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For the first 14 years of its existence, the California Supreme Court Historical Society pinched pennies while begging for donations that would let it continue putting on educational programs and publishing the occasional book on judicial history. No longer. Thanks to its inclusion on last year’s State Bar fee form as a recipient of voluntary donations, the society, if not rich, is rolling in dough in a way never imagined. And its 40-member board of directors is beginning to dole out funds for projects aimed at preserving California’s rich legal history. About 9,000 lawyers checked off the voluntary donation and handed over various amounts of money that added up to about $200,000. “That quadruples our budget,” says Donna Schuele, the part-time, paid executive director of the Woodland Hills-based society. “At best, we were operating on about a $50,000-a-year budget, which didn’t allow us to do very much at all.” The society, according to one of its own brochures, was founded in 1989 as a nonprofit corporation “dedicated to recovering, preserving and promoting California’s legal and judicial history, with a particular emphasis on the state’s highest court.” It has relied on the generosity of individual lawyers and law firms over the years, but only had enough money available at any given time to push projects along at an often-glacial pace. “The focus had to be on the next year’s operations budget,” says California Supreme Court Clerk/Administrator Frederick “Fritz” Ohlrich. “It was always looking at, ‘How are we going to raise money?’” The organization still managed to fund some worthwhile projects, including a book on the jurisprudence of former Chief Justice Roger Traynor, a yearbook filled with individual manuscripts on California’s judicial history, and a book with the pictures and short history of all 58 county courthouses. It is currently funding a 150-year history of the state Supreme Court that’s being compiled by Boalt Hall School of Law Professor Harry Scheiber. Still, it has been slow going. The credit for approaching the State Bar about being placed on its fee statement goes to board member Elwood Lui, a former justice on Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal. He successfully lobbied the Bar last year. “Before the check-off, it was up to a few to cajole and persuade the large law firms and a few appellate lawyers and firms to fund [the society] exclusively, which I never felt was a good thing,” says Lui, a partner in the L.A. office of Jones Day. “Without funding,” he says, “we could not have had the resources to pay scholars to invest time to research and write about our state justice system and the court. If not, a significant part of our state’s history and culture would be lost.” The new funding via the State Bar fee bill has let the society get more ambitious and move projects along faster. “It’s as if life has been breathed into it,” says Jake Dear, a member of the society’s board of directors and a senior staff attorney for Chief Justice Ronald George. “The hope,” he says, “is [that donations] will continue, and it wasn’t a one-time thing.” Schuele says that the $200,000 donated this year has been earmarked, in part, for the continuation of three projects — archiving former state Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk’s papers at the San Francisco-based California Judicial Center Library, conducting an oral history with ex-state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library Regional Oral History Office, and expanding the public tour of the Supreme Court’s headquarters in San Francisco. “These projects had been funded previously by public funds, taxpayer dollars,” Schuele says, before the budget crunch. “Without our donations through the fee statements, these projects would have ground to a halt.” Frances Jones, director of library services for the California Judicial Center Library, says the $25,000 the society granted for the Mosk archiving is, indeed, welcome. “The objectives are to have staff and consultant time to complete the databases that describe the correspondence, speeches and publications that we have in the archives,” she says. “And to attach those databases to the library’s Web site by June of 2004.” Currently, the library houses 160 boxes of Mosk’s papers, including even his notes for the state’s Bar examination. The library also has Mosk’s old desk, complete with his green leather chair, electric typewriter and a “Thank You For Not Smoking” placard that sat on his desk long before the smoke-free environment of today’s courts. The library also houses legal sage Bernie Witkin’s battered desk, complete with his manual typewriter, thick black eyeglasses, court jester hat and original business cards with the 415 area code marked over and 510 penciled in. Society President Kent Richland, a partner in L.A.’s Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, says lawyers and judges should appreciate the society’s mission of preserving the state’s legal and judicial history. “Knowing the history,” he says, “gives you a perspective that lets you make judgments about the present.” He also points to some of the colorful events of the high court’s past. For example, he says, there was former Chief Justice David Terry, who killed a U.S. senator in a San Francisco duel in 1859, then was shot to death himself by the bodyguard of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field in 1889. “He was someone out of the Old West,” Richland notes. “When he would sit on the bench, he’d take out his pistol and put it on the bench during oral arguments.” Things are far more civil in modern times, he says, but the legal history is still exciting. “People don’t remember,” he says, “that Chief Justice Donald Wright, appointed by Gov. Reagan, wrote an opinion in the 1970s calling the death penalty unconstitutional — an absolutely ground-breaking, earth-shattering opinion.” It was later overturned by initiative. These are things that Richland and other society members would like lawyers and others to know, and the donations through the State Bar fee statement are a good start. “One of the things the dues check-off brought was not just money, but awareness that such a program exists,” Dear says. “Now we have thousands of people who have evidenced an interest in it.” Those who donated this year got more than they bargained for: They’re now associate members of the society, entitling them to an electronic copy of the group’s bi-annual newsletter as well as invitations to certain society events. There are high hopes that more lawyers will join next year. “A good understanding of the history of the court,” Dear says, “adds to the richness of the law today.”

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