Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, April 16, 2009


Page 15



Groff Fails in Judgeship Bid at Acrimonious Conclave




Yearning to return to judicial office, Los Angeles attorney and former Nebraska judge Lewis A. Groff in 1896 sought the Republican nomination for a seat on the Superior Court. He came before the GOP county convention, vested with credentials as a Republican, but lagging behind some of his adversaries in overall fitness for the post he sought.

It was a convention marked by the ejectment of the sergeant-at-arms and a pitiful plea for nomination to a judgeship uttered by a veteran lawyer who had attained prominence in his profession, but had recently been institutionalized for insanity.

Groff lost.

Delegates initially gathered at the Music Hall, 231 S. Spring Street—which later became Elks’ Hall, and is now a Los Angeles Times garage (where we at the MetNews park our cars). The 1896 political confab took place at a time when Los Angeles was gaining sophistication and stature…yet hadn’t quite shed the markings of a “wild west” town.

I momentarily digress from the subject of L.A. Groff, tenant in the Wilcox Building, to present a picture of that convention, reflecting as it did how the “gents” of the period were yet tethered to the ways of earlier rowdy times.

The sergeant-at-arms who incurred the displeasure of the delegates had done something rather rash. He slugged a minister.

A look at the Sept. 11 report in the Los Angeles Times is not illuminating as to just what happened,  propaganda taking precedence over objective reportage. The account bears the headline, “A Smashed Machine.” It is discernible from the rambling discourse that Harrison Gray Otis’s daily newspaper was pleased that the “bossism” which the railroad interests sought to impose on the party had been eschewed by delegates.

The supposed “news” article declares that the final act in a quest to maintain “ward politics”— which it denominates “a stench in the nostrils of decent people”— took the form of “a ruffian assault by a cowardly heeler named Sam K. Adams,” one of the “pet henchmen” of a would-be boss, “upon the Rev. C. C. McLean, a man whose calling, which forbids him to be a brawler, should give him immunity from such attacks.”

The report says that “Adams rushed across the hall, enraged that Dr. McLean has exposed his rascality...and struck the preacher in the face”—after which “[t]he convention arose in indignation and flung the poor miserable tool of the boss into the gutter along with his master.”

The Sept. 11 report in the Evening Express clarifies the matter. Adams had opposed McLean being seated as a delegate; the convention, at its afternoon session, overwhelmingly rejected the challenge.  Following adjournment, “...Adams went over and struck at Dr. McLean, and in a moment the utmost confusion prevailed and there was a mob around Adams,” the report says, adding:

“There were cries of ‘Throw him out of the window.’ Adams fought desperately and was finally ejected violently from the hall.”

The evening session was in Turner Hall, just to the south of the Music Hall, at 235 S. Spring Street. Although there was some dissension, Alexander B. Campbell, a founder of the Los Angeles Bar Assn., was granted the podium. He had recently emerged from a seven-month stay in an insane asylum.

Campbell announced he would seek nomination as a Superior Court candidate—then launched into a denunciation of another candidate, incumbent B.N. Smith, who made the order of committal.

The chair told him he was out of order. Campbell responded that he was about to take his leave from the meeting but would “still be a candidate for judge against the man who has done me this wrong.”

There were four judicial offices to be filled, with names of all candidates of any parties to appear in a single list on the November ballot, the four who acquired the greatest number of votes to capture the judgeships.

Twelve men sought the Republican nomination. Of them, three—Smith, Lucien Shaw, and W.H. Clark—were incumbents, and the expectation was that each would receive his party’s nod. As a practical matter, Groff would have to defeat eight others for the remaining spot on the ticket. Among them were persons with higher name recognition than his, including former District Attorney George M. Holton.

The three incumbents were, indeed, nominated. The highest vote-getter among the dozen was Clark, with 396 votes. Coming in last was Henry A. Pierce, with 43 votes...five less than Campbell got. Pierce became a justice of the Los Angeles Township in 1903, later a justice of the peace.

Groff pulled 74 votes, taking ninth place. Behind him was Nathaniel P. Conrey, who 44 years later would become a justice of the California Supreme Court.

In the November election, the four highest vote-getters in an eight-person contest were the Republicans, prevailing over four Democrat/Populists. Shaw later became the state’s chief justice.

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