JUDGE MARTIN I. WELSH
As Sacramentans become used to seeing the new United States Courthouse at 5th and I Streets as a part of our skyline, it is easy to forget that there was a time, not that long ago, when there was no federal court in Sacramento.
Until July 25, 1939, when former Superior Court Judge Martin I. Welsh took the oath of office as the first United States District Judge to reside in Sacramento, federal cases and controversies arising in Sacramento were heard by judges from outside the area.
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. 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 the federal court sat again 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, on May 31, 1938, Congress enacted a bill sponsored by Rep. Frank Buck of Sacramento, which authorized for the first time the appointment of an additional judge for the Northern District of California "whose official residence shall be Sacramento."
Welsh, a life long Democrat and prominent civic worker, was a natural candidate for the newly created position. Born in San Jose on October 1, 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, Welsh 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, Welsh 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.
On June 21, 1939, he was nominated by President Roosevelt, and less than one month later, on July 11, 1939, he was confirmed by the Senate. Having an official residence in Sacramento did not mean that Judge Welsh held court only in Sacramento, however. Welsh divided his time between Sacramento and San Francisco, as well as occasional sessions in other parts of the state.
Eventually, due to ill health, Judge Welsh retired at the close of business on December 31, 1946. He died in Alhambra, California on January 4, 1953, and is buried in Sacramento.
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