Joe Ramsey, a prominent Sacramento lawyer who served as a longtime advocate and leader of the Humane Society of the United States, died Sept. 24 of lung cancer, his family said. He was 75.
During a career spanning 50 years, Mr. Ramsey earned a reputation for integrity and intelligence as a trial lawyer and pioneering mediator. He started in 1962 with a brief stint as a state deputy attorney general before joining a small firm. He went on to be a top litigator for both plaintiffs and defendants in business and professional cases and personal-injury lawsuits.
In 1970, he won attention skillfully representing the Sacramento SPCA in the complex case of a multimillionaire who left his fortune to the SPCA, the Humane Society of the United States and hundreds of other animal-protection groups. He began working pro bono for the HSUS and joined the board of the Washington-based group in 1977.
Mr. Ramsey represented the HSUS in high-profile cases. During the early 1970s, he won an injunction against an annual wild burro race in Big Bear that previously had resulted in animal injuries and deaths. The event resumed after organizers adopted measures to protect the animals.
In a 1987 case that made national headlines, he represented Jennifer Graham, a 15-year-old Victorville sophomore who refused to dissect frogs in biology for moral reasons. He sued school officials in federal court, arguing that her beliefs were protected by the First Amendment.
Although the case was settled without trial, the school district was ordered to pay her legal fees. Graham also testified before the state Legislature, which passed a law requiring dissection alternatives for students who refuse on moral grounds.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsey served the Humane Society as chairman from 1994 to 1999 after seven years as vice chairman. His long tenure and collegial leadership style on the board were credited with strengthening HSUS as the largest animal-protection group in the country.
"He was a guy of unfailing modesty who brought a spirit of comity to the organization," said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and chief executive officer. "He was a very wise and kind man. He had a soft voice but when he spoke, you listened to him."
Born in 1937 in La Grande, Ore., Owen Jasper Ramsey III changed his first name to Joe. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother and sister to Sacramento in 1947. He graduated from El Camino High School and earned bachelor's and law degrees from Stanford University.
In 1986, he was one of the first lawyers in California to enter the field of alternative dispute resolution. He mediated or arbitrated more than 4,000 disputes and was a referee or master in many complex cases. Growing demand led him to work full time as a mediator since 1997, and he settled his last case four days before he died.
"He was very quick at understanding complex legal issues," said Arthur G. Scotland, former presiding justice of the state 3rd District Court of Appeal. "He also had this capacity to listen and to make anyone feel that he was caring and understanding and empathetic. When you sat with him, he was a gentle, thoughtful, considerate person."
Mr. Ramsey received many professional honors. The Humane Society named him chairman emeritus when he left the board in 2005. Recently, he learned he was chosen to receive the 2012 Distinguished Attorney of the Year Award from the Sacramento County Bar Association at a ceremony in December.
He was the author of a 2007 novel, "The Unkindest Cut," about a battle to stop cutting of old-growth timber. He had four children with his wife of 52 years, Diane, and enjoyed spending time at his Fair Oaks home with his family and rescue dogs and cats.
"It's impossible to overstate how nice and gentle my dad was," said his son, Ben. "He was a very caring, compassionate guy."
Born: Aug. 21, 1937
Died: Sept. 24, 2012
Survived by: Wife, Diane Ramsey of Fair Oaks; daughters, Jenny Ramsey of Davis, Lisa Dion of Rockaway Beach, Ore., and Samantha Ramsey of Sacramento; son, Ben Ramsey of Janesville; and six grandchildren