Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, June 4, 2009


Page 11



Groff Becomes First Dean of USC’s Law School




“Judge” was the title people had used in addressing Lewis A. Groff ever since he came to Los Angeles in  1891 and opened up a law office. He had been a state District Court judge in Nebraska. But in September, 1900, he gained a new title; he was “Dean Groff.”

Groff became the first University of Southern California Law School dean. The school was not new, but its affilation with USC was.

The Los Angeles Law School was founded as an independent institution in 1897. I’ve discussed it in connection with its first dean, James Brown Scott, who vacated his post in 1899, and vamooosed to Chicago to head the law school of the University of Illinois.

It was earlier in 1900 that the law school became affiliated with USC—which had for several years toyed with the idea of establishing a law department.

A June 6, 1900, article in the Los Angeles Times, reporting on the annual meeting of USC’s Board of Trustees, says:

“Arrangements were completed through which the Los Angeles Law School is to become a branch of the university. The new department will be known as the Law School of the University of Southern California.”

The article notes that “[s]tudents in the reorganized law school will have the privilege of taking a limited amount of work in the College of Liberal Arts of the university without additional expense.” At that time, a law degree was an undergraduate degree.

The school retained partial autonomy. In 1901, it was reincorporated as the Los Angeles College of Law, and in 1904, it was assimilated into the university.

The first law degrees were awarded on June 6, 1901. The next day’s edition of the Times relates:

“Judge Groff, dean of the College of Law, said he took special pride in presenting for diplomas the first class graduated from the Los Angeles Law School, and to the graduates gave the following pointer:

“ ‘The lawyer who expects to be successful in the law must continue to be a student so long as he lives.’

“The class was composed of the following young men, each of whom had conferred upon him the degree of Bachelor of Laws: Benjamin S. Hunter, Johnson W. Summerfield, Fred H. Thompson, Garvin W. Craig, Albert M. Norton, Francis M. Parker, Homer G. Ames.”

Actually, that should have readGavin” W. Craig, not “Garvin.” The USC website says that Craig received the school’s first diploma. He was to go on to gain election to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1910, and to the District Court of Appeals in 1920. Along the way, Craig attained a master’s degree from the USC Law School;  he was on its faculty for several years.

At a Nov. 17, 1942 session of the California Supreme Court, a member of that body, Justice Jesse Curtis, presented memorial remarks concerning Justice Frederick W. Houser, who had joined the high court in 1937. Houser had been a member of the students’ study group that evolved into the Los Angeles College of Law. In remarks appearing in the Official Reports, Curtis says of Houser: “With Judge  Gavin W. Craig, he was mainly responsible for [the school’s] future growth and success.”

So, USC can be mighty proud of Craig, a loyal and accomplished alumnus, eh? Well, no. He was convicted on May 8, 1935, of conspiring to obstruct justice—a matter of conspiring to fix a federal case, through influence, in return for a bribe. Craig resigned from office while serving a year’s jail term. He was disbarred Sept. 1, 1938, and readmitted May 16, 1947.

Groff was no doubt particularly proud to hand a diploma to Thompson, who had been admitted to practice on Oct. 11, 1898, after passing the oral bar examination administered by justices of the California Supreme Court. No law degree was required then, nor were there any other prerequisites except being able to answer the questions. Here, surely, was a conscientious servant of the law, undertaking legal studies even after he had attained admission to practice.

Sadly, Thompson, too, was a disgrace to USC. He was convicted in federal court on Dec. 20, 1911, of receiving stolen property. His eight-year prison sentence was commuted by President Woodrow Wilson (probably out of sympathy for him based on the amputation of a leg while in prison); he was released in April, 1915; Thompson was disbarred but readmitted to practice on Feb. 27, 1920.

Look, I’m not a USC-basher. My wife and I met there in undergraduate school. But these are the facts about two of the seven members of the first graduating class.

Next week, I’ll look at the other members of the first graduating class, as well as why Groff’s tenure as dean was only a year.


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