John Briscoe: Ineffable San Francisco Poet, Historian, Lawyer, and Restaurateur

New oral history release: John Briscoe

John Briscoe photographed at his San Francisco law office for inclusion in his award-winning book Crush: The Triumph of California Wine (University of Nevada Press, 2018).

The ineffable John Briscoe is a poet. He is also an award-winning author on the history of California wine and on the culinary history of San Francisco. He is a co-owner of Sam’s Grill & Seafood Restaurant in San Francisco, the fifth-oldest restaurant in the United States, founded in 1867. And, after earning his Juris Doctor from the University of San Francisco in 1972, Briscoe became a trial lawyer who has argued before the California Supreme Court, and tried and argued cases before the United States Supreme Court and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the Law of the Sea Institute at UC Berkeley, and has taught courses at UC Hastings College of Law. Briscoe served as president of the San Francisco Historical Society and numerous other nonprofits. He remains a supporting member of the Friends of The Bancroft Library, in which he has conducted historical research and found inspiration for his poetry that he once described as “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Briscoe and I video-recorded sixteen hours of his oral history at his home in Novato, California, over seven interview sessions held between December 2019 and January 2020. Those interviews produced a robust 384-page transcript including an appendix with numerous personal photographs, letters of wit, as well as poems penned both for and by Briscoe. You can access his transcript here, along with several links to video excerpts from his oral history.

Briscoe is a gifted raconteur and scholar, as befits an internationally regarded trial lawyer. His oral history showcases wide-ranging expertise on issues of the law, both domestic and international, as well as on literature, history, and poetry. Briscoe shares both his personal and professional life experiences with particular detail on his legal career as well as his friendships and collaborations with legal legends like Philip C. Jessup, a diplomat and giant of international law; with Stefan A. Riesenfeld, an expert in numerous legal fields and acclaimed UC Berkeley Law professor; and with Briscoe’s dearest friend, former legal adversary and, later, his law partner, Louis F. Claiborne, who some regard as the greatest US Supreme Court lawyer in the second half of the twentieth century.

John Briscoe at his law office in downtown San Francisco, California, in 2017.

Briscoe began his legal career in 1972 in the Land Law Section of the California Attorney General’s Office, where he argued several cases against the United States and against other states in the original jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court. In 1980, Briscoe entered private practice in San Francisco specializing in real property and environmental litigation. He has represented diverse natural resource interests; the nation’s largest title insurers; several US states, including Alaska, Hawaii, Georgia, and California; the American Territory of Guam; and many city and county governments. Overseas, Briscoe has represented the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the Republic of Korea, the State of Kuwait, and the United Nations Compensation Commission, among other clients. Briscoe has published numerous legal articles on natural resources, land use, land title, and international oceans law.

John Briscoe’s family attending the wedding of his daughter on Grand Cayman Island in May 2015. From left to right: John Briscoe, Katherine Masiuk (daughter), Aleksei Masiuk (son-in-law), Carol Sayers (wife), John P. Briscoe (son).

Briscoe’s intellectual opinions coupled with intimate personal stories and occasional tales of human eccentricity make his oral history both historically significant and enjoyable. Briscoe attributes his love of story and wit to his combined Irish and native Yaqui ancestry. The stories he shares here range from the 1917 murder of his grandfather, a police officer in Stockton, California, to Briscoe’s legal arbitration in the Hague of war crime accusations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Along the way, Briscoe reflects on the rhetoric of Cicero, on applications of Jeremy Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence, on judicial opinions by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., on the art of light verse poetry, on Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty, on the culinary tastes of Alexandre Dumas, on James Joyce’s use of the word “the,” and on his own work for the United Nations establishing rules for hearing and processing the enormous environmental claims resulting from Iraq’s invasion, occupation, and destructive retreat from Kuwait in 1990.

John Briscoe’s oral history offers a deeply personal, intellectual, and entertaining account of a unique San Francisco poet, author, restaurateur, and lawyer who practiced in the highest courts at every level.

— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD

Click the link below to read his oral history:

John Briscoe, “John Briscoe: Ineffable San Francisco Poet, Historian, Lawyer, and Restaurateur” conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in 2019 and 2020, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2021.

View additional video excerpts below:

John Briscoe: Learning from Louis Claiborne


John Briscoe: Poetry and the Art of Light Verse


John Briscoe: Kuwaiti Oil Wells and the UN Compensation Commission


John Briscoe: Truth in War, Ethiopia v. Eritrea