Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, August 28, 2006


Page 7



Much Uncertainty Surrounds Early Years of DA’s Office



Seventh in a Series

Steve Cooley is listed on his office’s website as the 40th district attorney of Los Angeles County. He isn’t. He’s the 41st.

Does that matter? Well, upon learning about this, Cooley is not apt to come home, bang his head onto the coffee table, and exclaim to his wife: “Jana! Jana! I thought I was Number 40, but I’m really Number 41!” His certificate of election will not be recalled.

The misnumbering stems from overlooking the installation of a district attorney in 1863 who filled out the unexpired term of a DA who died in office.

This disclosure is not monumental, but does go beyond trivia. What’s reflected by the incompleteness of the list of past district attorneys on the DA’s website—and other lists published online or in books—is the uncertainty and misconception that surround the early history of the Office of District Attorney.

But after all, in a nascent county with a sparse population in the days of gunfights and lynchings, the recording of claims and deeds mattered—but not so much the recording of events. The first newspapers here were largely propaganda tools, lacking meaningful news accounts, and books with reminiscences that were later published were based primarily on memory.

Aside from these particular obstacles to gaining an accurate view of events in this county in the 1850s-80s, there’s a general problem with historical accounts. I’ve found that out in putting together nostalgia columns on the history of products. Guesswork and embellishments, or even fibs, repeated often enough, become regarded as historical fact—like the yarn that Van Camp beans were sold to the U.S. during the Civil War and sustained Union troops.

So, seemingly reliable sources on the history of this county aren’t. And the DA’s Office, in posting matter taken from a 2001 book, “For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office 1850-2000,” is disseminating misconceptions about its history.

And, yes, some errors from published sources have been parroted in this series of columns on past Los Angeles County district attorneys. So, I’m going to stop here and do as much unraveling as I can given the paucity of resources.

[Dates that were misstated in the print versions of the columns have been corrected in the online versions to the extent that correct dates have been ascertained.]

The DA’s website shows that since the office was founded in 1850, 36 men have served as district attorney of this county. That seems to be accurate.

It numbers each of the DAs. Just as Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president of the United States—because he had two non-contiguous terms—there are former district attorneys who are assigned more than one number because they were in and out of office. Two are listed twice (Ezra Drown and Volney E. Howard) and the name of one appears three times (Cameron E. Thom).

What the list doesn’t show is that the DA elected in 1867, Albert B. Chapman, had also headed the office for roughly six months in 1863-64.

Chapman’s service as the county’s ninth DA is a fact that has been virtually confined to oblivion. His successor, Howard, appears in lists as No. 9, and from that point forward, the numbering is off.

This single sentence appears at the bottom of Page 2 of the four-page Los Angeles Star in its Aug. 29, 1863 edition:

“A. B. Chapman, Esq., was appointed District Attorney for this county, by the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday last [Aug. 26], to fill the unexpired term of Ezra Drown, late Attorney/deceased.”

That news item is hardly proof that Chapman actually assumed office as district attorney—but he did. That’s shown by an 1865 California Supreme Court decision which recites: “The plaintiff, who was District Attorney of the county, had issued to him a warrant for his salary on the 8th day of February, 1864, for six hundred and seventy dollars.” (Chapman had sued the Board of Supervisors and the county treasurer to enjoin issuance of interest-bearing bonds in payment of non-interest-bearing warrants. Details are here mercifully omitted.)

Howard’s term commenced, pursuant to a new statute, on the first Monday in March, which would have been March 7, 1864.

It was perhaps the change in law that accounts for some of the confusion as to when Howard was in office, with various sources listing differing dates. For example, the District Attorney’s Office website says that Howard’s first stint was from 1863-67. The two contiguous two-year terms to which he had been elected (in 1863 and 1865) would have been served in 1863-67 under prior law, which set the first Monday in October as the time when a term commenced.

“An Illustrated history of Los Angeles County, California” (1889)—the source I relied on in my column of Aug. 1—also had the dates mangled, stated to be 1864-67. Howard actually served from March, 1864 to March, 1868.

The dates of his second stint were also botched on the DA’s website (with conflicting dates appearing in two different places), and were misstated here, as they have been elsewhere. The correct dates are 1874-76.

The blurb on Howard in the online Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, based on “Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1949” (1950), lumps the two stints together, disarrays dates, and proclaims that Howard was DA from 1861-1870. That’s what’s been picked up by various online encyclopedias.

The full term to which Chapman was elected was from 1868-70. My July 14 column, relying on information on the DA’s website, erroneously stated the term to have been from 1867-69.

I would suspect that other dates recited on the website are also wrong.

Then there’s the matter of who the candidates were in the 1865 election, won by Howard, nominee of the Democratic Party.

In my last column, I indicated that James Lander, the Union candidate in 1863, was not nominated by his party in 1865, and that Russell Sackett was. How could I have gained such a notion? The Los Angeles Tri-Weekly News, in several issues prior to the Sept. 2 election, listed at the top left hand corner of Page 2 the “UNION TICKET,” including: “For District Attorney—R. SACKETT.”

Since writing that column, I’ve seen that the Wilmington Journal published the “REGULAR UNION NOMINATIONS” at the top left hand corner of Page 2 for several weeks prior to the election and its list included: “For District Attorney: JAMES H. LANDER.”

It seems that there were two sets of Union Party nominations that year—those from the faction (including Lander) favoring Phineas Banning for state senator and those (such as Sackett) who opposed him.

