Monday, February 11, 2002
Criminal Courts Building Renamed for Clara Shortridge Foltz
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A host of present-day female legal trailblazers renamed and rededicated downtown’s Criminal Courts Building on Friday in honor of Clara Shortridge Foltz, California’s first woman lawyer.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the high court, called the action a fitting tribute to the legal pioneer.
“This is the single most appropriate name that could be put on this building,” O’Connor said.
The 1970s steel-and-glass structure on Temple Street that now houses the nation’s largest District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office was the site of an earlier courthouse where Foltz once worked as the county’s first female deputy district attorney and championed the creation of county-paid public defenders.
The building is now known as the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.
The public rediscovery of Foltz, whose name largely has been omitted from history books and was known only to legal scholars and historians, began more than a year ago with a passing comment to Senior Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon, who was considering a courthouse display honoring pioneering women.
Alarcon and Assistant U.S. Attorney Miriam Krinsky, now president-elect of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, built a team of enthusiasts who introduced the idea of the renaming to county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, herself a trailblazing woman lawyer.
Burke introduced a motion to change the prosaic name of the structure to honor Foltz, and the Board of Supervisors passed in unanimously last April.
At a lunch program at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel prior to the rededication ceremony, O’Connor recounted Foltz’s story to a crowd packed with women judges and lawyers.
The justice said Foltz’s accomplishments against enormous odds made the barriers women continue to face today appear small in comparison.
“We can just forget about any little problems we had along the way,” O’Connor said.
Foltz was married at age 15 to a Union soldier who failed at farming and in his business ventures. The couple had five children, but by the time they moved to San Jose in the 1870s it became clear that her husband was having an affair with a woman in Oregon.
Seeking to earn enough money to care for her children, Foltz first worked as a dressmaker. But taken with the suffrage and women’s rights movement, she soon decided to become a lawyer.
She was at first ridiculed by attorneys she wanted to study with, but she finally found one who would take her on, only to learn that California law did not allow women to practice law.
She successfully lobbied the Legislature to change the law and got the governor to sign the Women Lawyers Bill, then in 1878 passed an oral bar exam.
Later, she was accepted to Hastings College of Law—but had to sue to take her seat in the face of a men-only rule imposed by the school’s trustees.
Foltz went on to practice law in New York as well as California, worked in Denver, published a newspaper in San Diego, and ran for governor at the age of 81 in 1930.
She moved to Los Angeles after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, became a deputy public defender, and helped create the nation’s first public defender’s office in 1913.
Stanford University Law Professor Barbara Babcock—the first woman director of the Public Defender’s Office in the District of Columbia—is nearing completion of a biography on Foltz, due out next year.
District Attorney Steve Cooley acknowledged Foltz’s role in opening law practice to women and said the renamed courthouse would serve to remind lawyers and others of her contributions.
“Welcome back, Clara,” Cooley said. “Thank you for inspiring us all.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company