Thursday, May 22, 2008
High Court Rejects MacDonald’s Arguments on Olvera Street
By ROGER M. GRACE
Final word on the legality of the City of Los Angeles closing Olvera Street to vehicular traffic was spoken by the California Supreme Court on July 1, 1935:
The action was valid.
On a vote of 6-0 (with Justice Ira Thompson not participating), the high court rebuffed the contentions put forth by Los Angeles attorney J. Wiseman Macdonald on behalf of Constance D. Simpson, who owned property at the southwest end of the one-block lane.
MacDonald argued before the state Supreme Court—as he did in the Court of Appeal, which was persuaded by him—that restricting the street to use by pedestrians was an unlawful use of the city’s police power, wrongfully depriving his client of enjoyment of her property and, in particular, ingress and egress.
Simpson had sought to enjoin continued implementation of the 1929 ordinance and to force the removal of the booths, trees, and other obstructions. The fate of the street, converted from a filthy alley into a tourist attraction with an early California ambiance, was at stake
The opinion by Justice John W. Shenk did not get into the question of whether aesthetics was something of value to the public. The Court of Appeal had snorted in its opinion two years earlier that it was “absolutely undeniable that it was simply to enable the defendants Christine Sterling and Plaza de Los Angeles to beautify Olvera street and make an attractive show place” that the city had enacted the ordinance, declaring that “such power cannot be used as a mere pretext for legislation, as it is not police regulation.”
Shenk’s opinion reasoned that the trial judge “could believe from its view of the premises and the surrounding arteries and the traffic thereon, and from the evidence in the record” that Olvera Street, if opened to traffic, could cause greater congestion in the surrounding streets.
The opinion makes note that in 1931, the Legislature enacted a statute expressly conferring on cities the power to close streets to vehicles. The Court of Appeal had dismissed the relevance of the statute, saying that the law must be viewed as it existed in 1929 when the city ordinance was passed. But as the Supreme Court saw it, there was no point to invalidating the ordinance “inasmuch as the city council could immediately validly re-enact the ordinance” on the strength of the new statute.
The conclusion is “that it is within the police power of the city to close Olvera street to vehicular traffic; that the closing of the street to that extent does not deprive the plaintiff’s property of all vehicular access, but in fact leaves her property with such access on other street frontage; that damage to the property of the plaintiff by reason of such limited closing is insubstantial and incidental to the exercise by the city of its lawful powers; and that the judgment of the trial court sufficiently protected the plaintiff as to the other street uses to which she was entitled under the law.”
While MacDonald lost that one, it was one of innumerable cases he handled as a Los Angeles lawyer, and his reputation was too solid for that particular loss to cause a dent in it.
An editorial in the Los Angeles Times on Nov 22, 1942, says:
“The church, the public and the legal profession are alike heavy losers in the passing yesterday of J. Wiseman Macdonald, pioneer attorney, citizen and Catholic layman. In which of these three capacities he was best known and had rendered the greatest service it would probably be hard for even his best friends to say.
“But no such uncertainty would exist in the minds of the local diocese, primarily for the help of whom Mr. Macdonald helped a score of years ago to organize the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, of which he had been continuously president since. He was an able and very successful lawyer, but most of his time and services, legal and otherwise, were donated. It was for what he gave, rather than for what he accomplished, that he will be remembered.”
A Nov. 25 news article in that newspapers tells of “thousands” of mourners at the requiem service for MacDonald in St. Vibiana’s Cathedral.
The cathedral (since desanctified) was across the street from MacDonald’s longtime office in the Higgins Building and a block from the Wilcox Building where he was one of the original tenants, along with attorneys Joseph Scott and Isidore Dockweiler. The Times article notes:
“Joseph Scott and Isidore Dockweiler, veteran attorneys who had known Macdonald since he came to Los Angeles in 1891, were among the mourners.”
There will be more about them in future columns.
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