Mary Nichols and John Daum were California’s environmental odd couple for 46 years of marriage, as she’s the state’s top pollution-fighting regulator while he successfully represented some of the nation’s largest polluters, including saving ExxonMobil billions of dollars in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Their “long-running partnership” of love and dining-room table debate came to an end Tuesday when Daum died of cancer at the age of 73.
Nichols and Daum met in the Yale law library in a discussion of Russian literature, their son Nicholas Daum recalled Thursday. Mary Nichols is a long- time top aide to Gov. Jerry Brown and is the chair of the California Air Resources Board. The ARB leads the state’s environmental battles.
Daum worked for 40 years at the major Los Angeles law firm of O’Melveny and Myers as an appellate and trial lawyer. While a supporter of environmental protection, he represented ExxonMobil in the 20- year fight over the infamous Alaskan grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989. The resulting oil spill fouled more than 1,000 miles of coastline, killing wildlife by the hundreds of thousands.
“John had responsibility for briefing and arguing Valdez matters in the United States Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court,” his son said. “Ultimately, Exxon, which had originally been ordered by a jury to pay a punitive damages award in excess of $5 billion, had its payment reduced to less than one-tenth of that amount.”
Through his four decades of successful legal work, he represented numerous major clients, including the city of Los Angeles in police and fire pension litigation, the state of California in school funding fights and Imperial Valley farmers in water-rights battles.
Nicholas said his father could read more than 10 languages, and he had a deep knowledge of subjects from advanced mathematics to medieval history.
“He was the smartest person I’ve ever met, and he was routinely described as that by other people,” Daum said of his father, whose “leisure activity included translating Homer from the Greek.” He was also a “hilarious, wry wit.”
Despite their careers sometimes taking them to opposite ends of environmental legal battles, John Daum was “very supportive” of his wife’s professional successes.
“They had this long-running partnership,” Nicholas said of his parents. Her focus on environmental protection and his representation of polluters “produced some pretty interesting table talk. But he was certainly in favor of her work.”
In fact, he said, Daum was “extraordinarily supportive of women lawyers” at his own firm and throughout the profession. He was a “tireless advocate for women lawyers and pro bono legal advocacy.”
Daum was something of a “gentlemanly,” old-school, formal but “very kind” attorney, according to his son.
“I don’t think he was ever seen wearing a pair of shorts in his entire life,” Nicholas Daum said. “It was only proper to go out in a suit and tie.”
Daum graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1960, Harvard College in 1964 and Yale Law School in 1969.
In addition to his wife and his son Nicholas, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret, and three grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. James Episcopal Church at 3903 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles.
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