Deborah J. La Fetra

Senior Attorney

Debbie grew up in an economically striving lower-middleclass family. Watching and learning from her exceptionally hard-working father, Debbie grew to appreciate the bounty of political and economic freedom that can move a person up the ladder of success. After in-depth study of the politics and philosophy of the American Founding at Claremont McKenna College (B.A. cum laude 1987) and further study of constitutional law at the University of Southern California (J.D. 1990), Debbie found her perfect vocational home at PLF, where she has litigated for the entirety of her 30+ year career 

She litigates in several of PLF’s subject areas, with special emphasis on free speech and property rights cases. She was on the litigation team for PLF’s Supreme Court victory in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky  (striking down a law prohibiting “political” apparel in polling places) and serves on several litigation teams with pending petitions for writs of certiorari. She also frequently files amicus briefs in the Supreme Court, in cases such as Janus v. AFSCME Local 31 (free speech rights for public employees) and Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski  (civil rights litigation and nominal damages). Debbie enjoys mentoring less experienced attorneys and law clerks in the course of her practice. 

In conjunction with litigation, Debbie publishes articles in both the mainstream and scholarly press, including Miranda for Janus: The Government’s Obligation to Ensure Informed Waiver of Constitutional Rights, 55 Loyola L.A. L. Rev. (Spring, 2022) (forthcoming) Amicus briefs: A primer on a vital legal tool for protecting individual liberty, Daily Journal, Two Court Cases Prove Why Free Speech Protections Still Matter at Polling Places, End discrimination against corporate speech, Medical Marijuana and the Limits of the Compassionate Use Act: Ross v. Ragingwire Telecommunications, 12 Chapman L. Rev. 71 (2008), Kick It Up a Notch: First Amendment Protection for Commercial Speech, 54 Case Western Res. L. Rev. 1205 (2004), and Freedom, Responsibility and Risk: Fundamental Premises of Tort Reform, 36 Ind. L. Rev. 645 (2003). She is licensed to practice in California, Arizona, various federal district and circuit courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Debbie is PLF’s original telecommuter. She was an early adopter who started working from home in 1993using DOS and a 48,800bps dial-up modem. Since then, she has furthered the cause of liberty and constitutional government while, alongside her husband, raising and homeschooling two children, both of whom are now graduated with the freedom to pursue their own dreams 

Mark Shirley and Ole Time Smokehouse v. Town of Farmville, et al.

Food truck entrepreneur defends livelihood from North Carolina town’s unlawful interference

Mark Shirley was making a good living as the general manager of an auto dealership in Eastern North Carolina, but even his comfortable salary couldn’t feed his lifelong passion for cooking. So, in September 2019, after a year of exhaustive research into the restaurant industry, Mark left his profitable job to launch a food truck business call ...

foreclosure Barnette v. HBI, LLC

Taking tax-foreclosed property requires proper notice

In 2002, Walter Barnette was working in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue when he spotted an acre of land in a growing neighborhood. Though he lives across the nearby border with Iowa, he bought the property with the intent of one day building a home. Walter fell on hard times, however, and failed to pay his 2010 and 2011 property taxes—$986.50—to S ...

Constitutional Rights of public workers Jackson v. Napolitano

California law keeps workers ignorant of their constitutional rights

Last year, the Supreme Court emphasized in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees have a First Amendment right to refuse to pay a union, and “must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them.” Before the state can authorize a union to deduct dues payments from employee paychecks, workers must give their clear permissio ...

Ostrewich v. Hudspeth

Your shirt or your vote: Fighting to protect free speech at the ballot box

When Jillian Ostrewich entered her Houston, Texas, polling place in 2018, she expected the only decisions she’d face would be on the ballot. Instead, an election judge gave her an ultimatum: turn her shirt inside out or forfeit her vote. A federal judge overturned Texas’ election apparel law because the First Amendment protects passive ...

Rentberry v. City of Seattle

Seattle’s unconstitutional rent-bidding law blocks innovation, free speech

Rentberry is a small San Francisco-based start-up that connects landlords and renters through a website that uses innovative technology to allow users to bid for rental housing. The company hoped to expand its service to Seattle, but, in 2018, the city council adopted a one-year moratorium on rent-bidding websites over unfounded fears that such sit ...

Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco

Government can’t force tenants for life

Mr. Pakdel is a small business owner in Ohio. In 2009 he bought what’s known as a “tenancy in common” (TIC) apartment in San Francisco and leased it to a residential tenant. As part of the purchase, Pakdel signed an agreement with the other owners to convert the building’s six units into condominiums. But the City of San Fra ...

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October 06, 2021

When are T-shirts considered prohibited electioneering?

Elections end, but T-shirts can live forever. Until last week, Texas law prohibited voters from wearing an Obama or Reagan T-shirt in polling places, even when neither past president was on a present ballot. In fact, the law prohibited voters from wearing anything that an election worker deemed "electioneering" for or against any candidate, politic ...

July 06, 2021

Daily Journal: Property rights: the former “poor relation” takes its place at the table

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1871 authorizes Americans to sue in federal court to vindicate the government's violation of their civil rights. Congress guaranteed the federal forum out of concern that state courts could not entirely be trusted to protect constitutional rights. For this reason, civil rights plaintiffs generally may sue directly in ...

July 06, 2021

The Hill: Supreme Court: Schools must teach the value of free speech

According to recent surveys, free speech is losing favor among college students. While supporting free expression in general terms, students prefer to carve out exceptions to censor speech that offends or is controversial or leaves some listeners feeling pained or troubled. Where did these young adults develop such discomfort with free speech, a tr ...

July 01, 2021

What the Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco win means for property rights cases moving forward

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court announced that courts must hear our case Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco, which challenges a San Francisco ordinance that forces land owners to provide lifetime leases to tenants. In the Court's opinion, they removed barriers to bringing property rights cases in federal court. In 2009, Peyma ...

April 28, 2021

National Review: Free speech in battle with snitch culture before the courts

As a high-school sophomore, B. L. was upset when she failed to make the varsity cheerleading team. At the mall with a friend that weekend, she vented her frustrations by posting a picture to Snapchat in which she raised her middle finger accompanied by the caption, "F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything." One ...

March 12, 2021

You shouldn’t need to be rich to defend your civil rights in court

Editor’s note: In March 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Uzuegbunam to allow nominal damages for past completed constitutional injuries. This decision will ensure access to the court (regardless of someone’s wealth) to more people who’ve had their rights violated by the government. *** If the government ...

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