Former San Mateo County District Attorney Keith C. Sorenson Passes Away
Keith C. Sorenson — the former San Mateo County district attorney whose 29-year span in the office included ridding the community of corruption and the hiring of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — died Friday, March 20, 2015 at his Redwood City home. He was 93.
When appointed district attorney of the County of San Mateo in 1953, Sorenson committed to eradicating gambling, prostitution and illegal-bookmaking until his Dec. 31, 1982 retirement. He investigated and prosecuted numerous cases of such illicit operations then-protected by law enforcement and government officials, going so far as to establish his own investigative bureau for the task. Sorenson was famous for leading the raids himself and on numerous occasions was the first one in the door brandishing his weapon and ordering everyone to the floor.
He personally prosecuted and secured the death penalty in three murder cases involving police officer victims. His seven-term career as district attorney also included the duties of county counsel.
In 1972, Sorenson helped found the local chapter of The One Hundred Club, which supports the families of slain peace officers through immediate financial assistance and scholarships. He also helped found the California District Attorneys Association and participated in many civic organizations.
Aside from his accolades, Sorenson also set a standard of excellence and unwavering integrity for his employees, said current District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who was hired by Sorenson and served on his management team for several years.
“He instilled in all of us the standard that justice and ‘doing the right thing’ was the only choice for a prosecutor and that other considerations such as politics were irrelevant,” Wagstaffe said. “We will miss him greatly and brag about him forever.”
Wagstaffe said Sorenson set the District Attorney’s Office bar high for himself and his employees to give the public a full day’s work, commonly appearing in deputy district attorneys’ offices to inquire what they were working on.
“And you better not say ‘nothing much,’” Wagstaffe recalled. “Because then he would ask, ‘Well, then why are you still employed here?’”
However, when one of his trial prosecutors succeeded in trial, Sorenson would invite him down to his office for a glass of whisky and celebratory toast.
“It was a different era. Today, it is a handshake and pat on the back,” Wagstaffe said.
Sorenson was born Sept. 4, 1921 in Elsinore, Utah. The youngest of four children, Sorenson was raised on a farm and attended the University of Utah on scholarship where he received both undergraduate and law degrees. With his wife, Maxine Swinson, whom he met in college, Sorenson moved his family to Redwood City and joined the prestigious law firm of Kirkbride, Wilson, Harzfield and Wallace in San Mateo. As a municipal law specialist, Sorenson made such an impression on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors that in 1949 it recommended him for a position in the District Attorney’s Office.
As chief deputy district attorney, Sorenson played a major role in hiring and supervising O’Connor, a Stanford University graduate who later became the first woman ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court. In 1953, at age 32, Sorenson was appointed district attorney to fill the vacancy left when his predecessor joined the Superior Court bench.
In 2011, the San Mateo County Historical Association honored Sorenson for his significant contribution to California history and beyond.
Private services are planned.