Apparently, Sackett withdrew because the Los Angeles News, in the three issues immediately preceding the election, dropped him from the list of nominees. There was, however, no news story about any such withdrawal in either the News or the Journal (seemingly the only two newspapers in the county then). Well, for that matter, there was no news coverage, at all, in either newspaper concerning the contest.

Running as an independent that year was Chapman.

Skimpiness of information on early district attorneys is reflected by the thumbnail biography on the DA’s Office website relating to James R. DuPuy, reading, in its entirety:

“J. R. Dupuy (1887-1888). Scant historical sources are available for J. R. Dupuy. What records do remain indicate Dupuy followed Patton as district attorney in 1887 and served one year.”

There is a bit more information available on him than appears on the website, but I’ll get to that later.

Meanwhile, in the next column, I’ll return to where I left off: with Howard as DA. His 1867 effort to beat off Chapman’s challenge was a determined one, with the California Supreme Court, in the end, deciding which candidate the voters had picked.

SPENCER MIGHT RESIGN: Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer of this district’s Div. One, appointed to her post in 1980, is contemplating retirement.

The 86-year-old jurist recently suffered a fall from the top of the staircase in her home and was hospitalized for five days.

“I’m relying on therapy to give me back my strength,” she tells me.

The jurist relates that she’s on a two-month leave of absence which started at the beginning of this month. Spencer, who was 1991 MetNews “person of the year,” says she’s hoping to rebound and notes:

“I haven’t definitely decided to retire.”

Whether she does or doesn’t, she’s rooting for U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Johnson of the Central District of California to land a spot on the Court of Appeal, whenever a vacancy occurs.

A jump from the position of a subordinate judicial officer of any court, state or federal, to California’s intermediate appellate court would be extraordinary, though not unprecedented. A magistrate judge in the Southern District of California, Cynthia Aaron, was appointed to Div. One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in 2003 by then-Gov. Gray Davis. However, appointment as presiding justice of the state appeals court would probably be a “first.”

More likely, should Gov. Schwarzenegger be inclined to appoint Johnson, it would be as an associate justice. Were Spencer to retire, the sensible move would be to elevate Justice Robert Mallano of Div. One to the top spot on the panel, and give Johnson Mallano’s post.

So far, Johnson’s name has not, to my knowledge, gone to the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, though the magistrate judge has a number of boosters. A prime backer is Senior U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian of this district, who tells me that Johnson has “a stellar record here” and is a “well-deserving young man.”

Johnson, a graduate of Duke University undergraduate school and Yale Law School, was appointed to his post on April 20, 1999.

Would the Democrat Spencer negotiate with the office of GOP Gov. Schwarzenegger to retire with the understanding that Johnson would be appointed to the Court of Appeal?

“I wouldn’t do that,” she responds.

Whether she retires or not will be wholly dependent “on how I’m feeling at the end of next month,” she advises.

CAMPAIGN COUP: Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Daviann Mitchell has a highly impressive array of endorsements in her quest for election to the Los Angeles Superior Court. Most notable is her endorsement by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Why is the nod from a non-attorney politician significant in a judicial race? Mitchell’s opponent in the November run-off is Workers Compensation Judge John Gutierrez, a Hispanic. If Molina, whose constituency is largely Hispanic and who obviously favors advancement of Hispanics, is willing to back an Anglo against one of her own, it says something.

Gutierrez is a good, sincere man who really wants to be a Superior Court judge. Well, I’d like to be a singer. It’s in my genes; my maternal grandmother was a renowned concert soprano. The problem is that I can’t keep on key. I was singing around the house one day as a youngster and my brother turned to my father and said: “You should have slapped him when he was young the first time he tried it.”

Ambition and aptitude are distinct.

Gutierrez—whom this newspaper interviewed for a possible endorsement this year and four years ago—is as equipped to be a Superior Court judge as a soldier would be going into battle with a conductor’s baton and a slingshot.

Mitchell can do the job.

SWEARING-IN: Another Los Angeles deputy district attorney who sought a judgeship in this year’s judicial elections—and bagged it in the primary—is Judy Meyer.

While the term to which she was elected would begin in January, the governor has appointed her to fill out the unexpired term of her predecessor. Meyer will be sworn in Friday at the Torrance Courthouse by Judge Mark Arnold and will assume her judicial duties the next Monday.

She’ll be a credit to the judiciary.

SPEAKING OF SINGING: Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Roger Boren was seated next to me at our “Person of the Year” dinner in February. At the outset, there was the singing of “God Bless America.”

Nobody should have slapped him when he was young the first time he tried it; he does have a definite talent. He’s the Second District’s Vaughn Monroe.

EARLY BAR ASSOCIATION: In my last column, I recited that a “Bar of Los Angeles county” met on Aug. 18, 1873 in the chambers of County Judge William G. Dryden and elected Dryden chairman. I confessed a lack of knowledge as to whether there were any further meetings of that association.

I’ve since found that the Santa Monica Outlook’s edition on Dec. 1, 1875 contains this one-sentence item:

“A Bar Association has been formed by the lawyers of Los Angeles.”

Whether this was a continuation of the 1873 try at creating a county bar association or an entirely new stab, I don’t know. What is clear is that there were continuing efforts of Los Angeles lawyers to band together, though faltering ones, in the latter part of the 19th Century.

The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. traces its history to December, 1878. That’s when a group was formed to establish a law library. Its activities continued into the early 1880s, then seemed to come to a standstill. The group was reorganized in June, 1888.

The answer to what if any ties LACBA has to the pre-1878 organizing attempts dwells in that foggy realm of the county’s history.


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