Longtime San Mateo County DA remembered 

Former San Mateo County District Attorney Keith C. Sorenson died at the age of 93 on March 20 in his Redwood City home. Hailed by friends and colleagues for his accomplishments, Sorenson’s 29 years of service included cleaning up police and government corruption, eradicating illegal gambling operations, and hiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for her first job practicing law.

According to current District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, when Sorenson was appointed to the county’s top law enforcement position in 1953, he faced a landscape where illegal bookmaking, gambling and prostitution rings enjoyed the protection of some corrupt Peninsula cops and government officials.

Vowing to bust those illegal businesses and the government employees complicit in their operation, Sorenson won approval from the county Board of Supervisors to launch his own investigative bureau, so corrupt local cops would be unable to tip off targeted individuals or organizations. Sorenson sometimes lead the busts, charging into gambling dens with his gun drawn.

“It was like a 1950s version of ‘The Untouchables,’” Wagstaffe said, referencing the 1987 film that depicted bookish, incorruptible Treasury Department investigators carrying out armed raids against Al Capone’s criminal operations.

Sorenson relentlessly exposed corrupt cops, and even prosecuted a police chief, but he was no enemy of law enforcement officers.

He personally obtained convictions and death penalties in three cases involving the murders of police officers, and he helped found The One Hundred Club, an organization that provides financial assistance to the families of slain police officers.

Wagstaffe noted that although Sorenson served simultaneously as the district attorney and as legal counsel for the county government, he had long advocated splitting up those roles in order to avoid any potential conflict of interest, a change that was implemented, but not during Sorenson’s tenure.

And it was in his capacity as the county attorney that Sorenson hired O’Connor, who had been turned down by numerous law firms because she was a woman, despite her having graduated from Stanford University’s law school. O’Connor served under Sorenson as a deputy county attorney, and went on to eventually become the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The youngest of four children, Sorenson was born Sept. 4, 1921, in Elsinore, Utah. He was raised on a farm and met his wife, Maxine, while earning his law degree at University of Utah.

Although born into a Mormon family, Sorenson was not too devout to have a drink, according to Wagstaffe, who said his predecessor and former boss was known to invite prosecutors into his office for a bit of whisky to celebrate their court victories.

“That would not happen today,” Wagstaffe said, noting that alcohol is now banned from all county buildings.

Sorensen’s integrity left indelible imprints throughout the county, according to Wagstaffe. “I’m just so lucky I got to work for Keith,” Wagstaffe reflected.

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