Tuesday, January 9, 2007
1902: Republican DA Rives Defies Wishes of GOP Governor
By ROGER M. GRACE
Twenty-Fourth in a Series
JAMES C. RIVES, the 25th district attorney of Los Angeles County, was not a man who would let political considerations shape his decisions as DA. That became evident in 1902.
Rives had won his post on Nov. 8, 1898, running on the Republican ticket. Heading the party’s statewide ticket that year was a practicing Los Angeles lawyer, Henry T. Gage, whose victory in the race for governor was overwhelming.
Four years later, Gage instituted criminal proceedings in Los Angeles County, in the then-Township of San Pedro…and it was there—and only there—that Gage wanted the matter tried. For a Republican district attorney with aspirations of attaining higher office to buck the state’s top office-holder of the same party would potentially be political suicide.
Nonetheless, Rives took a stance in defiance to Gage’s wishes. It occurred in an early scene in a bizarre drama that was to include the arrest of California’s governor. The scene in which Rives had a role took place when Gage was generally assumed to be headed for a second term.
The San Francisco Call had asserted that Gage was unlawfully accepting freebies: furniture and other goods made by prisoners at San Quentin, sent to him by his friend, the warden. Gage preferred charges against John D. Spreckels, owner of the newspaper, and W. S. Leake, its managing editor, resulting in institution of criminal libel proceedings against them in San Pedro.
Art. 1, §8 of the state Constitution provided that such an action was to be filed in the county where the newspaper had its office or “in the county where the party alleged to be libeled resided at the time of the alleged publication”…and, though doubt existed as to the matter, Gage maintained he was domiciled in San Pedro.
Not only would the Call have no clout in that vicinage, but the Police Court justice there, H.C. Downing, happened to be a chum of the governor...and had been a delegate to the 1898 Republican convention, pledged to him. As the Call continued to unleash accusations, Gage filed actions—five in all—and Downing issued successive warrants for the arrest of Spreckels and Leake.
A third party, attorney Louis Boardman, filed a complaint against Spreckels and W. S. Leake in San Francisco, sparking institution of criminal libel proceedings there…right in the Call’s bailiwick. Gage, displeased, sought a writ of prohibition in the Supreme Court, alleging that the San Francisco action was collusive. The high court turned him down in a July 31, 1902 opinion that does not allude to the petitioner’s status as the state’s chief executive. That opinion says that “said Gage is not legally a person ‘beneficially interested’ ” in the outcome, thereby lacking standing.
The opinion adds:
“Whether the proceeding before the police judge is collusive is a question primarily to be determined by the prosecuting officers, and by the magistrate with whom the complaint is lodged.”
Now entered Rives. He filed a petition for a writ of prohibition in the San Francisco Superior Court to block the criminal libel proceedings there on the ground that San Pedro was the only permissible venue.
“It has been said that the move is simply a job of the Gage crowd to delay trial until after the primaries,” an Aug. 4 story in the Times notes. (Primaries then merely enabled voters to choose delegates to party conventions; the delegates chose the candidates.)
The Aug. 4 story contains quotes from Rives that put his action in quite a different light from what the Times says was generally suspected—including statements that he expected his writ application to be “thrown out” and that “San Francisco is the logical place for the trial.”
The Supreme Court had not passed on the issue of jurisdiction. Rives wanted that issue resolved so that, if jurisdiction did lie in San Francisco (and not exclusively in San Pedro based on the initial action having been filed there), his office could gracefully drop its efforts and save the county the considerable expense of pursuing proceedings here.
The Times’s report quotes him as saying:
“Although dismissal of the defendants in the lower court at San Francisco would not preclude prosecution in the justice court down here, there would be no reason in reopening the case that had once been fully investigated and decided.
“I am not desirous of having the case tried at San Pedro, and would be glad to escape the responsibility of conducting the State case.”
It also attributes this statement to Rives:
“I have not allowed my personal or partisan feeling to have any effect on my actions in this case. In fact, I have rather acted to the contrary, and I think thereby incurred the displeasure of the Governor and his friends.”
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Carroll Cook granted Rives an alternative writ of prohibition, but on Aug. 7 denied a peremptory writ, holding that only the attorney general had authority to seek such relief. The same day, however, he issued an alternative writ in response to a petition filed by a taxpayer…but subsequently, again denied a peremptory writ. Proceedings got under way in the Police Court on Aug. 14, providing justification for Rives to take no further action in the San Pedro cases.
Had Rives bulldozed a swift prosecution of Spreckels and Leake in a forum in San Pedro, where their conviction would have been virtually a certainty, Gage would have been vindicated, and would probably have been renominated and reelected. And Rives would have been in the position of having the governor, the appointing authority, indebted to him.
