A Title Lost: California’s Legislative Historian

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Most job titles in California State Government are formulaic series of words that, while useful in understanding the duties of the position, are so wickedly unimaginative that you have to wonder if they were created by a committee.

Yes, in fact, they were.

But sometimes, very rarely and usually only in the distant past, the state has come up with a job title that rocks. Many of these have been too awesome to last, and have eventually been lost to time. From the Guardian of Yosemite (first appointed 1866 and renamed around 1900), to the once-powerful Railroad Commissioners (created in 1879 and renamed in 1946) and of course the Disaster Acting Governors, the California government has occasionally outdone itself.

Don A. Allen, California's Legislative Historian

Don A. Allen

As someone who has spent years studying the legislature and history of state laws, there are few titles more awesome that the one given only once, in 1966. That June, the California Legislature passed a concurrent resolution bestowing the title of Legislative Historian on outgoing Assemblyman Don A. Allen Sr. So what had Allen done to earn this completely awesome title? It’s a great story.

Allen was born in 1907 in a 5,000-person town in western Iowa, leaving as a teenager after joining the Marines. He served in the Haitian Campaign and the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, where Allen (a Democrat) served in the same unit as his friend and future Assembly colleague Charles Edward Chapel (a Republican).

Allen was elected to the Assembly in 1938 and served from 1939 until he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1947. In 1940, while serving as a member of the Fact Finding Committee on Government Efficiency and Economy, Allen began “a comprehensive study of the history of the Legislature” that would last more than 20 years.

He served on the Council for a decade (1947-1956), in what he later called “my temporary departure from the Legislature.” In June 1956, Los Angeles voters returned Allen to the legislature in a special election resulting from the resignation of Delbert Morris after his conviction for illegally selling state liquor licenses [See: Howard Cramer: Forgotten Legislative Hero].

Having won the special election (they happen when they happen) but having a little more work to finish before leaving the Council, Allen declined to be sworn into office for three months after the election (the longest delay in assuming office in state history). Allen was reelected in the November election and got back to work when the new session started.

It’s interesting (and probably instructive for new 12-year legislators) that in his 18 years as a legislator, Allen is best remembered for the mastery he demonstrated in his last two terms. What defined Allen most as a legislator (as frequently happened in the age before term limits) was his dedication to a single policy area; legislative history.

As a member (and eventually Chair) of the Assembly Committee on Elections and Reapportionment, Allen was able to use his years of collecting and studying old redistricting maps and the history of the Legislature. As the case Reynolds v. Sims (relating to state legislative districts) began to gain attention, Allen wrote a series of memos to his Assembly colleagues describing prior redistricting disputes and how the membership of the Legislature had been impacted.

In June 1964, the Warren Court ruled that legislative districts had to be equal in size, and the California Legislature was required to immediately redistrict the State Senate to meet the “one man, one vote” standard. The deadline for the new districts was July 1, 1965.

Allen switched into high gear, compiling data and statistics from two decades of research into a single volume. The resulting book, the Legislative Sourcebook was a reference that has never since been equaled by a legislative publication. How can you possibly not love a book that has 200 pages of narrative and charts followed by an additional 287 pages of appendices?

In early 1965, the Legislature passed a resolution recognizing the Sourcebook as “a work of major historical significance” and authorizing the printing of 10,000 copies, to be distributed for $3 each.

The Legislature met the court-imposed deadline, stripping the rural counties of their dominance of the Senate and transforming the upper house into the body we know it as today. In June 1965, shortly after the court-imposed deadline, the Legislature approved ACR 63, creating the position of Legislative Historian and conferring it (for life) on Allen.

Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 63
Relative to position of Legislative Historian

[Filed with Secretary of State June 21, 1966]

WHEREAS, Don A. Allen, Sr., has labored in the vineyards of California history, especially history pertaining to the California beginning in 1941; and
WHEREAS, He has haunted the archives since being first introduced to them by the former Archivist, Bart Greer; and
WHEREAS, Down through the years Don A. Allen, Sr., has furnished at his own expense memeographed memoranda which have proven to be of extreme value, both educational and instructive, to all members of both houses; and
WHEREAS, He was persuaded to include much of this material in the Legislative Source Book, which has been published and is acknowledged by many scholars as the greatest biblography to have ever been contained in a document of this kind; and
WHEREAS, Don A. Allen, Sr., has waived all rights, royalties or copyrights and has made this a labor of love to the State of California; and
WHEREAS, The Members of the Legislature are deeply grateful to Don A. Allen, Sr., for his outstanding contributions and selfless service to the Legislature and to the people of the entire State of California; now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, the Senate thereof concurring, That the position of Legislative Historian is hereby created, to be held without compensation or state expense, and is hereby conferred upon Don A. Allen, Sr., for so long as he shall live.

Allen held the title for slightly more than 18 years, during which time he continued his dedication by founding the Association of Former California Legislators. Allen, California’s only official Legislative Historian, died in Sacramento in 1983.

 

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