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 8 of 18)
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gracious he was inclined to be gracious about all matters. He said
the court was a challenging court, and I would grace it with favor
and he was perfectly happy in making the appointment. That s in
substance what he said.

Morris: Were there other likely candidates for that appointment?


Harris: Oh, yes. Quite a few. It was and is a highly-sought office. It
has so many springboards.

Morris: You were quite young to go on the bench at that point, weren t you?

Harris: No, not necessarily. I was younger.

Morris: Younger than the other candidates?

Harris: No, I was younger than I am now.

Morris: Yes, I was too. [laughs] That s a very judicious response. So that,
presumably, there were people who were talking to the governor about
each of the potential candidates?

Harris: I don t know, really. I know that you had to talk about yourself

before you get an appointment; it s the very nature of things. Very
often campaigns are weighted by your friends.

Morris: That sounds like a kind of delicate, indirect activity, to develop
the idea of one particular person as a candidate.

Harris: It wasn t as delicate as you might imagine.

Morris: In the federal level, I understand that judicial appointment requires
the support of the Senator from the state. In a local court, does
that require the ?

Harris: The waging of wars over appointments is not uncommon. Judicial
appointments are difficult to attain. A man s career is studied
from the time he enters political life until he s retired. One has
to fully expect the most searching exqmination made of a man s
record before launching on an appointment. I think the appointing
powers in California have very largely lived up to the expectations
of the people in the type of men that they get on the bench today.

Morris: Is the searching examination something that involves the candidate

Harris: Oh, I suppose so. Directly and indirectly.

Morris: Does a representative of the governor s office come and talk to you
about the possibility of an appointment?

Harris: I have no recollection. I m sure that they did.
Morris: Would Olson s son have been carrying on that function?
Harris: Olson s son? Olson s son was a headache to his father.


Morris :
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Now, that s withdrawn. I think Olson s son is dead.

I believe he is, and I have

Olson s son is not relevant to my conversation, because he is dead,
and I think it would be an unfair inclusion to include him.

Do you recall who your rivals were for that appointment?

Edward Preston Murphy.

This is for the municipal court.

Every lawyer is a potential candidate.

It sounds as if you had some good friends arguing in your behalf.

Hopefully I did, yes. I hate to think that I received political
appointment because I was unfriendly.

Would Mr. Malone have taken an interest in your appointment?

I think Malone took a general interest in my appointment. To speak
in the vernacular, he s always been in my corner. He s a very
worthy scholar of the American scene.

How long, roughly, would it be from the time that you first expressed
the interest in appointment till

I have no means of remembering that.

I understand that Justice Gibson did the actual swearing in, when
you took your seat.

Phil Gibson swore me into office.

That s kind of unusual, for a chief justice of the supreme court to
swear in a municipal court judge, am I right?

Gibson had a long record of successful trial work, a long record of
political life in Los Angeles. He was a successful lawyer, a
successful businessman, practical.

From your own trial experience, did you share his interest in improved
court procedures?

Harris: Yes. We ve covered a lot of ground.


Morris: Yes, we have.

Harris: Why don t we take a recess until the next calling of the calendar?

Morris: Thank you for giving me so much time this morning.

World War II and Port Security^
[Interview 5: May 30, 1980]

Morris: We had just started to talk about municipal court last week, and I
wanted to ask you about a reference to your patrolling for the
Coast Guard in the early days of World War II.

Harris: I felt and many of the judges felt the same as I did that, in so
far as we were able, consistent with our judicial duties, that we
should participate in a more active degree in and with the armed
forces. A body of volunteers had grown up, composed of some of our
leaders in civic and public life, to take over and command the port
security. The forces at the port security were unusually capable
individuals, who occupied very responsible positions in civic life,
and in public life.

The duties of the port security officers, as well as the
enlisted men, were quite demanding, particularly in the official
role. They performed the functions that ordinarily would have to
be performed by Coast Guard.

Morris: Was this actually being on the patrol boats?

