Home to several bar presidents and a governor

by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

Nearly 80 years ago, Long Beach was a beachside tourist haven with only a few lawyers in town. Los Angeles was the legal center of southern California, but as the population of Long Beach began to grow, an increasing number of attorneys hung out their shingles in the oceanside community.

As lawyers in the beach city found that their numbers were increasing, it seemed that the time had come to establish a professional organization.

Today, the Long Beach Bar Association (LBBA) can boast that it has produced one governor (George Deukmejian), and several supreme court justices (such as recently retired Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas) and State Bar presidents -- including Tom Stolpman in the coming year.

On Oct.10-13, the LBBA will host nearly 4,000 of the state's lawyers in town for the State Bar Annual meeting.

The first meeting of the LBBA was held in February 1917, with dues set at $2.50 a year. E.C. Denio was the bar's first president. By the second meeting, two important issues made it on the agenda: the formation of a committee to lobby for a local branch of the superior court and the establishment of an entertainment committee.

It took more than 10 years before the bar was successful in the first endeavor, but the entertainment committee swung into action almost immediately.

The bar's baseball team played against the Police Officer's Club in 1919, and local lawyers were recruited by an appeal to "share in the triumph of reason over force."

In later years, the 1950s, an entertainment coup took place when comedians Abbott & Costello performed their famed "Who's On First" routine at a monthly bar meeting.

Former bar president Ted Sten, reminiscing about the LBBA during its 75th anniversary, said that the comedians' fee was a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label each, which they proceeded to drink during the evening.

The year 1918 brought about the adoption of a minimum fee schedule, setting consultations at $2, partnerships or marital separations, $10, and pre-trial preparation for superior court litigation, $50.

The end of World War I and the discovery of oil in the area contributed to a sudden spurt of growth in the population, and many attorneys became experts in legal issues surrounding gas and oil exploration.

The resulting land boom lasted until 1929, with swamp land and beet fields subdivided into lots and sold to newcomers, many of whom hailed from Iowa. So many Iowans settled in Long Beach that it eventually became known as "Iowa by the Sea."

The 1920s also were remembered as the era of "crooked holes cases," which resulted in an increase in local litigation.

Crooked holes developed when an oil well was drilled downward and then angled over to a neighbor's well. In one of the first such cases, Joe Ball, a former LBBA and State Bar president, successfully argued that the deviated well constituted trespass. Ball is the oldest practicing member of the LBBA.

The 1930s saw an influx of sailors from peacetime Navy battleships, and by the time World War II was on the horizon, many lawyers joined the military and membership in the LBBA shrank dramatically.

The bar's rolls increased at the end of the war, along with Long Beach's population. It seems many soldiers and sailors from around the country liked what they saw in the oceanside community and decided to settle down, far away from the cold winter snowfalls and hot humid summers of the rest of the country.

Post World War II Long Beach saw the decline of the infamous "red car line" from downtown Los Angeles to the ocean and the advent of freeways. Today, a new "blue line" is back on track, connecting the newly redeveloped downtown Long Beach with Los Angeles.

In reminiscing about the LBBA's accomplishments for its diamond jubilee celebration, former bar presidents such as George Johnson (1968) talked about joining in the fight for the California Merit Plan for Judicial Selection. And Jack Grisham (1972) remembered when his administration spoke out against no fault insurance and its fight to keep judges from taking over voir dire.

During George Wise's term in 1970, substantial attention was devoted to issues such as support for legal aid, women in law, student unrest and the Vietnam War.

Ken Zommick (1981) said he was especially proud of the development of the "Law in a Free Society" program, designed to educate local high school students about the importance of the Bill of Rights and local laws in a democracy.

Today, the LBBA has nearly 700 members who provide pro bono services throughout the community and have worked in the domestic violence restraining order project, Law Day and student moot courts.

Arbitrating and mediating complaints, providing counseling for senior citizens and providing educational, professional and social programs for its members are just some of the bar's current activities.