George Bernard Harris.

Memories of San Francisco legal practice and State and Federal courts, 1920s - 1960s : oral history transcript / and related material, 1980-1981 online

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Online LibraryGeorge Bernard HarrisMemories of San Francisco legal practice and State and Federal courts, 1920s - 1960s : oral history transcript / and related material, 1980-1981 → online text (page 4 of 18)
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Morris: That s a pretty good average.

Harris: I felt that under all the circumstances, I owed that to the two men
who believed in me. They followed my career right up to Father
Simpson s passing. I was at his services when he passed away. They
were great men; they gave me an awful lot, and I m eternally
indebted to them.

The priest at St. Dominic s church said, "Oh, yes. He was an
altar boy here, one of the best boys we had."

Morris: He was your parish priest?

Harris: Parish priestFather Lewis.

Morris: St. Ignatius called your parish priest for a recommendation

Harris: I served on the altar with Father Lewis for many, many years as a
youngster growing up. I think I was about six years old when I
first went on the altar. I lived so closely to the Dominicans
that I became imbued with their mode of life.

Morris: Was being an altar boy a chore or was it an honor?

Harris: It was an honor. There was one feature about it that was rather
difficult to explain. Father Lewis was a great orator Father
Reginald Lewis. His name goes down in history in the Dominican


Harris: order. He was one of the greatest orators in the world, I guess,
if not the United States. He could have been an actor on any
stage, on any stage would have held his own. He took me under his
wing and I studied under him.

So there were forces at work, probably I m not speaking
spiritually now but there were forces at work on my career I can
now visualize them in going back that were designed by some hand
greater than my own, to give me the benefit of education that I
would not have received but for these very generous men.

Morris: It sounds as if they saw you as a promising young fellow and saw
their responsibility to encourage you.

Harris: They also somewhat vigorously pursued the idea that maybe I d join
the order.

Morris: I see. They had hopes that you might become a priest yourself?
Harris: Sure. Not that I had the moral distinction. [laughter]

Morris: They say that some of the best priests are reformed reprobates,
don t they?

Harris: I kind of limped on as decently as I could under all the circumstances.

Morris: I can see where one would with so many different orders

Harris: It s a pretty high standard for a young man.

Morris: Yes. Keeping an eye on you you d have them all as good examples.

Harris: That s right.

Morris: Let me turn over the tape.


Morris: You were talking about the possibility of going into the priesthood.

Harris: Well, like the Christian brothers gave me many reasons why I should
join the brothers. The [Jesuit] priests were not as rigorous in
their pursuit. They did not discuss it with me very formally, and
I told them the reasons why I thought I would not make a good priest.
I was very forthright with them. And I wouldn t have made a very
good priest, I don t think. Maybe I would have. As long as I had
teaching and as long as I had some intellectual challenges but to
be farmed out to some area and conduct the parish duties of a
catechism class or something like that wouldn t appeal to me. The
administration might, but I didn t feel I was equipped to pursue a
career of such high demands. I told the priests that I didn t feel
I had the material they were interested in.

Morris: How about in terms of your personal life?

Harris: What do you mean, my personal life?

Morris: Whether or not to remain celibate and have no married life

Harris: I don t think that had much to do with it, no. I think that whole

problem is badly handled. I can see no reason why a priest shouldn t
marry. (I hate to get into a lot of subjects that we [the court]
wouldn t be interested in.) I think some day in a more enlightened
era, some of these things will be clarified.

Morris: That s a very positive thought.

Harris: Maybe through papal distinctions that I believe will be made by
our present pope. I think his attitudes are challenging. I m
satisfied that in his own acute way, he s going to resolve a lot
of the acute problems with a very deft hand.

Morris: Are you suggesting the possibility of different classes of priests?

Harris: Not necessarily. They have parish priests; they have those that

they send out in exhaustive trips to indoctrinate others. I don t
think there ll ever be a distinction fundamentally in priesthood.
I think there may be classifications that would somewhat denote the
capacity, but not to any degree of impingement of conditions or
classifications that are valid. You re getting into high ground

Morris: Oh, but fascinating. One of the questions I was interested in was
whether church law was a part of the law school training at St.
Ignatius when you got into law school?