Harris: Yes. They were armed with side arms and other accoutrements. They
were catered to by caterers for their meals. Out of it grew a
very responsible group of men, whose duties were not curtailed or
modified by petty differences or material matters that were not

Morris: Do I understand that Jack Shelley was ?

Harris: Jack Shelley was one of the officers. He had done considerable work
with Coast Guard, before the events of the war, in a volunteer
fashion. I think he reached the rank of captain. Shelley was a
very unusual man. We grew up together and in political life. He
came out of the ranks of bakery wagon drivers and occupied a very
coveted role in our political system.

Morris: Was this when he was serving the state legislature that he was
doing this?


Harris: I think so.* I think his attention was directed more vigorously in
that direction. He was quite fired by the fact that we were very
vulnerable in the port, and we didn t have the manpower to really
combat the influences.

You may recall or it may be too distant to recall that
submarines were seen in the Bay. The citizens became very alarmed.
It was said in the press that the Japanese had sent a command of
submarines to take over San Francisco. The press had quite vivid
stories on the subject.

Morris: Would you have had any contact with Earl Warren, who was then

attorney general and quite concerned about the whole matter of civil

Harris: I couldn t say; but I m quite sure that, knowing Earl as I do,

he would address himself to their problems. He was very active in
any cause that meant public safety and alerted himself immediately
in a fashion that was commendable.

Morris: I have a vision of you and Jack Shelley at the bridge of a Coast

Guard cutter in the dark of night. Is that the sort of thing that

Harris: The yachtsmen became very active.

Morris: Was this the beginning of your interest in yachting?

Harris: In yachting? No. I m not a yachtsman; I m sort of a self-anointed
one.** There are some very funny stories that grew out of the whole
thing .

Morris: I wouldn t mind hearing a funny story.
Harris: We ll probably catch it as we go along.

Morris: Did this grow into the Coast Guard auxiliary that still exists and
is active in San Francisco Bay boating?

Harris: I remember that the gentleman who took over the problems and responsi
bilities of the cooking and serving the midnight meal to the volunteers
was the owner of a restaurant on Polk Street, one of the last French
restaurants in San Francisco. They served excellent meals, of course.

*Shelley was a state senator from 1931-1945.

**See Appendix for Judge Harris s poem "Harbor Lights.


Harris: We were trained in the vise of firearms and, all in all, it was a
group that was not only responsive to responsibilities, but
enjoyed the comradeship a little group grew up within a group.
They looked upon what they were doing with some degree of
satisfaction. Not the fulfillment of their dreams about being in
the Coast Guard, but some degree of fulfillment.

Morris: It sounds as if you did have an urge to be in active military

Harris: Yes, that s true. I tried to get into the Marine Corps. Before
that, I tried naval intelligence. I d done some work with naval
intelligence before the war. That reached a point where I was quite
active, and I was quite happy over there. Then the security forces
demanded more personnel and, what with one thing and another, I lost
out on it. I tried to get into the Marine Corps, and I met with
very little success due to the age bracket.

Morris: By then you were also a sitting judge.

Harris: Yes.

Morris: That would have possibly posed some problems.

Harris: You re right; there was a conflict, and it worked to my disadvantage.
I had so many friends that left me and were either overseas or
someplace. I felt a degree of lonesomeness , I guess.

Morris: I have heard that from other people who had similar responsibilities
that they weren t able to leave.

Harris: I had quite a few friends in it. The urge to help became very vivid
and very potent. We were all in pretty good shape, former athletes
or something, and it was some degree of mild satisfaction, of service
to the government.

Morris: To be able to find a useful chore.

Harris: It afforded an opportunity. The night shift was a very difficult
one, because you re on duty all night long. That meant going up
and down the hulls and going down into the hold of the vessel,
checking every known movable part and checking out possession of
firearms, bombs, explosives. Fortunately, there were no serious
injuries, although there were some bad falls and things of that kind.

Morris: Did you patrol naval vessels, or just the regular merchant shipping?

Harris: We patrolled every conceivable type of vessel that the Coast Guard
would be obliged to process. We supplemented their efforts, under
their command.


