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Group aims to preserve legal, judicial history

By KRISTINA HORTON FLAHERTY
Staff Writer

On a warm day four years ago, a group representing the California Supreme Court Histori-cal Society (CSCHS) descended into a dimly lit residential basement to comb through a collection of old, dusty cartons and trunks.

What the group found were, in one appraiser's words, "lots of nuggets for scholars." More than 100 documents, including letters describing the 1884 Democratic National Con-vention, and 112 law books that belonged to California's 14th chief justice, Niles Searls, were uncovered in the Nevada City basement that day.

The find marked a step forward in the society's aim to recover, preserve and promote California's judicial and legal history, with a particular emphasis on the state's highest court.

But supporters say that a meager budget and unstable funding have long hampered the little-known society in fulfilling its mission. So, for the first time, California attorneys will have the option this fall of contributing to the society through a new line item on their annual fee statement. The recommended donation is $25.

"Contributing to the society will help ensure that the history of the world's largest court system in the state with the country's largest bar won't be lost to future generations," says CSCHS executive director Donna Schuele.

Last spring, at the society's urging, the State Bar's board authorized the addition of the line item. Society president Kent Richland pointed out that the nonprofit organization has lived a "hand-to-mouth existence" since its creation in 1989.

Elwood Lui
Elwood

Former appellate Justice Elwood Lui, the society's immediate past president, told board members that he generally opposes such check-off line items on the fee bill. But the historical society, he suggested, is "a rare exception" whose work deserves attorney support.

Society backers say that, before its creation, no organization was devoted solely to recovering and promoting the legal and judicial pieces of California history. "It's like a hole in our history," Lui said recently.

By appealing to California attorneys via the fee bill, society supporters hope to publicize the organization's existence, expand its support base to attorneys statewide and acquire enough funding to put it on more secure footing.

As Lui sees it, the society's goal for the future is to preserve as much history and as many artifacts and collections as possible and make them "available to our youth."

The historical society was launched in the late 1980s after a series of meetings that included, among others, Chief Justice Ronald George, Justice Stanley Mosk, then-State Bar executive director Herb Rosenthal and David Long, the bar's director of research at the time. At the time, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court already had active historical societies.

"It was ironic that the California Supreme Court, which has a rich and illustrious history, didn't have any equivalent organization which would preserve the history of the California Supreme Court and the California courts in general," recalls Long, now an attorney consultant. "There was no organization that was devoted to educating the public about this history."

Created as a membership organization, the society has since assisted the California Supreme Court Library in locating, processing and preserving the judicial papers and memorabilia of various former Supreme Court justices, including those acquired from the family of former Chief Justice Searls. And it has participated in conducting and publishing oral interviews of various justices and legal luminaries. Currently, it is assisting the Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office with additional oral interviews.

The society also has produced a variety of publications, including an annual scholarly law journal, newsletters and a pictorial history of California's county courthouses. Works in progress include a collaborative book-length treatment of the California Supreme Court's 150-year history written by nationally recognized scholars.

Other CSCHS efforts include educational programs for lawyers and receptions providing attorneys with the opportunity to meet informally with Supreme Court justices.

"With an increase in its financial resources and membership base, the society would be positioned to expand its program offerings to the bench and bar, better preserve California's judicial history, and develop more programs for the education of the general public," Schuele said.

Membership dues currently generate roughly $20,000 a year from some 350 individuals, mostly attorneys and judges, Schuele said. For several years, various major law firms have also donated annually anything from $8,000 to $25,000 total. A bequest from Bernard Witkin's estate adds another $6,000 to $20,000 a year, depending on that year's sales of a particular publication. That dramatic fluctuation in funding, Schuele says, has made it difficult for the society's 40-member governing board to carry out its mission from year to year.

In addition to the CSCHS appeal for contributions, this year's fee statement (to be mailed out this month) also continues to include line items recommending donations to the Conference of Delegates and the Foundation of the State Bar.

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