Make a Federal Case While Drilling for Black Gold With a Press Photo of Judge Paul J. McCormick, 23 October 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As a couple of previous posts relating to former Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall and Los Angeles oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny here detailed, one of the major controversies of the Roaring Twenties was the “Teapot Dome Scandal,” which involved Fall assigning leases early in the decade of federal oil reserve lands in California (specifically, Elk Hills and Buena Vista in the San Joaquin Valley) to Doheny and the Teapot Dome in Wyoming to Harry Sinclair in exchange for $300,000 cash and government-issued Liberty Bonds from World War I from the latter and a no-interest “loan” of $100,000 from the former.

Strangely, while Fall was convicted in 1929 of receiving the bribe and Sinclair was found guilty the same year of jury tampering, Doheny was somehow acquitted in spring 1930, despite his trial including the same fundamental evidence as that presented at the former Interior secretary’s trial. Before those trials took place, however, an early court proceeding in the Teapot Dome matter specifically concerning Doheny’s role was held in Los Angeles before newly appointed federal district court Judge Paul J. McCormick.

McCormick’s entry in History of the Bench and Bar of Southern California, 1909.

The highlighted object from the Museum’s holdings for this post is a press photo, dated 23 October 1924, of the jurist, who experienced a rapid rise into jurisprudential prominence in Los Angeles. McCormick was born in New York City in 1879 to Daniel McCormick, who was born to Irish parents in Whitehaven, Cumbria England, about 40 miles west of William Workman’s hometown of Clifton, and Catherine Corcoran, who was also from Ireland. He had an older brother Aloysius.

Daniel took to the sea (Whitehaven being a coastal town) as a teen and migrated to the United States at 15, immediately serving as a sailor in the Union Army during the Civil War. At war’s end he headed west by wagon and was a miner in five western states and, after marrying Catherine, the couple moved around the country, with Aloysius born in Chicago in 1875 and Daniel born in the Big Apple where Daniel was a cigar maker.

Los Angeles Herald, 27 July 1910.

In 1887, the McCormicks settled in San Diego, but, after several years there, Daniel resumed his work in mining at Randsburg at the eastern edge of Kern County. Patrick and his brother went to Catholic and public schools in San Diego and then stints at Catholic schools in Salt Lake City and San Francisco. About the time that Doheny migrated from New Mexico to Los Angeles and, in 1892, opened the Los Angeles oil field, the McCormicks came to the Angel City and the brothers enrolled at Los Angeles High School, where Patrick graduated in the winter class of 1898.

With a strong interest in the law, as well as following in the footsteps of his brother, who earned his diploma from the high school three years earlier and was admitted to the bar in 1897, McCormick followed his matriculation by working as an assistant librarian at the Los Angeles County Law Library (a position his brother also held), while pursuing his legal studies, leading to his being admitted to the bar at age 21 in April 1900. For two years, he was in practice with Max Loewenthal and then embarked on his own.

Who’s Who on the Pacific Coast, 1913.

His solo work, however, was short-lived as, on 1 May 1905, he was appointed a deputy district attorney under John D. Fredericks and served in that position for five years. In July 1910, when Superior Court Judge William P. James was appointed by Governor James Gillette to a seat on the state appellate court, the 31-year old McCormick was selected to replace James. Two years later, the jurist began teaching at the University of Southern California law school, a position he held for a dozen years and he was a pro-tem judge on the state appeals court.

Not long after the death of President Warren G. Harding, in whose administration Fall served and during which period the Teapot Dome scandal began to boil, his successor Calvin Coolidge appointed McCormick to a judgeship for the federal district of Southern California in February 1924. Within a short time, in July, he was given a temporary appointment to the district court of appeals and it was noted that this position placed him, even if not permanently, though he occasionally served over nine years, within reach of the federal supreme court.

Los Angeles Times, 12 February 1924.

In 1929, newly elected President Herbert Hoover appointed McCormick to the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, popularly known as the Wickersham Commission, and which was charged with making recommendations to improve the enforcement of Prohibition, which was widely viewed as a dismal failure since it took effect in 1920. The commission issued reports in 1931, with just one of its eleven members calling for repeal of the 18th Amendment—that finally happened two years later, though McCormick soon supported the end of Prohibition.