Harris: Well, I think that I don t want to sound that I had characteristics
that were extraordinary, but I exhausted myself in trying to gain the
highest form of education I could. That went back to my Irish
grandmother, when she d sit with me at night and I d be writing
plays and so forth, she d listen to me, and she always said, "George,
you never have to carry the learning on your back." I kept that as
a thesis.

Morris: That s one of those cryptic Irish sayings that you can think about
for a long time. Was her meaning that if you had an education, you
wouldn t have to carry bricks on your back be a manual laborer?

Harris: I loved her dearly, this woman. I loved her beyond any possible

reason. The love was a devotion that was difficult to understand,


Morris :



Except that it was mutual.

Oh, sure, it was mutual. She took me when I was three or four
four, I guess, when my poor mother passed away. I looked upon
this Irish lady as she wasn t Irish in any sense of vaudeville
Irish or anything but classic. She read the classics, she was
well-educated, as most of the family were. They cherished
literature; books were a religion. And that background was
integrated in all the other forces that worked on my career.

How did your grandmother feel about your becoming a priest?
she think that was something you should do?


She never discussed it at the same length she did to the brothers.
She never discussed my going into the priesthood with any vigor. I
think she would have approved it as an honor on the family .

Jack Henning, who s my cousin, I regard as an intellectual.
He s held high office in the labor movement all throughout the world,
I think to a degree we have a parity of appreciation for literature
and other classics.

Morris: When did you and he become friends. Did you go to school together
at any point?

Harris: No, no. He went to St. Mary s, graduated with honor, and then I

think he taught for a while. Then he went into the labor movement,
and has written some of the classics of the labor movement. We re
very close personal friends.

Morris: When did you become close friends?

Harris: When we were both charged with the responsibility of representing
large forces and people. We often exchanged views.

Morris: So it was through your adult professional concerns that you really
came to know him?

Harris: Throughout my adult professional life I very often talked to Jack.

St. Ignatius Law School

Morris: Going back to law school: what subjects appealed to you most?

Harris: I would say the courses that appeal to me are those that are
integrated with the business aspects of the problems. The
abstractions in the law never intrigued me, but I sought from time
to time results that would be practical, legible and understandable
without the high philosophical


Morris: The law as a means of solving problems?

Harris: I looked upon it as an interesting instrumentality, to be used
sparingly at times. [laughter]

Morris : Is it your feeling that sometimes the law is invoked too much? Too
many people go to law, as it were?

Harris: I think so too. I don t think you have to be very deep into problems
to understand that.

Morris: St. Ignatius had not yet become the University of San Francisco.

Harris: That s correct.

Morris: But it was already a Jesuit institution.

Harris: Yes. I saw the transitional period. I became a member of the board
of governors in marking out the transitional period.*

Morris: You would have been instrumental then in discussions?

Harris: There s no question about that. But later on those officers preforce
get into the fundraising activities, and we had a pronouncement
from Washington that federal judges are not to interest themselves
in the raising of money for private enterprise.** So I was fore
closed from raising money, although I had in the past, in various
enterprises, raised considerable money for hospitals and the like.
I accepted the pronouncement and edict with grace as best I could.
But I don t believe in it.

Morris: Those pronouncements for what? The Judicial Conference? Who made
the pronouncement that federal judges would not ?

*Judge Harris was a trustee from 1971 through 1975.

**Presumably this is the American Bar Association Code of Conduct
for Judges adopted by the U.S. Judicial Conference in 1973. In
The Recorder for May 13, 1974, Paul Speegle wrote that a California
Conference of Judges committee was working on modifications for
this code. A mail poll indicated that judges were satisfied with the
code except for the areas of political contributions and charitable
activities; that the proposed prohibition of all political
contributions of charitable activity would prevent a judge from
attending a fundraising dinner. A redrafted canon was being considered
which would permit a judge to attend such a function and introduce
a guest speaker, but not to be the guest speaker.


Harris: It became legislation.

Morris: As part of political reform legislation?

