|A HISTORY OF THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA
When California was admitted to the Union in September of 1850, Congress divided the State into a northern and a southern judicial district, and authorized the appointment of one federal judge to preside in each district. Essentially, the dividing line between the two districts extended across the state just south of Stanislaus County. Everything above that line was in the Northern District, and everything below was in the Southern District. (Yosemite Park was in the Northern District.)
The Act directed the judge of the northern district to hold two regular sessions annually at San Francisco, and one regular session annually at San Jose, Sacramento, and Stockton.
The judge who was appointed to serve the northern district, Ogden Hoffman, had his courtroom and office in San Francisco. Because of the difficulties of travel, and the lack of any strong demand for a federal judicial presence outside of San Francisco, the law was modified in January of 1854 to abolish the court sessions in San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento.
It was not until 1911 that federal court was again authorized to sit in Sacramento. Congress at that time restructured the two California districts by counties, and directed the court for the 41 northern counties to hold two terms annually in San Francisco and one term annually in Sacramento and Eureka. The Sacramento term was to be held on the second Monday in each April. By that time, there were three federal judges in the northern district, all of whom still maintained their offices in San Francisco.
At first, the annual Sacramento sessions were held in the old county courthouse and in the senate chamber of the State Capitol. A courtroom was later arranged in the former Post Office building at Seventh and K Streets. When a new Post Office building was constructed at 8th and I Streets in 1933, a large auspicious courtroom was put on the fourth floor for the federal court. Still, the judges who presided over the brief sessions in that courtroom were sent up from San Francisco.
In response to growing public sentiment for a greater federal judicial presence in California's capital, in May of 1938, Congress enacted a bill sponsored by Rep. Frank Buck of Sacramento, which authorized for the first time the appointment of a judge "whose official residence shall be Sacramento."
Welch, a life long Democrat and prominent civic worker, was a natural candidate for the newly created position. Born in San Jose in 1882, he began his study of the law at Stanford University while working as a plumber and continued his legal education by reading books he obtained from the state library after moving to Sacramento in 1908.
In 1914, two years after he was admitted to the bar, Welch was appointed to the bench by Governor Hiram Johnson to finish an unexpired term on the Sacramento Superior Court. During the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, he served as a United States Commissioner (the predecessor of what is now a federal magistrate judge) for five years. He also served as a deputy district attorney, member of the Board of Education, member of the City Council and Mayor of Sacramento.
After running unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor on the Democratic ticket in 1930, Welch was again appointed to the Sacramento County Superior Court by Governor James Rolph, Jr. in 1932. He held that position until his appointment to the federal bench in 1939.
Having an official residence in Sacramento did not mean that Judge Welch held court only in Sacramento, however. Rather, he divided his time between Sacramento and San Francisco, as well as occasional sessions in other parts of the state. Looking back at the records, it appears that there was not enough work in Sacramento to keep Judge Welsh busy on a full time basis. Many of the published decisions involving his cases indicate that he was sitting in the Southern Division much of the time.
In his later years on the bench Judge Welsh's health began to fail and he retired to the Bay Area to live, after which his health improved, but he never returned to the bench after that. From the records, it appears that there were several months in later 1946 and early 1947 after Judge Welsh left, during which there was no resident District Judge in Sacramento.
A new, Democratic President having just been elected, the Democratic Congressional delegation in the Northern District of California focused its attention upon the young Democratic Assemblyman who had so successfully managed the Presidential campaign in Sacramento. President Kennedy readily accepted their recommendation, and on September 22, 1961 appointed him as the next United States District Judge in Sacramento. He was Thomas J. MacBride.
The court facilities in the Post Office Building were really only designed to house one District Judge. When Judge MacBride arrived, his courtroom and chambers were substantially smaller and more modest than those of Judge Halbert. Shortly after he moved into his new quarters, Judge MacBride proudly displayed his courtroom to Sacramento attorney Nat Colley. When Colley saw it he is said to have exclaimed, "Oh, this will never do." "Why?" Judge MacBride asked. "Well," replied Colley, "whenever I go to federal court I always charge my clients more money because they are convinced it is so much more important than the state court, but now, when they see this courtroom, I am not going to be able to do that any more."
When Judge Halbert walked into his courtroom in the new building he found that the bench where the judge was to sit was constructed on the same level as the rest of the courtroom, so that when the judge sat down he would actually have to look up at the lawyers who were standing at the lectern to present their arguments. Needless to say, Judge Halbert demanded that the bench be appropriately elevated before he began hearing any cases in that courtroom.
Also, there was a door on each side of the judge's bench. On one side, the door lead to the jury deliberation room and the judge's chambers. On the other side, the door lead to the holding cell for the prisoners. The prisoners were brought to the holding cell by way of a stairway directly from the Marshal's offices downstairs, and they were brought out from the holding cell one at a time as their cases were called in the courtroom. In the process of bringing them out from the holding cell and returning them again, that door was constantly opening and closing during the course of a single criminal calendar. Since the calendar may last a while, and the prisoners may understandably become a little nervous while waiting for their court appearance, it was necessary to have appropriate restroom facilities in the holding cell. The first time they held a criminal calendar in the new courtroom, it became embarrassingly obvious that when the door to the holding cell opened the attorneys sitting at counsel table and half the audience had a clear view of the prisoner as he sat on the commode. It took a while, but the configuration of the door to the holding cell was eventually changed to correct the problem.
