Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, October 13, 2011


Page 11



Percy R. Wilson: Lawyer Who Epitomized Civic-Mindedness




Attorney Percy R. Wilson was a model citizen. And his arrest in 1908 really doesn’t count as a black mark against him—not under the circumstances.

Admitted to practice in California in 1884, he had previously practiced in Illinois. The Los Angeles Bar Assn., founded in 1878, had become dormant; it was reorganized in 1888, and Wilson was a charter member.

When the Southern California College of Law opened in 1892 in Los Angeles, Wilson was a lecturer in bailments. He was also, at the time, a member of a standing committee of the Los Angeles Bar Assn. which advised Superior Court judges as to the suitability of applicants for admission to practice before that court.

In 1896—the year Wilson and his law partner, Robert Bulla, moved into the Wilcox Building—Gov. James Budd appointed Wilson a trustee of the Los Angeles Normal School. Wilson was an organizer that year of the Sound-Money Democratic Club of Los Angeles, its members being committed to remaining in the Democratic Party while vowing to withhold a vote for its presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan.

A civic reformer, Wilson was in 1896 on the membership committee of the League for Better City Government. So was another lawyer in the Wilcox Building, former Nebraska judge Lewis A. Groff,  previously profiled here.

The League that year conducted an unusual type of election. It resembled a direct primary—something which did not yet exist.

In those days, members of political parties would vote for delegates to a city, county, or state convention, and party nominations were decided upon at those conventions.

The League also made nominations. It conducted a “postal primary,” with nearly 3,700 ballots picked up from the Post Office on the morning of Oct. 26 and counted by Wilson and two others, who comprised the Postal Primary Committee. If a candidate in the upcoming city election received more than half the votes—which in most contests, though not the mayoral race, occurred—he became the League’s nominee.

The experiment was hailed in the next morning’s Los Angeles Times as “a success.”

Wilson was chosen in that election as a delegate to the convention. (It wound up nominating no candidate for mayor.)

When the Los Angeles Law School was formed and incorporated in 1897, Wilson was a director. (It is that school to which the USC Gould School of Law errantly seeks to trace its roots.)

In 1906, he served as president of the Sunset Club, which he had joined in its seminal year, 1896, and to which he remained a member until his death in 1909 at the age of 55. It was a unique club; its purpose was stated at the outset: “to bring together, once a month, thirty or forty active, intelligent men who are interested in other things besides money-getting, and who read something more than the daily newspaper, to discuss subjects of general human interest.”

He also served as president of the Los Angeles Country Club and, in 1908, of the California Club.

How did this “pillar of the community” come to undergo an arrest? Los Angeles, in 1908, had a publicity-seeking and politically ambitious city attorney—as indeed it has had in recent years. Two such officeholders come readily to mind, as does the incumbent.

On Sept. 22, 1908, Thomas Lee Woolwine—who went on to become district attorney and the unsuccessful 1922 Democratic candidate for governor—led a police raid on the California Club. Five directors, including Wilson, the club president, and Joseph Scott, one of the most prominent lawyers in the history of the city, were arrested, along with the bartender and the manager of the bar.

Why the raid? The club had not taken out a liquor license. A Justice Court judge had previously ruled that the California Club didn’t need to do so because it was an actual social club, not a public bar posing as one, the latter being the target of the ordinance in question. The California Club had offered to cooperate with Woolwine in setting up a test case. Nonetheless, with reporters and photographers following, Woolwine led the charge, which almost resulted in the door to the bar room being kicked in.

The following year, the California Supreme Court rebuffed Woolwine’s interpretation of the ordinance.


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