Harris: I don t know what the thinking was, but I know that it was not too
well-received by the general

Morris: By the judiciary in general?

Harris: Generally. I needn t state the reasons.

Morris: How long was the law school curriculum while you were there? Was
that a three-year course?

Harris: No. Four years.

Morris: Was this all a law curriculum, or was it also some general education
too at St. Ignatius?

Harris: Oh, yes, general education and the formal accounting and other
subjects like that.

Morris: So the law curriculum was part of the general curriculum, or was
there a separate law school?

Harris: Separate law school. Their standards were pretty high. Their
teaching forces came out of the business world.

Morris: Was this your first acquaintance with teachers who were not priests?

Harris : Yes .

Morris : Did you find them a different kind of teacher?

Harris: No, I didn t find too much difference. Most of the men coming into
the fold as teachers were well-educated at different universities.
The standards were very high.

Morris: Did they teach part-time and also carry on law practices?
Harris: Not too much part-time, no.

Morris: Was this all at night school, or did you spend some of the time as
a day student?

Harris: I can t recall now. I may have; I don t remember.



Student Clerk and Bar Exams

Morris: The chronology we have has you starting to work as a law clerk for
Mr. McNab about 1924.

Harris: That s about right. Of course, that supplied me with the background
that I wouldn t have achieved had I been a graduate of any famous
law school, or any law school worthy of the name. McNab really
took me under his wing, and gave me the benefit of his years of
learning, particularly in the techniques of the law, which is
sometimes forgotten.

Morris: That was not stressed in your courses in law school?

Harris: No. Sometimes the techniques couldn t be printed too largely,

Morris: Would you care to cite an example?

Harris: No, I don t have any now. I ve left my poor mind at rest.

Morris: All right. Well, if you come across any that you d care to share

Harris: McNab was a very interesting personality. I ve written about him
in the past; I hope to write about him in the future. He started
his career in the Argonaut Hotel as a clerk. He studied behind
the desk as a clerk in a hotel.

Morris: Read the law books?

Harris: Read the law books. That was his teacher.

Morris: Had he gone to St. Ignatius too?


Harris: No, I don t think he ever went to school other than probably grammar
school and high school. Maybe grammar school. He was a genius
in tactics, particularly. I remember one morning he came into my
little office and it was a little office he said, "George, the
biggest case we ve ever had just broke. We re representing Charlie
Chaplin." Charles Chaplin.

Morris : Had he gone seeking that case? How had Charlie Chaplin found him?

Harris: In that time, we were representing a great percentage of the film
people. Los Angeles people would come up here for their

Morris: I noticed a number of Los Angeles film cases, and I wondered how
that came about. Why would the Los Angeles people come to San

Harris: I don t know, excepting that some of the larger firms joined others
in a fashion that would indicate that they were more impressed with
some of the lawyers here, individually. There were some individual
lawyers in San Francisco who met the highest of standards, particularly
in trial work. It was that distinction that I think they sought and
achieved. Not to single out any one or two, but just to take the
class as such.

Morris: How long had Mr. McNab been practicing as an attorney by the time
you became his clerk?

Harris: He was practicing going back I d say 1906 the earthquake and fire
some place a little bit before the earthquake and fire.

Morris: Before then?

Harris : Yes .

Morris: So he was a leading figure when you became his clerk.

Harris: That s right.

Morris: What did you do for Mr. McNab while you were a law student?

Harris: Oh, investigate law, write memoranda, conduct examination of

pleadings, approve pleadings, collate the evidence, take depositions.
That s about it. Interview clients that were of lesser proportions
than the boss wanted to take time with. Generally help. And as
you helped, of course, your importance became more acute and
sensitive; your capacity became more pronounced. Ordinary acceleration
of a person s career.


Harris: In my opinion, I suppose I m being a little bit doctrinaire about
it, but I think law training in an office of one year or maybe
two years is of inestimable help and benefit. Even longer, if
possible. They have worked out a formula that s helpful, wherein
the student goes right to the office everyday rather than to some
library, and rubs elbows with practicing lawyers. That s on a
working basis now; I think it will be accelerated in usefulness.

