Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, January 17, 2008


Page 11



Bankruptcy Referee Lynn Helm Argues Case Before High Court




The prospect of a bankruptcy judge in Los Angeles representing a party in a case before the United States Supreme Court would, of course, today be nil. A bankruptcy judge does not practice law on the side.

But, as mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, Lynn Helm, bankruptcy referee for the Southern portion of California from 1901-1915, did maintain a practice, and a robust one.

Like Hans Jevne and the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Assn., he was one of the original tenants of the Wilcox Building at Second and Spring Streets, which opened in 1896. It was there that he held court sessions, oversaw meetings of creditors, and drafted findings and judgments; it was there that he met with private clients, and drafted pleadings and briefs.

On Jan. 12, 1903, Helm was not in his office. He and his father, Henry T. Helm, were in the District of Columbia, arguing before the federal high court, one opening and one closing. It was like old times for them; the two had been law partners in Chicago prior to Lynn Helm’s departure for Los Angeles in 1896. The father came here in 1902, his health failing.

Arguing before the Supreme Court on the other side—that side being the City of Los Angeles—was a former deputy city attorney, Albert H. Crutcher. His law firm was then known as Bicknell, Gibson, Trask, Dunn & Crutcher. “Bicknell” and “Trask” have long since been stricken from the name.

The father and son represented the Davis & Farnum Manufacturing Company which had sought, unsuccessfully, to gain an injunction in the federal trial court in Los Angeles to block its employees from being arrested and prosecuted for continuing work on the construction of a gas plant. The Massachusetts entrepreneur who owned the construction site, Caroline W. Dobbins, had on Nov. 22, 1901, obtained a permit from the Board of Fire Commissioners to proceed with the project…one which was lawful under an ordinance which allowed gasworks to be constructed within a specified zone. Work commenced on the day the permit was granted and a foundation was laid.

But City of Los Angeles politicians were apparently as devious then as now. Three days after the permit was granted, the City Council amended the zoning ordinance to place Dobbins’ property—which was by the Los Angeles River, close to downtown—within the forbidden zone. The action was taken, it would seem, at the behest of Los Angeles Lighting Company which had, for a decade, held a local monopoly on the manufacturing and storing of gas.

Construction continued and, in February, 1902, arrests were made of Davis & Farnum’s workers. The next month, the ordinance was further amended, and more arrests were made. The project was then halted.

Lynn Helm not only represented Davis & Farnum at the U.S. Supreme Court level, but had also acted for it in the federal trial court. In so doing, Helm appeared as a lawyer before District Judge Olin Wellborn—the only federal judge for Southern California, the judge who had appointed Helm as bankruptcy referee, and to whom he was directly answerable…in essence, his boss.

And when Wellborn denied relief, holding that that a court of equity lacks jurisdiction to enjoin criminal proceedings, Helm was then put in the position of seeking a reversal of his boss’s decision. There was, back then, no sense of a conflict of interest, and, instead, a spirit of detached professionalism not unlike that reflected in episodes of  “Rumpole of the Bailey” (a BBC series aired some years back on PBS) where one member of a law firm (inn) prosecutes a criminal case, and another provides the defense.

Lynn Helm and his father argued before the high tribunal that an exception to the rule against enjoining criminal proceedings was applicable: the need to prevent irreparable damage to property. The court’s response came in a March 2 opinion by Justice Henry B. Brown, which set forth:

“It is true the bill is based upon the theory that plaintiff would suffer great and irreparable loss by the interference of the city and by the exposed condition of the works….We are not, however, bound by this allegation....”

Davis & Farnum was merely a subcontractor, Brown said, Valley Gas & Fuel Company being Dobbins’ contractor. The plaintiff, he noted, made no allegation that without an injunction, it couldn’t recover the sums due to it by the contractor, and inasmuch as it “has shown no legal interest in this litigation, and no lack of a complete and adequate remedy at law,” its action “was properly dismissed.”

In actuality (though this would probably not have made a difference in the outcome), Valley Gas & Fuel Company was a corporation wholly owned by Dobbins. Through that corporation, Dobbins had hired Davis & Farnum to construct the plant.

In any event, Helm would be back before the Supreme Court the next year, continuing the battle.

Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company

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