Thursday, January 24, 2008
Helm Returns to U.S. High Court—This Time, He Prevails
By ROGER M. GRACE
Caroline W. Dobbins was a victim of a capricious exercise of power by the Los Angeles City Council. Many such victims of actions by that body had preceded her; countless others have come since. In her case, there was a vindication of her rights in the U.S. Supreme Court.
As recounted last week, Dobbins bought real property in 1901 in an area of the city zoned for gas plants; she gained a permit from the Board of Fire Commissioners on Nov. 22 and began construction immediately, nearly completing the foundation; three days after the permit was issued, the City Council passed a new zoning ordinance outlawing gas works in the very area where Dobbins’ plant site was situated…an industrial area north of what is now termed the Civic Center. The company that had a local monopoly on supplying gas had apparently exercised its influence.
Bankruptcy Referee Lynn Helm, acting in his private capacity, was her lead attorney.
He and his father jointly argued before the nation’s high court in 1903—unsuccessfully—that relief should be provided the outfit that had been hired to erect the gas plant. Its workers were arrested and prosecuted for continuing with construction of the plant after adverse zoning ordinances were put into effect. (A flaw was found in the Nov. 25, 1901 ordinance; the boundaries of the forbidden zone for gas plants had a gap in it.)
The Supreme Court’s unanimous 1903 decision affirmed the dismissal of an action that had been brought in the federal court in Los Angeles. The effort in that court was not, however, Helm’s only front of attack. He proceeded contemporaneously in state court, filing an action in Los Angeles Superior Court in March, 1902, to enjoin the city from “prosecuting or proceeding with any prosecution commenced or to be commenced” based on construction on Dobbins’ site. The claim was that the ordinance barring such construction violated due process.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lucien Shaw (later chief justice of California) sustained a demurrer without leave to amend, and Helm went to the California Supreme Court (the courts of appeal not yet having been established).
Again, there was a loss. The opinion by Justice Thomas B. McFarland, joined in by the whole crew, says:
“It is averred in the complaint that the said ordinances were adopted not for the purpose of protecting public interests, but for the purpose of protecting and favoring a certain named company engaged in the manufacture and sale of gas in said city. But the motives which induce a legislative body to make a law cannot be considered in a judicial proceeding in which the validity of the law in question is involved.”
The ordinances represented a proper exercise of the city’s police power, the opinion declares.
Here was a litigant who was being, to employ a crude but common vernacularism, screwed by the city, and whose cry for help fell on deaf ears in the California courts.
It was back to the Supreme Court for Helm in 1904. By then, Helm’s father had retired from practice. Helm started his opening argument on Oct. 11; quitting time came before he finished and he continued the next day. Los Angeles City Attorney William B. Mathews argued for the city and Los Angeles attorney Edward C. Bailey responded for Dobbins.
The decision came out on Nov. 14.
“[W]e think a case is made which called for the protection of the courts against arbitrary interference with the rights of the plaintiff in error,” the opinion by Justice William R. Day declares. It continues:
“No reasonable explanation for the arbitrary exercise of power in the case is suggested. The narrowing of the limits within which the plaintiff in error, in compliance with the ordinance of the city and the permit of the board of fire commissioners, was proceeding to erect the gasworks, to the smaller and more limited section, was not demanded by the public welfare, and, taking the facts as alleged in the bill, seems rather to have been actuated by the purpose to exclude the plaintiff in error from further prosecution of the enterprise.”
The court, again by a unanimous vote, reversed and remanded that case.
It did the same in a companion case, argued by the same lawyers, and decided the same day. The California Supreme Court had denied a petition for a writ of habeas corpus brought by Martin Daly, one of the workers arrested at Dobbins’ site, based on its determination in the Dobbins case that the ordinance was valid.
The California Supreme Court had denied the writ The U.S. Supreme Court’s contrary determination on Nov. 14, 1904, that the ordinance was flawed dictated the release of Daly.
On March 10, 1905, the California Supreme Court, on remand, awarded $144 to Dobbins, presumably in costs (though the Associated Press said it was damages).
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