Another lawyer with serious mojo: Clara Foltz, Pioneer of the Public Defender

14 Oct 23

Jackie Ruffin, First woman lawyer in California championed the idea of public defenders (review of Woman Lawyer – The Trials of Clara Foltz by Barbara Babcock), 98 Women Lawyers Journal 38 (2013):

The life of Clara Foltz, 19th-century trailblazing lawyer, women’s rights activist and social reformer, has few equals for drama, achievement and sheer chutzpah. In Woman Lawyer, Professor Emerita Barbara Babcock, herself a trailblazer as the first woman appointed to the regular faculty at Stanford Law School, has written a richly detailed account of Foltz’s bold and remarkable life, replete with "firsts," including first female lawyer in California, first woman to serve in a statewide California office and first female deputy prosecutor.

Aspiring women lawyers in the 19th century routinely encountered many obstacles to realizing their dreams, including finding a law school that would admit them, gaining acceptance at the bar and attracting clients willing to take a risk on a "lady lawyer." Clara Foltz, born in 1849 in Indiana, had even more hurdles to overcome. She had just a few years of formal education. She eloped at 15 and she had five children. In 1874, the Foltz family moved west with Clara’s parents, ending up in California. When her husband deserted the family (although she later divorced him, she claimed ever after to be a widow), Foltz was in desperate need of a way to support her family.

Becoming a lawyer would not seem to be the most logical step for a woman in her position, but Foltz saw the law as a secure and lucrative profession, as well as a worthwhile challenge, and set her sights accordingly. She studied for and passed the bar examination, but as a woman, she was denied admission to the bar. Intense lobbying of the California Legislature, by Foltz, and colleagues Sarah Knox and Laura Gordon, resulted in passage of the landmark Woman Lawyer’s Bill, which enabled women to practice law. After being sworn in as California’s first woman lawyer, Foltz, who yearned for a formal legal education, sued the University of California in Foltz v. Hoge when its Hastings College of the Law refused to admit women. She won, and these two major victories, both before the age of 30, set the stage for her career – and life – as a reformer and trailblazer.

Lara Bazelon, What it Takes to Be a Trial Lawyer if You are not a Man by Lara Bazelon, The Atlantic, September 2018:

Today, Foltz is seen in feminist legal circles as a pioneering hero. As a lawyer, she was an advocate for the poor and disadvantaged, who formed the bulk of her client base, since few people would voluntarily agree to female representation. In court, the men who opposed Foltz routinely used her gender to discredit her. In her memoirs, she recalled a prosecutor who had told the jury to reject Foltz’s arguments on these simple grounds: "She is a woman, she cannot be expected to reason. God Almighty declared her limitations."

Kristina Horton Flaherty, A hundred years later, a trailblazer gets her due, California Bar Journal (June 2011):

Just before midnight on April 1, 1878, Clara Shortridge Foltz, a young mother of five, bolted through a horde of men into the California governor’s chambers. She could not accept the news that the unsigned Woman Lawyer’s Bill — legislation entitling women to practice law — was dead. But, as Foltz’s account goes, the governor listened to her appeal, then retrieved the bill from a discard pile and, just moments before the midnight deadline, signed it into law.

The historic moment was just one of many in Foltz’s once-celebrated career as the first woman lawyer on the Pacific Coast, California’s first female deputy district attorney and the founder of the public defender movement. She sued for entrance into California’s only law school, tried cases in court when women were not allowed to serve on juries and played a key role in winning women’s suffrage in California 100 years ago.
In the mid-1870s, Foltz studied law at her father’s law office in San Jose. And on Sept. 5, 1878, just months after the enactment of the Woman Lawyer’s Bill, she became the first woman admitted to the California bar.

Less than a year later, she and fellow suffragist Laura Gordon helped win inclusion of two unprecedented clauses in the California Constitution guaranteeing equal access to employment and education for women. And she filed, and eventually won, a lawsuit seeking entrance into Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

Foltz’s marriage ended early in her career. But as a divorced mother of five, she continued to practice law and to champion legal reforms and women’s rights. On the lecture circuit, she was dubbed the "Portia of the Pacific."
Foltz’s greatest achievement was her role in the nation’s public defender movement. 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.