Morris: As a regular part of the law school program.

Harris: Yes, as a regular part of the program, because it s a hard world
for a youngster getting out, competing or attempting to compete
with the type of lawyer we have today beautifully trained men.
The lawyer today in my opinion is better trained than any in the
past. The demands on the young lawyer are so great, I think he
should be given an opportunity and he is now to work his way
through about two years and receive the credits for that.

Morris: It sounds as if you found your work in Mr. McNab s office helpful,
then, when you were in classes.

Harris: Oh, it really helped a lot. I was doing major work.

Morris: And did that mean that you got better grades in law school than
some of your classmates?

Harris: I don t know. I never checked it out, but I assumed that I was.

Morris: Did many of the people in law school at that time do as you did
and work as clerks?

Harris: There were quite a few. Quite a few.

Morris: Have many of those men who were in law school with you stayed active
in the legal profession in the Bay Area?

Harris: I think so.

Morris: Was Pat Brown at law school when you were?

Harris: Pat and I had not crossed roads. I knew him individually when he

first followed a career as a politician. I was out in the Richmond
area in San Francisco. He built very strong fences. Pat Brown is
a very intense politician and a very good one. Very, very
excellent man. I needn t point out his record, but it s a good one.

Morris: So you didn t know him even though he was growing up


Harris: No, I didn t know him too well until he came down to the Hall of
Justice he d just taken over the district attorney s position
[1944]. He came down to interview me with respect to his duties,
obligations, and what I thought of the office, and what I thought
would help the office of district attorney.

Morris: This is while you were still in private practice?

Harris: No, this is while I m on the bench.

Morris: Municipal court.

Harris: In municipal court. I grew to like Pat: I liked his forthrightness.

Morris: That s a very good strategy for getting started in a new job, to go
around and talk to the

Harris: That s right. Later on I sponsored him for membership in the
Bohemian Club. He s since been made a member.

Morris: How about the bar exam? When you finished law school, was passing
the bar exam a major ?

Harris: It will always be a major achievement and a major problem. Whether
it s the right way to pass judgment on a youngster, well- trained
disciplined men, is quite another problem. It s been scrutinized,
of course, by certain groups as unfair. But I think by and large
it s pretty well achieving fair results.

Morris: For you yourself, was it a major encounter, or did you feel pretty
confident when you took the bar exam?

Harris: I don t know. I know that in my early tenure as a young lawyer,
Stanford was having problems with the bar examination. I was
asked to go in and look into the matters. I came out with a
pronouncement or judgment that I thought it was a fair examination.
I think it was a private finding.

Morris: They asked you to come and take a look at it?

Harris: It wasn t a formalized thing. I thought it was fair. Then they
have an oral examination which was a dreadful experience.

Morris: What happens in that?

Harris: Well, that s a kind of my first experience with an oral examination
was I appeared in an office downtown, and the lawyer was sitting
behind the desk asking questions that you might ask, but I think
without the courtesy that you extend.





Harris :


Harris :
Harris :

Harris :

Morris :
Harris :


Thank you.

He had some tough questions. I thought I d blown the examination,
but I managed to survive. The oral examination, you see, is a
difficult one, even if you re well-prepared.

This is one student and one attorney?

No, then they had one attorney and several students. Then they
broke it down to one student. It was a fair examination, but tough.
I think they still have it the examination.

This is to get an idea of how you might function then in presenting
a case before a judge?

Some people freeze in an examination like that absolutely freeze
and are little help to themselves. Some of our finest lawyers
have not had the benefit of a loquacious or outgoing type of

Am I correct that moot court is a part of everybody s law school


Is that designed to give you some stand-up practice?

Yes. It helps. Would you like to take five minutes?


[brief tape

The oral examination sometimes afforded an opportunity to the staff
of the university to I d better not pursue this. I d better not
pursue this. It gets into a great deal of practice and so forth.

The oral exam is not part of the official state bar exam? Is that
what you re saying?

I m not familiar with the standards that the oral examination
presently occupies. That s the reason I m reluctant to discuss it.
[tape interruption for coffee and pastry]

I was wondering, when you were in law school, what were the particular
issues, what was going on in the community and the state, that law
students were involved in. Did you have time for current events?