Finishing off the tale...on Aug. 11, a judge of another Police Court in San Francisco signed a warrant for the arrest of Gage, acting upon the complaint of Spreckels who contended that the governor’s statements to the press concerning the articles in the Call constituted criminal libel. A San Francisco police detective took the train down to Los Angeles and arrested Gage, who appeared before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge (and later California Supreme Court Justice) Lucien Shaw who released the governor on $50 bail. The judge set a hearing for the following day on Gage’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
The scene shifts to San Francisco. Following a preliminary hearing, at which the San Francisco district attorney and not Boardman prosecuted, a Police Court judge on Sept. 26 bound Spreckels and Leake over for trial in the Superior Court. By then, the matter was of little interest to Gage since the Call’s allegations were no longer a campaign issue against him. On Aug. 27, the Republican Party had denied him renomination in light of the dangling issues.
A Superior Court judge on Dec. 6 expressed bewilderment as to why the case was before him since the crime alleged was a misdemeanor which should have been tried in the Police Court. The matter was remanded, but no further action was taken. This was an instance…of which there have been many through the decades…of litigation that was much publicized during an election dying a quiet death after the votes had been tallied.
To pursue the action in San Pedro, Gage would have to have filed new papers. It seems that a fire on Dec. 28 destroyed all records in the courthouse.
Meanwhile, the parties agreed that criminal libel proceedings against Gage would be taken off calendar.
It might strike you as odd that both Rives and the San Francisco DA would have assumed criminal libel to be prosecutable in the Superior Court even though the potential penalties were such as to render the offense a misdemeanor.
Rives’ predecessor, John A. Donnell, also labored under that assumption when refusing to charge Harrison Gray Otis, top dog at the Los Angeles Times, with criminal libel…leading to a proceeding aimed at ousting him from office for dereliction his duty (the subject of a column last month). Donnell’s refusal was predicated on his perception that the allegations were not sustainable, not on the alleged offense being one for a city attorney to address.
There was good reason for the prosecutors’ supposition. Art. 1, §9 of the state Constitution, alluded to above, said:
“Indictment found or information laid for publication in newspapers shall be tried in the county where such newspapers have their publication office, or in the county where the party alleged to be libeled resided at the time of the alleged publication, unless the place of trial shall be changed for good cause.”
Persons charged by indictment or information were tried in the Superior Court.
The California Supreme Court provided clarification in a Feb. 28, 1914 opinion, explaining that criminal libel cases were to be tried in superior courts only in those remote areas where police courts had not been granted jurisdiction by the Legislature over “high” misdemeanors.
When Rives became DA, he retained as a deputy C.C. McComas, who had served under Donnell in that capacity. McComas had been one of his three competitors for the GOP nomination in 1898.
W.W. Robinson, in his book “Lawyers of Los Angeles,” notes that McComas chewed tobacco and, when in a courtroom, “always wore a protective handkerchief bib dangling from the front of his collar.”
Robinson recounts how legendary trial lawyer Earl Rogers impeached the credibility of a witness in a murder case prosecuted by Rives and McComas. The witness, Harry Johnson, repeatedly testified that he was not afraid when the defendant pointed a gun at him, even though this occurred right after the defendant fatally shot the victim. During closing argument, Rogers pulled out a Colt .45 and aimed it at Rives and McComas, causing the former to take cover under a table and the later to shield himself with a chair. Robinson writes:
“When the uproar was over, Rogers told the jury that what they had seen was the normal reaction of any person to a threat of death—thus completely discrediting Harry Johnson and winning the case.”
That incident took place in 1902. The Los Angeles Times elaborates in an Oct. 31 article:
Suddenly Rogers crouched down behind a table in the courtroom, whipped out an enormous revolver from his back pocket and drew a bead on the two attorneys for the prosecution.
Mr. Rives made a gesture of alarm. “Hey, is that loaded?” he demanded.
“Yes, that’s loaded,” said Rogers in a voice of stern resolution.
Rives ducked his head out of range and said in a tone of deep emotion, “Well, don’t turn it this way.”
Rogers only squinted carefully along the barrel. The court then sternly ordered him not to point that pistol.
Rogers sprang up radiant with triumph.
“That’s just what I wanted you to do, Mr. Rives,” he exclaimed joyfully. “I’m much obliged; you couldn’t have made my point more plain for me.”
Rives breathed a sigh of relief as one who had cantered down through the valley of death. “Well, you’re welcome,” he said in a voice full of feeling.
This sensational scene had been planned for days beforehand. The District Attorney’s office had fallen into a slick trap.
Rives entered, then withdrew from the race for renomination for DA. In an interview with the Times, reported July 19, 1902, he’s quoted as saying:
“I regard the legal department of the county on identically the same high plane as that of the judges; any lawyer must do so who has the honor of the profession at heart, and, while I would have been pleased with a renomination without opposition, I will not get out and scramble for the office.”
Rives went on to gain election in 1906 as a Los Angeles Superior Court, serving from Jan. 2, 1907, until his death on June 16, 1923, hearing probate cases.
His accomplishments are particularly notable in light of his scant formal education. After his father died in 1878 when he was 14, Rives had to go to work to help support the family. Although biographical sources say he quit school at that point, the 1880 census lists him as a student in high school at the age of 16. Whether he attained a high school diploma or not, it’s clear he did not attend college. Rives studied for the bar while working as a journalist, publishing the Downey Weekly Review, and working as a printer for the Times.
Rives Mansion still stands in Downey, which has been a city since 1956. A street there is named after Rives.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company