Morris: Were there any instances when judges did go into active service?
Harris: Yes, but the activity was a limited one.

Morris: In many kinds of work, the jobs were held for people who went on
active duty. Would the judge have gotten his job back, as it were,
on the bench?

Harris: Yes, that s right, the jobs were returned. There were several
decisions in the appellate courts on that, where the reference
was made to the fact that it was a voluntary and meaningful
separation of the military from the judicial. However, I think
the appellate courts upheld the theory of the trial judge that
there was no conflict that would work to the disadvantage of anyone
and dismissed the suits.

Morris: But there were cases where people who were appointed temporarily
during wartime attempted to retain those positions?

Harris: Yes. There were two cases two or three. I think one case was

John J. McMahon [spells name] versus somebody or other. I think he
prevailed. He was an assistant United States attorney; then he
became a municipal judge, served quite capably, was a good trial

Women Attorneys

Morris: We talked a little bit about your appointment to the municipal

court, which was July, 1941. In the book of congratulations and
ceremonies about your installation as municipal court judge, there
were two women who were among the honored guests. I wondered if
you remembered Naomi Hammond and Mathilde Lacau?

Harris: Both of them I remember. Naomi Hammond was a very active, very
able young woman.

Morris: Was she an attorney?

Harris: She occupied public office I think U.S. Attorney s office, or city
attorney. A very capable girl.

The other lady I can remember not as vividly as I do the
Hammond lady.

Morris: Mathilde Lacau was president at the time of the Queen s Bench.




Oh, that s right. Now I know. Those were the days when there
were little groups that grew up not uncommon now, but more
actively then grew up in semi-political life. They were seeking
office in one form or another, and they used the instrumentalities
available: joining clubs, fraternities, to bring themselves to
the attention of the appointing powers.

Queen s Bench is that similar to the Bar Association?
organization of women attorneys?


Harris: No, it s an integrated part of the bar.

Morris: Were there many women practicing law or in the legal profession?

Harris: Oh, yes, quite a few. The records of the State Bar would reflect
that answer.

Harris: There were a number of good women jurists.

Morris: Would the women attorneys tend to be assistants to a man on a case?

Harris: Not necessarily. They held their own offices, sometimes as law

clerks, sometimes trial attorney. As I say, I think the women in
San Francisco and California have been outstanding in their
fulfillment of all the obligations cast on them. Some of them are
more than outstanding. You couldn t single them out. I think the
demands are beginning to be felt for their survival. Not in any
dramatic sense; but the compelling reasons were, of course,
competition between the women, competition with outside forces,
competition to take their jobs that they earned probably during the
war years.

Morris: Your sense was that there were more women in

Harris: Yes. There s no sinecure with respect to public office and change
of administration, very often change of personalities [has
meant] fighting the destinies of the women, recognition on the part
of the women that some of their foreign neighbors were able to
articulate just as well as some of our local people on their rights
and their compelling reasons .

Morris: You spoke of there being wars and searching examinations for
appointments to the municipal bench.

Harris: That s true.

Morris: Were there any women at a level of visibility where they were
considered for municipal court appointments?


Harris: Oh, yes. The consideration grew to a point where it became quite
a contest different groups had their candidates and the office
became more coveted as time wore on. The graduation from a justice
court to a municipal court was not a great I withdraw that.

Morris: You re saying that many of the municipal court judges came from the
justice courts.

Harris: In the early I have to be accurate about this. In the early days
the justice court grew out of its swaddling clothes.

Morris: It grew out of its swaddling clothes and was kind of replaced, it
looked like.

Harris: Chief Justice Gibson, I mentioned already, had quite a significant
[influence] on the justice court that should be left for separate
study. I called Justice Gibson recently on the telephone. He
sounded quite well, quite vigorous. I talked to Vickie, his devoted
wife, secretary.

Morris: I understand that she s trained as an attorney also.

Harris: Yes. He always has a lot to say, and what he has to say is very
well said. So where are we now?

