Lessons from an 1870s Law Book

When the State of California was new, laws passed by the Legislature and approved by the Governor were identified only by the order in which they had been chaptered. For example, the fifth law signed by the Governor in 1850 (Chapter 5, Statutes of 1850) created the office of State Treasurer.

The principal reason for using this system was that it was easy to set up ad provided a fairly orderly system; the statute numbers reset every year and made it easy to tell the order in which bills had been passed (also making it easy to determine which bill was passed later (and had precedence) when laws touched similar subjects.

The system worked well at first, but as the years of laws began to accumulate, it became increasingly difficult to keep track of related laws (which were frequently found in different books) and how they interacted. In 1870, the California Code Commission began a two-year project reviewing and sorting all of the laws passed in the previous two decades into four broad subject areas; Political (relating to elections and the operation of government), Penal (relating to crimes and punishment), Civil (relating to corporations and contracts between individuals), and Civil Procedure.

The Commission was led by Creed Haymond, a brilliant 34-year-old lawyer who had been the Southern Pacific Railroad’s primary attorney in California for a decade. By all accounts, Haymond dove into the work and made it his own, to the point that the other two members of the commission are almost unknown. After his death in 1893, the Sacramento Record Union said of Haymond; “His memory will not fade from the annals of the State, for his public services have made it imperishable. As a chief among those who gave to us a codified system of laws, his labor and genius will remain enshrined in that splendid work.”

Recently, I found a copy of The Codes and Statutes of the State of California (1876), one of the earliest books to include California’s laws after their reordering. In a democracy, looking at laws lets you into the mind of the people; it shows you the problems they faced and how they chose to solve them.

  • One of the boundaries for Amador County was the “road in front of Z. Kirkwood’s house…”
  • Firemen were exempted from military and jury duty service. (Pol. Code, sect 3337)
  • Vaccination: “The fees of the health officer for vaccinating such passengers shall be one dollar for each and every person so vaccinated; and all persons refusing to be vaccinated, or to pay fee therefor, shall be detained at quarantine on board said vessel until they are vaccinated and pay the fee therefor, and he is authorized to collect the said fee from the person or persons vaccinated.”
  • California’s leper inspectors were paid 70 cents per person inspected. (Pol. Code, sect 2955)
  • Election day, polls must be open from 1 hr after sunrise til sunset, except in SF, where they’re open sunrise to 6:30PM
  • California government offices were required to be open 10 AM – 4 PM (Pol. Code sect. 1030)
  • In 1890, California had 9 “Commissioners of the Yosemite Valley & Mariposa Big Tree Grove.” Remember, this was before Assemblyman Miguel Estudillo authored AB 248 (1905), which authorized the sale of Yosemite Valley (and all the headwaters of the Merced River) to the U.S. federal government for use as a National Park. What a deal that was.