Insurance Post Goes to S.F. Ex-Judge

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Davis names Harry Low to succeed Quackenbush

San Francisco Chronicle

Sacramento — Hoping to restore confidence in the state Department of Insurance, Gov. Gray Davis appointed a prominent San Francisco retired judge yesterday to succeed disgraced former Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

As expected, Davis named former state appeals court Justice Harry Low, 69, to serve out the remaining two years of Quackenbush‘s term.

By appointing Low, Davis managed to select someone more interested in the insurance post than in running for higher office, something that hasn’t happened since the passage of Proposition 103 in 1988.

“Justice Low is a distinguished jurist, with a brilliant mind and a balanced approach,” Davis said. “A man of unquestioned integrity and absolute independence. He has dedicated his entire life to public service, but not to political ambition.”

Low yesterday did not rule out running for the office in 2002, when the current term he will serve out ends.

“I have not given very much thought to that,” he said at a news conference yesterday. “I don’t view myself as a political person. I have great trouble raising money, and I don’t like to do it.”

But Low added that he has “not ruled anything out.” He will be the highest-ranking Asian American in state government if his nomination is confirmed by both houses of the Legislature.

Low, a registered Democrat, did say he would not take political contributions, which would make it difficult to run a future statewide campaign.


Davis, who earlier was leaning toward supporting a return of the insurance commissioner’s post to being an appointed position, said yesterday he has not decided which way to go.

“I said I’d have a nominee in 30 days and an answer about whether I’d support a plan to make the position appointive — I think one out of two isn’t bad,” Davis joked.

McGeorge School of Law professor Clark Kelso has been the acting insurance commissioner since Quackenbush resigned under pressure in late June.

Quackenbush was facing almost certain impeachment by the Legislature after department officials testified that they had recommended that insurance companies pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from claims stemming from the Northridge earthquake.

Instead, Quackenbush permitted the companies to pay $13 million into nonprofit foundations, most of which went to commercials featuring the commissioner and other political activities.

A federal grand jury is now investigating the actions of Quackenbush and other former top aides in the department.


Kelso said he will stay on until Low takes over in mid-September, and possibly even longer to help with the transition.

“The biggest challenge is to restore trust,” Kelso said. “But morale at the department is improving. With the hearings over, it is easier to focus on the work at hand.”

Low served as a judge for 26 years, during which time he heard a wide array of insurance cases as a municipal and Superior Court judge and as an appeals court justice in San Francisco before retiring eight years ago.

Since then, he has worked as a mediator considering, among other matters, insurance disputes, including disagreements over Northridge earthquake claims. Consumer complaints about those claims sparked the department’s scandal last spring.

Low lives in San Francisco, but said he would spend a great deal of time in Sacramento. He said he will resign as president of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission as well as from his job as an arbitrator.


Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks, and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D- San Francisco, offered praise for Low yesterday, and easy confirmation is expected.

“I know Judge Low as a person of unquestioned honesty and intelligence, and that is exactly what we need for the position,” said Hertzberg, who went to school with Low’s son.

Burton has known Low since the judge worked on the campaign of his brother, Philip.

“Harry’s a fine, decent guy,” Burton said. “He’s doing this as a public service — it’s going to cost him money.”


But praise was not universal for Low.

Harvey Rosenfield, a consumer advocate who was especially critical of Quackenbush, said Low’s record as an arbitrator must be scrutinized.

“His role as an arbitrator concerns us greatly,” said Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “You can’t be splitting the difference in this position — it’s either for consumers or against them.”

Dan Dunmoyer, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, said Low seems to have the most insurance law knowledge of any commissioner since the position became elected.

“We understand that he is very knowledgeable on all aspects of the law,” said Dunmoyer, who supports making the position appointed. “But he has never been a regulator. That’s a question mark for us. It’s too early to know how he will handle that.”

Rosenfield criticized Davis for not making a bolder selection.

“I think the governor is completely afraid of controversy,” he said. “He is going to go down in the history books as a mediocre governor if this kind of thing continues.”

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