Fellow Municipal Judges

Morris: Let me ask you a bit about your recollections of some of the people
who served with you on the municipal court. The best list I could
find is from a 1946 Blue Book; by then, you re already on the
district court. I hope some of these people served with you on the
municipal court. Matthew Brady he d been district attorney, hadn t

Harris: Yes. He was one of the oldest district attorneys in service.

Morris: Did he replace you, by any chance, when you ?

Harris: No. He had different tenure, different background than mine.

Morris: I gather that there was some question that he might have been

district attorney long enough. I wondered if there was some idea

Harris: Well, there were little murmurings in the bars and social clubs that
he was in office long enough. But he was a very astute man,
politically. And he was beloved in certain


Morris: Was he?

Harris: Yes. He was quite a comedian on the bench, and he quizzed a United
States attorney and anyone he siezed upon. You couldn t become
vexed at or provoke Matt Brady.

Morris: Oh, that s interesting.

Harris: He was a master politician, and quite a decent person.

Morris: Was it possibly the interest of other people in running for the job
of county district attorney that had a bearing ?

Harris: Well, the district attorney so-called job was the rung next to the
judgeship, municipal court judgeship. One almost followed as the
day the night. There were some well- trained, well-disciplined men
in the office of the United States attorney, more political than
they are today.

Morris: Both in the U.S. attorney s office and the district attorney s

Harris: Yes. They are less political today than they were then. I think
that in the days that we re referring to, it was not uncommon to
have several candidates vigorously fighting for the role. See if
I can get this chair in a little better [stop for pillow]

Morris: We were talking about the young men in the district attorney s

Harris: He seemed a little more not officious a little more active in
seeking higher office.

Morris: So that many people in the district attorney s office saw it as a
step on the ladder in their careers.

Harris: Yes, and many of them prospered and reached very high office.
Morris: Do you remember something called the Atherton graft investigation? *

Harris: Yes, I remember the highlights, not the vivid details. Atherton

was a member of [pause] some investigatory body. The name of the
body has escaped my memory. He appeared at a luncheon attended by
this particular body, and laid before the membership a portrayal of
graft and other charges, unsupported at the time. He became a
national figure.

Morris: This was the early 1930s?
Harris: About then.

*San Francisco district attorney s year-long investigation of police
corruption in San Francisco, conducted by Edward N. Atherton. See
special section, San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 1937.


Morris: Concerning the city and county of San Francisco?

Harris: Mainly the city. It hit the press with a roar, and many of the
individuals cast in the role of potential defendants were very
apprehensive about the nature of the inquiries and the integrity
of Atherton himself.

Morris: Was there some question that the district attorney was reluctant to

Harris: Yes. There were some, though that s not unusual. Unless, of course,
it d be a flagrant refusal to serve under any conditions.

Morris: Why would a district attorney be reluctant to take action on ?

Harris: It s a matter of personal viewpoint, very often. Personal viewpoint
plays such an important role in the judicial process. One man
will think the indictment s well founded; another group will say
the indictment is not well founded. There you have conflict.

Morris: So that the district attorney and the U.S. attorney have a fair
amount of discretion as to what they will prosecute?

Harris: Yes, they do. Great discretion as to what they shall prosecute and
what they shall not prosecute. I think the widest discretion has
been unfolded in our local courts, where it appears that a prosecution
would be futile, unavailing, vexatious, or simply no good for the
public weal, the discretion is a wide one.

Morris: "No good" in the sense of he wouldn t be likely to win ?

Harris: It s a dead dog.

Morris: A jury would not

Harris: A jury would not be impressed with the evidence.

Morris: So that it was a matter of Mr. Brady deciding there was not enough
information there for action on what Mr. Atherton s investigation
had produced?

Harris: The Atherton investigation became a by-word. I want to be

absolutely fair: I cannot recall the nature of the charges hurled
at certain of our leaders.

Morris: Did it ever come to a court case?

Harris: I think it did, yes; I m not sure of the decision.