I couldn t without notes remember the issues that might have been
involved. I think I d be drawing too largely upon my memory. I
don t think I have a valid answer to that .


Morris: How about things like the 1923 waterfront and general strike? That
would have been probably early in your law school career. I was
wondering if your grandfather was still in the teaming business
at that point and if it affected his business?

Harris: No, I don t think I could answer that, whether it affected his

business or not. I don t know when he terminated the business. I
know he sold his interest when the pressures became too great, and
he was not getting any younger.

Morris: Then I can t ask you if that increased union strength.
Harris: How it affected my grandfather, of course, is remote.
Morris: Okay.

Harris: I remember the maritime strike in Seattle very distinctly. I went
up there, and I had a government agent with me, and I had been
studying on the Taft-Hartley measures very seriously. It was in my
court that the Taft-Hartley was first invoked in a labor dispute.*
That, of course, is a landmark decision.

Morris: Indeed. I need to read a little bit more about that, and then I ll
send you my notes, and I d like your comments on that.

Harris: All right. Send me the notes after a session any time.

Recollections of Gavin McNab and Nat Schmulowitz

Morris: Okay, let s go back to Mr. McNab. He sounds like a fascinating
person. Could you describe him for me?

Harris: Yes. I have some photographs of him in my office. He was a large

man, large proportions, and not too prepossessing in appearance and

dress. He was cordial to a fault a man of great cordiality and

political attainment. Out of hand he practically ran the mayor s
office, dictating policy from time to time. He was a man of intense
power and held the power lightly.

Morris: Held the power lightly is a nice phrase.

*U.S. v. International Longshoremen s and Warehousemen s^ Union, 78 F.
Supp. 710 (July 1948). The Taft-Hartley Act had been passed in
July, 1947.


Morris :

Harris: By that I mean he wasn t an oppressive boss type that you see in the
literature of the courts. He was a benign cut benign. He was a
very lovely man with an intense charity, helped many people on
their way, helped many a young lawyer, and was one of the real
principal forces in the evolution of our legal process in the West,
I think. Not that he was a great student, but he was a great

"Evolution of legal process?"

When he associated, he had a capacity for gauging the standards of
a man by conversation; and he selected from time to time honor men
from different universities to work with him. Not to the degree
that we have the selection process now, but, for instance, his top
trial lawyer, was Nat Schmulowitz [spells it]. He was a gifted
lawyer and was really McNab s right hand man.

Morris : And where had he come from?

Harris: California. University of California.

Morris: Berkeley. Would he have just one of these young men at a time,
or two or three?

Harris: Not many. Then Nat Schmulowitz asked him for my cooperation. The
business got heavy, and I helped Nat in preparing for trial and
actually tring some of the minor cases, until we were able to get
other hlep in.

There was an elderly man by the name of Bronte Aikins superb
lawyer. [spells name] Bronte Aikins.

Morris: That s a very unusual name. He was the older member of the firm?
Harris: He was the older, yes.

Morris: Had he encouraged Mr. McNab when he was getting started in the law,
Mr. Aikins?

Harris: I think so. It was the usual evolution of a law office. But the

practice was a big one and a demanding one. McNab was a genius in
extraordinary writs ; the employment of an extraordinary writ
received very fine attention in his hands. That s why I referred
to him as a tactician.

Morris: Extraordinary writs?

Harris: There are four or five: petitions of prohibition and so forth.
There are four or five extraordinary writs that receive special


Harris: I worked late at night in the office, and very often McNab would
come in after dinner and we d take a walk. He told me about the
early days in San Francisco politics, the part he took in it, what
should be done to make it a successful city and so forth.

Morris : What were his particular ideas at that point?

Harris: I haven t any independent recollection of what he had to say in
the circumstances. There s been too much water under the bridge.

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Online LibraryGeorge Bernard HarrisMemories of San Francisco legal practice and State and Federal courts, 1920s - 1960s : oral history transcript / and related material, 1980-1981 → online text (page 4 of 18)