City law held unconstitutional? Just amend! “See how easy it is to be a city attorney?”

Timothy Kowal, Esq.
May 11, 2023

Sometimes you CAN beat city hall. But the city, even after a court loss, can still win.

Municipal law attorney Peter Prows discusses strategies to keep in mind if you ever go up against the city.

The key takeaway: Once its made up its mind to do something, a city (or agency or whatever) will keep trying until it gets its way. So if you sue the city, don’t bring a claim that is easy for it to fix. You want to prevail on a claim that will constrain its discretion the next time around.

Even Supreme Court Justice William Brennan remarked on how difficult it is to beat a city attorney, in this passage, quoting a city attorney giving advice to colleagues at a conference of the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers in California:

"If legal preventive maintenance does not work, and you still receive a claim attacking the land use regulation, or if you try the case and lose, don't worry about it. All is not lost. One of the extra 'goodies' contained in the recent [California] Supreme Court case of Selby v. City of San Buenaventura, 10 C.3d 110, appears to allow the City to change the regulation in question, even after trial and judgment, make it more reasonable, more restrictive, or whatever, and everybody starts over again.
. . . . .
"See how easy it is to be a City Attorney. Sometimes you can lose the battle and still win the war. Good luck."

(San Diego Gas & Elec. Co. v. City of San Diego (1981) 450 U.S. 621, 655 n.22 (Brennan, J., dissenting) (quoting Longtin, Avoiding and Defending Constitutional Attacks on Land Use Regulations (Including Inverse Condemnation), in 38B NIMLO Municipal Law Review 192–193 (1975)).)

Watch the clip here.

This is a clip from episode 50 of the California Appellate Law Podcast. Listen to the full episode here.

Tim Kowal helps trial attorneys and clients win their cases and avoid error on appeal. He co-hosts the Cal. Appellate Law Podcast at, and publishes a newsletter of appellate tips for trial attorneys at His appellate practice covers all of California's appellate districts and throughout the Ninth Circuit, with appellate attorneys in offices in Orange County and Monterey County. Contact Tim at or (714) 641-1232.