March 25, 1980, Brunwasser argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was questioned by Chief Justice Warren Burger and by Associate Justice Byron White, who shortly thereafter delivered the unanimous opinion. The Court held that the 160-acre limitation did apply to lands receiving Federal Reclamation project waters, but that it did not apply to land whose owners had previously-established "presently perfected rights." Because the Imperial Valley had been irrigating hundreds of thousands of acres via the Alamo canal, a privately-funded canal which traveled through Mexico, the Court found that those lands irrigated prior to 1929 were exempt from the 160-acre limitation. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed a bill exempting the entire Imperial Valley.

During Yellen's last decade, he was struggling with two personal issues: a Department of Motor Vehicle's decision to revoke his driver's license after an accident; and retaliatory lawsuits against the American Medical Association and others, after he successfully won back his revoked medical license.

Additionally, Yellen continued to find ways to, as he described it, "harass the opposition," including bringing suit against the IID's brokerage and accounting firms (Paine Webber and Peat Marwick) for conspiring with the IID to continue charging illegal electric rates. He also filed complaints with the State Bar of California against IID's law firm, O'Melveny & Myer, including attorney (and future U.S. Secretary of State) Warren Christopher. Yellen also wrote letters urging continuing bribery-related investigations against Senator Alan Cranston, who had been instrumental in passage of the bill that exempted the Imperial Valley from the 160-acre land limitation provision.

The Ben Yellen correspondence with Arthur Brunwasser files contain a small collection of letters (most from the period 1987 - 1991) that physician and activist Ben Yellen sent to others, and then copied to San Francisco attorney Arthur Brunwasser. Yellen often included a handwritten note to Brunwasser that attemped to entice him to get involved in additional litigation. Arthur Brunwasser had assisted Yellen years earlier, in Bryant v. Yellen, a case regarding the 160-acre land limitation of the Reclamation Act of 1902, that was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1980.

The correspondence is comprised of original handwritten notes from Yellen to Brunwasser, along with photocopied or printed copies of letters that Yellen was sending to others. Often Yellen would also attach copies of previously printed newsletters and other materials (dating back to 1972) to give the recipient background information on a particular issue he was advocating and to establish his credentials. Yellen sent correspondence to newspaper and television reporters, politicians, a Nobel Prize winner, authors, legal defense funds, and regulatory agencies. Among the correspondents are: Geraldo Rivera and Mike Wallace; the California Action Network; the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund; MOTHER JONES magazine; Marc Reisner (eco-journalist and author of CADILLAC DESERT (1986)); President-elect Bill Clinton; Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.; U.S. House Representative John Dingell; Gary S. Becker (1992 Nobel Prize winner in Economics) and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, among others.

There is one additional folder of documents not directly associated with the correspondence and includes paid political advertisements by Yellen commenting on presidental and as well as local issues and candidates; Yellen newsletter copies (1987-88); an amended federal court complaint for violation of his civil rights against the American Medical Association and others (photocopy), and a "Voice of the People" photocopied letter dated 1991.

Ben Yellen Papers (MSS 193); Ben Yellen Correspondence with Charles L. Smith (MSS 667); Yellen v. Imperial Irrigation District Collection (MSS 677).

Container List


Box 1 Folder 1
Correspondence, 1980 - 1989

Includes original, handwritten notes to Brunwasser and photocopies of letters to others. Includes correspondence regarding a proposal to buy Yellen's life story rights for a possible film by Milton Taubman, which Yellen declined.

Box 1 Folder 2
Correspondence, 1990 - 1992

Includes original, handwritten notes to Brunwasser and photocopies of letters to others. Includes a photocopy of a letter from fellow pamphleteer, Charles Smith, of Berkeley, urging an elder and ailing Yellen to write his memoirs.

Box 1 Folder 3
Miscellaneous materials, 1980 - 1991

Includes paid political advertisements by Yellen that appeared in various Imperial Valley newspapers (1980), "yellow sheet" newsletters (1987-88), and a "Voice of the People" article (1991), and a photocopy of an amended complaint in Yellen v. America Medical Association, et al. (1989).