July 16, 1849 – Birth of Clara Foltz – First Female Lawyer on the West Coast and Pioneer of Public Defender Practice

Clara Shortridge Foltz was born in Indiana on this day in history. In December 1864 at the age of 15, she eloped with Jeremiah Foltz, a Civil War veteran. They eventually had five children, but Jeremiah had trouble supporting them, and after around 12 years, he abandoned Clara and her five children.

She began studying law in the mid-1870s at her father’s law office in San Jose, California. The California Bar Journal notes she had to sue for entrance into what was then California’s only law school, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

She also supported herself by giving public lectures, starting in 1877, on suffrage. After much lobbying, according to the ABA Journal, she persuaded the California legislature to pass her “Woman Lawyer’s Bill,” which opened the profession to women in 1878. On September 5, 1878, she was admitted as the first female lawyer on the Pacific Coast, and began practicing.

She practiced law in San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and New York, and, at one point, founded and edited a daily newspaper in San Diego. She continued to push for women’s suffrage.

Stanford law professor Barbara Babcock, in a biography of Foltz, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz (Stanford University Press 2011), reported on the links between the suffrage movement and other struggles for civil rights and legal reform. A review of her book in the aforecited California Bar Journal describes obstacles Foltz and her fellow suffragists faced in their efforts to achieve equality in the vote; in equal access to education and employment; and in the right to serve on juries in California. Opponents argued, Babcock reports, that women voters would simply vote for the best-looking candidate and that women lawyers would seduce male juries into acquitting the guilty. They even warned that such activities would change women by “unsexing” them.

Foltz also became the first woman to serve as a legislative counsel, to prosecute a murder case, to hold statewide office (the State Normal School Board), to become a notary public and to serve as a deputy district attorney.

Clara Shortridge Foltz, via Wikipedia

Babcock avers that Foltz’s early experiences representing indigent clients and witnessing shysters, incompetent defense lawyers and prosecutorial misconduct led her to come up with the idea of a public defender to balance the public prosecutor.

In 1893, she presented her concept at the Congress of Jurisprudence and Law Reform at the Chicago World’s Fair as a California bar representative. She later drafted a model statute and campaigned for its introduction in numerous state legislatures. The first public defender office opened in Los Angeles in 1913 and the “Foltz Defender Bill” was adopted in 1921 in California.

Foltz died at the age of 85 of heart failure at her home in Los Angeles on September 2, 1934. At the insistence of its women students, Hastings College of the Law granted Foltz a posthumous degree of Doctor of Laws in 1991. In 2002, the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.

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