The Birth of a Bar: The First Decade

One-hundred years ago, The Orange County Bar Association found its wings and began its first 100-year flight into what was considered to be the very distant future.

  Twenty-two Orange County lawyers signed a call for a meeting to consider organizing a bar association. Ten attended this meeting on November 22, 1901, held in the newly-completed court house in Santa Ana.

  Who were these attorneys, our “forefathers”? (Needless to say we had no “foremothers” in the legal profession back then.) What did the County look like and what was it like to practice law 100 years ago?

  Orange County itself had only been formed in 1889, and the state was barely 50 years old. William McKinley was President. Momentous changes were rapidly taking place in Southern California. One most obvious was the convergence of the railroads bringing thousands of settlers into the area and opening new markets for farmers. The new citizens were attempting to tame this County, that had the soul of a wild colt. There was a growing concern for development of social institutions and an acknowledgment of the needs of the community.

  Even the justice system was quite frisky. Just prior to the turn of the century, lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution wore guns into the courtrooms. Talk about an adversarial process! Jurors and attorneys alike enthusiastically took part in swearing, spitting, whittling, and other forms of less then genteel behavior. The “law” was fairly elusive as law books were scarce and procedures virtually non-existent.

  The decade preceding 1901 had produced J.W. Towner, the first Superior Court Judge in Orange County, who apparently was as colorful as the County. A Civil War veteran who lost sight in one eye (referred to by an opponent as “Old Cyclops”), J.W. wasn’t the least bit impressed with the fact that he had to hold his first official court session, in 1893, on his front lawn. So he chose a site in Santa Ana for the “Court House Square” owned by William H. Spurgeon, bounded by what are now Broadway, Civic Center Drive and Santa Ana Boulevards.

  However, even before the Court House was built, the first building to occupy the “Square” was a jail… an odd looking structure looking “much like a Dumpster with doors.” Unfortunately, while Sheriff Theo Lacy had his hands full dealing with the wilder citizens of the community, his jail was often empty due to jailbreaks. The Sheriff managed to get a new jail completed in 1897 — a whimsical Queen Ann style brick and granite building complete with gothic towers and spires.

  Then, finally in September of 1901, came the dedication of the new Court House. A fleet of buggies pulled up at the back door to unload the office equipment for the County’s Sheriff, District Attorney, assessor, tax collector, superintendent of schools, coroner, clerk, records auditor, treasurer, and probably everyone on down to the dog catcher.

  The citizens stood back and looked with pride at this great new building as proof that Orange County had come of age! It was now the 20th Century. Enter our ten attorneys who met in the new Court House to launch the Bar.

  The “OCBA Ten” must have been a colorful lot. They most likely confirmed the meeting with one another in person, as most folks didn’t have telephones. They didn’t arrive on November 22, 1901 in cars because there were only three automobiles in the entire county and most cities didn’t even have one paved street. However, Santa Ana did boast of its “mass transportation” system for the counties’ 20,000 citizens. A little steam-powered streetcar called the “Orange Dummy”…a railroad term for the street-locomotive… passed for an intercity rapid transit between Santa Ana and Orange. In the case that any of the “Ten” rode the Dummy to the Court House that day, they probably arrived with smoke-filled eyes (as opposed to smog-filled) from the “smokeless engine” that wasn’t, and a little dusty from having to stop and help the car if it slipped off the rails. (Not to worry, the first tub washing machine was introduced in 1901… an idea spawned by a butter churn.)

  The “OCBA Ten” most likely met in Department One, the only Superior Court room. Presiding Judge Wesley Ballard had replaced Judge Towner in 1897. The Court was exquisite, complete with oak furniture and a towering ceiling that featured a central skylight surrounded by light fixtures powered either by gas or electricity. (Most structures in the County were without electricity.) Oh yes, communal spittoons were provided in the courtroom and lobby… but these were only emptied on Fridays. By this time, signs were posted outside the Court directing that guns be left at the door.

  The “Ten” would have greeted each other warmly as old friends. Attorneys (about 100 in the county) knew each other intimately and treated one another with respect, their word as good as their bond. Our “Ten” must have been a very concerned and civic-minded group. They may even have taken a photo of this momentous occasion using the newly introduced Brownie Box Camera.