The building as a whole was considered a success, and for its time it was seen as one of the nicest buildings in Sacramento. Only the first two floors were occupied by the court family. The Probation Office, Marshal's Office, Court Reporters, and U.S. Commissioner (who was the predecessor to the U.S. Magistrates) were on the first floor, along with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Border Patrol, GSA, and of course the Cafeteria. The courtrooms, chambers, Grand Jury room, and Clerk's office were on the second floor, along with the U.S. Attorney's office and a lot of extra space. The rest of the building was occupied by other agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service, Congressional offices, and of course the Army Corps of Engineers, which seemed to absorb any and all available space not being otherwise used. The nice oak paneling in the courtrooms, and at first in the chambers as well, was Judge Halbert's idea. He preferred the oak to the darker paneling, because he felt it made the chambers and courtrooms seem more bright and spacious.
With the number of judges having just doubled, and the court now occupying its comfortable new facilities, one would have expected the court to have become complacent, sitting back to savor its newly acquired judicial resources. But that was far from the picture. The seeds of growth had been planted, and the court now had its sights on something bigger.
Chief Judge George Harris presided over the district from his chambers in San Francisco. There was little interaction between the judges in San Francisco and the Judges in Sacramento. The Clerk of the Court, James P. Welch, had his office in San Francisco. United States Attorney Cecil Poole and U.S. Marshal Ted Heslip ran their offices from San Francisco. The U.S. Attorney's office and Marshal's office in Sacramento were seen as understaffed and sometimes ignored by their parent offices in San Francisco.
This was a constant source of irritation to the judges in Sacramento. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, Judge Halbert was heard to complain that we in Sacramento were only "second class citizens". When Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Hatter (later Chief Judge of the U.S. District Judge in Los Angeles) came up from San Francisco to try a case, he recalled that Judge Halbert said to him, "I see that Mr. Poole has sent in another one of his city slickers to help us out."
A consensus began to develop among the constituency that the court in Sacramento had outgrown its dependence on San Francisco, and the judges in Sacramento were ready to assume independence.
The move to sever the Northern Division from the Northern District and to create a new district was part of a larger plan to break the two districts in California down into four districts. According to Judge MacBride, the individual primarily behind this movement was Chief Judge Richard Chambers, of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Through Judge Chambers' efforts in lobbying the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and the Judicial Conference of the United States, Congress on March 18, 1966, enacted Public Law 89-372, creating the Eastern District of California, effective six months later.
The Eastern District was essentially formed from what used to be the Northern Division of the Northern District and the Northern Division of the Southern District.
Civil cases were different. By local rule, all civil cases which were pending in the Northern Division of the Northern District as of September 18, 1966 were automatically transferred to the Eastern District as of that date.
As of September 18, 1966, each Assistant U.S. Attorney of the Northern District who had previously been assigned to Sacramento office was reappointed as an Assistant U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of California, and each Assistant who had previously been assigned to the San Francisco office remained an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District. In order to assure that no case involving the Government was inadvertently prosecuted or defended by an Assistant U.S. Attorney from the wrong district, each Assistant in the new Eastern District was cross-designated as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District and vice versa. The same thing was done in Fresno, so that Assistant U.S. Attorneys out of the new Central District could continue to handle those Fresno cases that had to be prosecuted technically in the old Southern District.
There were two Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the San Francisco office that used to come up regularly to try land condemnation cases. Their names were Larry Burbank, an attorney in the Lands Division, and Chuck Renda, Chief of the Lands Division who later became Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney here under Don Ayer (and after his retirement became the Regional Solicitor for the Department of Interior). Apparently, they had a running competition between them to see who could be admitted to practice in the most courts. Whether they had any real business in Sacramento that day or not, they showed up in the Clerk's office as soon as the doors opened, each determined to be the first to sign the roster.
That book has been preserved, and the list of attorneys admitted to practice in the district begins with the names A. Lawrence Burbank, Charles R. Renda, John P. Hyland, Rothwell B. Mason, William B. Shubb, and James J. Simonelli in that order.
In due course, the position was later redesignated as Magistrate Judge, and the district has since benefitted from the appointment of John Moulds, Gregory Hollows, Dennis Beck, Sandra Snyder, Peter Nowinski, Donald Pitts, Hollis Best, Dale Drozd, Lawrence O'Neill, Kimberly Mueller, Craig Kellison, William Wunderlich, Gary Austin, Theresa Goldner, Edmund Brennan, Jennifer Thurston, Kendall Newman, Michael Seng, Sheila Oberto, Barbara A. McAuliffe, Carolyn K. Delaney, Allison Claire, and Stanley Boone as magistrate judges.
In a move to enhance the quality of representation, the Office of the Federal Defender was created in 1971. E. Richard Walker was selected by the judges to be the first Federal Defender. He had been a law clerk to District Judge Oliver J. Carter of the Northern District, who had sat in Sacramento temporarily many times before the creation of the Eastern District, and he had served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Sacramento as well as the District Attorney of Trinity County and an Assistant Public Defender in Yolo County and a private attorney.
The new Federal Defender on the third floor was viewed with a great deal of suspicion by those in the U.S. Attorney's Office. It took Dick Walker a few years to gain their trust, by his selection and training of the Assistant Federal Defenders, the way they handled their cases, and their dealings with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Judge MacBride's tenure as Chief Judge lasted more than eleven years, to January 15, 1979, shortly before he took senior status on March 25, 1979. He served as Chief Judge of this district longer than any other judge ever has or ever will, since the term of a Chief Judge has now been limited to seven years.
The authorization for the new judges coincided closely with Judge MacBride's taking senior status, so President Jimmy Carter had the unprecedented opportunity to appoint a total of four judges in this district.
To fill the newly created position in Fresno, he selected Edward Dean Price, a United States Magistrate and private practitioner from Modesto.
Judge Karlton was appointed on July 24, 1979; and Judges Schwartz, Price, and Ramirez were appointed soon thereafter in November and December of 1979 and May of 1980, respectively. In the course in those few short months, the political complexion of the district changed from a court of predominantly Republican appointees to one of predominantly Democratic appointees.
© 2001 United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Historical Society.