Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, May 8, 2008


Page 11



City Public Defender Primed to Act in Olvera Street Case




When Los Angeles attorney J. Wiseman MacDonald on Jan. 19, 1931, haled into court 25 persons attired in the colorful garb of early California, his intent was to question them as to whether they had paid city license fees to peddle.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Caryl M. Sheldon disallowed the inquiry. It did not seem pertinent to the issue before the court: whether the City Council had acted lawfully in closing Olvera Street to vehicular traffic. An owner of property on that street was seeking to enjoin enforcement of the ordinance.

Those who were subpoenaed strolled throughout the day on Olvera Street in costume, adding to the atmosphere of the new pedestrian tourist attraction.

As noted here last week, the report on the hearing in the Los Angeles Times, published the next day, mentions that “City Public Defender [Frederick M.] Hall was present to represent the picturesque witnesses but was not called into action.” The Times article also relates:

“The colorful contingent made a striking appearance as they marched from Paseo de Los Angeles [a newly contrived secondary name for Olvera Street that didn’t stick] to the City Hall where the court is located.”

A city public defender? A public defender representing persons not accused of a crime? Superior Court hearings in City Hall? Since the events in the 1931 proceeding I’ve been recounting are hardly breaking news, it would seem not to be imperative to stick to the major happenings—so, here comes a digression.

“The first public defender’s office in the United States was opened in January, 1913,” Reed Hadley intoned at the outset of each week’s episode of “Public Defender” a mid-1950s TV series in which he starred. A map flashed on the screen to show where that first office opened; the place was Los Angeles. What Hadley was referring to was the county Office of Public Defender.

It was the County Charter, enacted by voters Nov. 5, 1912, that created the office. The TV show was wrong about the doors opening in January 1913; the charter did not become effective until June 2 of that year, and the first public defender, Walton Wood, didn’t assume office until Jan. 6, 1914, launching operations three days later.

The charter provided that the public defender would represent persons who could not afford a lawyer who were “charged, in the Superior Court, with the commission of any contempt, misdemeanor, felony, or other offense.” No provision was made for representation of those facing criminal charges in the Municipal Court.

Among other facets of the provision was that the public defender “shall also upon request defend such persons”—that is, those who couldn’t afford counsel—“in all civil litigation in which, in his judgment, they are being persecuted or unjustly harassed.”

A city public defender was provided for the 1916 Los Angeles City Charter, borrowing from the provision in the County Charter. (It wasn’t until 1965 that the city Public Defender’s Office merged into the county office.) The city official was assigned to defend the impecunious who faced charges in the Municipal Court, and also authorized providing defense in “all civil litigation” where there was persecution or harassment.

Hall apparently thought that the 25 persons subpoenaed by MacDonald fell into that category. While he was confined to the Municipal Court in criminal cases, he was not barred from acting in Superior Court civil cases, the charter referring to “all civil litigation.”

Actually, it made sense for Hall to be there, rather than county Public Defender Frederic Vercoe. The city was a defendant in the case, represented by the Office of City Attorney. That office, I would guess, enlisted Hall’s assistance for those MacDonald wanted to question. Too, Hall’s office was in City Hall, where Sheldon’s courtroom was.

The “old courthouse”—which was slated to be demolished once the “new courthouse” was completed on Broadway, south of Temple—did not have enough space to meet the court’s present needs. Four courtrooms had been installed in the Hall of Records, and others were being opened in City Hall. The county was leasing space from the city for the courtrooms.

Returning to the Olvera Street case: Sheldon on April 30, 1931, indicated what his ruling would be, and issued the judgment on Dec. 24, 1931. Vehicular traffic would remain barred.

However, MacDonald was largely successful for his client, Constance Simpson. Her structure was at the south end of Olvera Street, on the west side. Her complaint was that there was no longer access to the structure by vehicle (although there was access on the Main Street side).

Sheldon ordered that the chains cordoning off Olvera Street at the south end be moved a few feet to the north to leave room for parking. (Also, chains at the north end were to be moved a few feet to the south, for the same purpose.) The judge also required the removal of the booths on Olvera Street in front of Simpson’s building.

Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company

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