Who the Heck is Clara Shortridge Foltz?

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
tin typeClara Shortridge Foltz
“She is a woman, she cannot be expected to reason; God Almighty decreed her limitations..."—San Francisco prosecuting attorney

Who hasn’t received that notice in the mail—the one that commands you to report for jury duty at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center? As you moan and groan and prepare to wait a very long time for an elevator, do you ever stop and ask yourself, who was Clara Shortridge Foltz and why is this building named after her?

Now largely forgotten, Clara Shortridge Foltz was a woman of renown in her time, famed as a lawyer, lecturer, suffragette, and reformer. She was the first woman to practice law in California, the first woman admitted to Hastings College of Law, the first female deputy district attorney in the country, and the creator of the public defender system.

Born Carrie Shortridge in Indiana in 1849, Clara grew up in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Her father was a lawyer and a preacher. At the age of fifteen, she eloped with Jeremiah Foltz, a Union soldier ten years her elder. Clara and her growing family moved to Portland and then San Jose as Jeremiah struggled to find work. After her philandering husband left her with five children in San Jose, Foltz realized that she could not support her family by sewing, cleaning, and taking in borders. Determined to earn a decent living, she decided to become a lawyer, unaware “of the hardships to be encountered, the humiliation and the thousand torments to be suffered.”

With no law school in California at the time, the usual path to becoming a lawyer was to apprentice in a lawyer’s office and apply to a local court. It was not difficult to become a lawyer in the state; one only needed six months of residency in California, a high moral character, and to be a “white male citizen.” Foltz authored the Woman Lawyer’s Bill, replacing “any white male citizen” with “any citizen or person” and leaving intact the rest of the code. The bill narrowly passed in the senate and assembly but was in danger of dying on Governor William Irwin’s desk unless he signed it by midnight on the last day of the session. Clara forced her way into the governor’s office and, with “hat awry and hair disheveled,” convinced the governor to sign the bill into law.

Foltz completed her studies, passed her oral bar examination, and in 1878 became the first woman admitted to the California Bar. Though her practice was successful from the start, Foltz felt she could expand it and better serve her clients with the formal education offered by the newly created Hastings College of Law, the first law school in the West. Even though there were no admission requirements, Foltz and Laura Gordon were denied admission. Judge Hastings told the two women that their presence, “particularly their rustling skirts, was bothering other scholars.” Foltz and Gordon sued and won admission to Hastings College of Law, though both had moved on by the time their case was decided.

Representing indigents made Foltz aware of the inequities in the justice system. Arguing that the right to a presumption of innocence was impossible without competent legal advice, Foltz advocated for the establishment of the public defender system. Her model statute for the concept was introduced in 32 states. The first public defender office opened in Los Angeles in 1913.

The Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, as seen from Temple Street on March 27, 1972.

The Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building, later renamed Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, as seen from Temple Street on March 27, 1972. A glimpse of City Hall is seen on the left. L. Mildred Harris Slide Collection

With Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in attendance, the Criminal Courts Building was officially renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center on February 8, 2002. The nondescript (some might call it ugly) concrete, steel, and glass building that bears her name has been the site of some of Los Angeles’ most infamous trials, including the O.J. Simpson, Night Stalker, “Twilight Zone,” McMartin Pre-School, and Heidi Fleiss trials.

A great resource for information on Clara and other remarkable women from our city’s past is the California File, also known as the California Index. The California File indexes information about people, places, and events that have had a significant impact on life in Southern California. Most of the newspapers, magazines, and books cited can be found in the Central Library.