  Victor Montgomery was selected as the Bar’s first President, a criminal specialist, veteran of the Civil War and scribe of the Bill to create the County of Orange. Under his guidance was written a Bar Constitution that included minimum fee schedules for attorney members. It forbade lowering fees to attract business away from fellow members, and prohibited giving advice “on the street” or “free advice” except to a regular client. Witnesses were to be treated courteously with respect in trial and lawyers couldn't “thank” jurors who voted in favor of their client. Attorneys would close their office doors by noon on Saturdays and not re-open until Monday morning. The Bar was born.

  During the next ten years, members of the Bar saw Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft elected President. Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first powered, heavier-than-air airplane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903. The world’s first all-motion picture theater opened in 1905, the San Francisco earthquake jolted the state in 1906, the first “Tin Lizzy” Model T was produced in 1908 and Robert Peary became the first person to reach the North Pole. The Balboa Pavilion was constructed on our coast (pictured on this magazine’s cover.)

  But, what of the cases and the clients that these attorneys had? They represented farmers, landowners and the railroad. The first criminal trial conviction held in Orange County involved the ever-imposing railroads, and was one of the most celebrated trials in the annals of Orange County legal history… the trial of Modeska Avila.

  Modeska, a colorful resident of San Juan Capistrano, had to have been the first NIMBY and a true luminary of her time. This very young woman was in the midst of a personal feud with the California Central Railway, which had never paid her to run tracks and their trains through her property (just north of the Capistrano Depot). These noisy monstrosities were disrupting her own quality of life and, among other things, preventing her chickens from laying eggs.

  It is reported that because of her frustration and anger over her dealings with the railroad, that completely ignored her claim for compensation, she took matters into her own hands and put up a barricade across the tracks that ran through her land. This barricade may only have been her weekly wash or perhaps a railroad tie, but on October 15, 1889, Modeska was charged with attempted obstruction of a train and was consequently jailed. Her first trial hung, split 6-6, but she was found guilty in the second trial and was sentenced to three years in San Quentin, where she died after serving two years.

The More We Change, the More We Stay the Same

  Here we are, present in what was 100 years in the future for our “OCBA Ten.” Very amazing! Many of the “truths” back then remain constant today. We know the attorneys in 1901 were concerned about access to justice for all, and about the quality of the legal profession. We know they took pride in their community and were leaders within the County. They helped shape social and political policy. So do we today. The old and revered values like keeping your word and respecting your adversary were just as important 100 years ago.

  The areas of law and the types of client were expanding for our “Ten” just as today. “High-Tech” companies (such as utilities, airline companies and the auto industry) were soon to be the future for the practice of law in 1901. “High-Tech” companies of today will continue to thrust our practices into the future.

  All Modeska Avila wanted was a good quality of life and the ability to support herself. Today, we are all NIMBYS in some fashion, whether it be over a proposed airport or county toll road, or the building of a bigger jail, or “No-growth” and “Slow-Growth” vs. landowner rights, or the building of homeless shelters, new high rise office buildings, land-fills, even public parks, green belts, and Dog Parks. We represent clients with competing and conflicting interests, and the courts are continuing to play a very active role in trying to balance the fragile scales of justice when dealing with a myriad of interests and issues.

  What once was the proud and impressive “New Court House” in 1901 is now designated as a County Historical Park and operated by the County Public Facilities and Resources Department. Please go visit Department One and get a touch of the essence of the practice of law 100 years ago. It is fabulous. What will the new and proud Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse be “designated” as, in 100 years, and will it look out on a robust community? Will it have already served its purpose and be designated an historical monument?

  We still have signs outside the courthouse reminding us that guns are prohibited…

  On each of this momentous year’s covers we will be photographing an historical site, corresponding to the era to which the President’s Page is devoted.

  On this month’s cover, our 2000 Franklin G. West winner, The Hon. Jack Ryan, is photographed with the Balboa Pavilion.

  The Pavilion was built in 1905, originally as a bath house. The Victorian style, cupola-topped building was a versatile host, ranging from gambling parlors, to bowling alleys, to an art museum.

Danni Murphy is a senior attorney with the Orange County Public Defender.