Morris: The thing that is puzzling is that the references that I had in
conversations like we re having were that it was a major event,
but I can t find reference to it in any of the standard California
contemporary histories. I wondered what happened to Mr. Atherton.
Did he disappear from the scene?

Harris: Yes, Atherton just folded and disappeared. It s true that now that
my attention is directed to it, it s true that his efforts may well
have been unavailing. It was never referred to in any other role,
except in that of an investigation conducted in an orderly way.

Morris: Would this have been a citizen s committee, good government kind of
inves tigation?

Harris: No, I don t think it was. I think at the outset it was Atherton
himself, quite alone. He was at a banquet, and at the banquet he
made these disclosures which were startling to many people. We
didn t have [Joseph] McCarthy in those days, so anything sounded
like an investigation.

Morris: Right. But is there a parallel there, that it was one man s
concern that something was wrong that touched this off?

Harris: That s right. Self-anointed guardian.

Morris: It might be worth a fast look in the newspaper files to see what I

Harris: I think you ll find appropriate references. I think the press
handled him very carefully for a long time.

Morris: Did it lead to any noticeable changes in municipal practice?
Harris: No.

Morris: Fascinating. Okay. I ve got the two other people on the municipal
court bench in San Francisco. There was a Leo Cunningham, and Frank

Harris: Leo Cunningham was quite a politician. Quite an actor Shakespearean
actor in his own right. He was trained under Brother Leo at St.
Mary s College. I worked in a lot of shows with Leo Cunningham. He
died too early.

Morris: I m sorry to hear that.
Harris: Yes. Nice person.
Morris : Frank Dunn?


Harris: Frank Dunn was one of the older men. He d been in the justice

court. He was a carryover. He did a good workmanlike job, nothing
startling, but enough to hold a job.

Morris: As one of the more senior judges, would he have been a mentor and
guided a new appointee like yourself?

Harris: Yes, very often.

Morris: On an organized kind of basis, or he just ?

Harris: No, just a personal basis. For instance, if you got into something
that was a little bit too difficult, you d send a call out: Come
and help me!

Morris: Good. Well, that is a wise person that knows when to go get some

Harris : Yes .

Morris: Would he come and sit in on the court with you?

Harris: No, after hours.

Morris: On procedural matters, or points of law?

Harris: Any judge worthy of the name I think would be responsive to the
complaints of his brethren.

Morris: I was wondering if when you go for advice if you re usually asking
for some insight on procedure, or if it s more often the case of
how you

Harris: I guess it s a personal viewpoint that grows up between men when
they seek to help one another.

Morris : Joseph Golden?

Harris: Joe Golden was the oldest man on the bench.

Morris: How old would he have been roughly when you went on?

Harris: Oh, as far back as I can remember, he campaigned and was never

Morris: Did he die in harness, or ?


Harris :


Just disappeared. I can t recall whether he died in office or what
happened to him. Disappearance, of course, was not an actual one;
but on the political scene, unless you continue your activity, you
very soon vaporize. Something happens to the name, something
happens to the game.

That s true. And some strange scene changes take place, too.
talked a little bit about John McMahon


Harris: Joe s mother campaigned for him. She was a very unusual lady. Joe
had bushy white hair. He was quite a personality on the bench.

Morris: Did he have some special skill or area that he was particularly
noted for?

Harris : No .

Morris: Does this develop on the municipal court, that

Harris: He developed his career in the lower courts, never gained any high

Morris: And was content with the work of the municipal court?

Harris : Right .

Morris: And Twain Michelsen? Do you recall him?

Harris: Yes. Twain Michelsen was a man of ability, although highly

Morris: In what way?

Harris: In his attitudes toward clients, attitude toward litigants, his
attitude generally. He had ability as a municipal judge; he got
his calendar out of the way very quickly and smartly. But he
was not the most desirable man to try a case before. He d take
over the whole trial of the case himself, and pretty soon he d
be trying your case for you. I got to know him pretty well and
very favorably. I got along with him quite well. But when I went
on, he was then one of the older men.

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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 8 of 18)