Whatever potential he may have had for elevation to the highest court in the land, however, McCormick remained with the Southern District for 27 years, including as the chief judge from 1940, until his retirement in 1951. Notably, when he began his governmental legal career, the local and statewide political realms were tightly controlled by Republicans, but, by the time, he ended his long tenure, he was the sole remaining jurist of the ten in the district who was a member of G.O.P.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 26 February 1924.

One of the most important cases of McCormick’s career on the federal bench came with the famous school desegregation case of Mendez v. Westminster, in which Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez sought to end the segregation of their children and other Latino students from the public school in the Orange County town. In March 1946, the jurist ruled for the plaintiffs and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his decision. A little over a year later, Governor Earl Warren, later on the federal Supreme Court when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was made concerning school desegregation nationally, signed a law outlawing school segregation in California.

McCormick, whose wife Mary Redmond, of Irish descent and a native of Nova Scotia, Canada, was a graduate of the Los Angeles Normal School for teacher education (the couple had no children), was also very active in Roman Catholic Church organizations and activities in the Los Angeles diocese and, among Catholic attorneys, was almost as well known as Joseph Scott and Isidore Dockweiler. He was also a close friend of Mary Julia Workman, another widely known Catholic layperson and a great-niece of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.

Los Angeles Record, 21 October 1924.

Deeply involved with the Knights of Columbus, the local chapter of which he was a charter member and first financial secretary, and other organizations and vice-president of a charitable fund, McCormick was honored by Pope Pius XIII in 1953 as a Knight Commander of St. Gregory. When he died in 1960, he resided just outside Griffith Park in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles and his wife passed away two years later.

Not long after he was elevated to a federal judgeship, McCormick was assigned the case involving Doheny and the purported $100,000 bribe to Secretary Fall for the Buena Vista and Elk Hills leases. The proceedings began in October, which is why this press photo was created, and while federal prosecutors noted that Doheny’s namesake son, known as Ned (and who was killed by his personal assistant in February 1929 as the elder Doheny faced trial for his role in the scandal), withdrew that “loan” amount from a New York bank for his father to give to Fall at the end of November 1921.

Times, 21 October 1924.

Doheny’s formidable defense team, which was ensconced in the bowling alley of the defendant’s opulent mansion near the University of Southern California, countered by claiming that it was not Fall who worked on the leases provided to Doheny, but Secretary of the Navy Edward Denby and that it was the Navy that ordered secrecy surrounding this deal “as part of a war plan drafted by a secret naval council in 1921.”

Despite these arguments, Judge McCormick, after significant delays, issued a ruling in late May 1925, with the Pomona Progress Bulletin of the 28th reporting,

The famous Elk Hills naval oil reserves, leased to E.L. Doheny’s Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company, were ordered returned to the government today by Federal Judge Paul J. McCormick.

Judge McCormick held the Doheny companies had obtained the leases thru fraud and conspiracy, and were not lawfully entitled to develop the vast oil properties.

Doheny, a Catholic, gave heavily to the church during this period and the fact that the defendant and judge were both of that faith during an era of particularly strong sentiment against the church (including during Democratic New York Governor Al Smith’s 1928 presidential run, as well as the sudden rise of the next generation of the Ku Klux Klan) is certainly notable.

Illustrated Daily News, 23 October 1924.

A late 1926 trial was held with Fall and Doheny as defendants and both were acquitted of charges of fraud and bribery, while Sinclair was also found not guilty of these charges, on the grounds that the payments to the former secretary could not be proven to be directly connected to the obtaining of the leases, which were said to be worth up to $200,000,000. In addition to the jury tampering rap, Sinclair was also convicted of contempt of the United States Senate for refusing to answer questions from an investigating committee and he served more than six years in federal prison.

As noted above, Fall, the first cabinet member to be so held guilty of a felony, was convicted on the bribery charge and sentenced to a year, serving nine months, while Doheny managed to escape the clutches of the law. He spent a staggering $3 million on the Greystone mansion in Beverly Hills and then sold it for a nominal figure to his son, who was murdered in the house. Shattered by the killing, Doheny was said to have been a shell of his former self before his death in 1935.

For more on the life and career of McCormick, Homestead volunteer José Castro, a recent graduate of Cal State San Bernardino whose post on Mary Julia Workman is linked to above, wrote a detailed essay on the jurist for the school’s journal History in the Making and readers interested in knowing more are encouraged to read José’s excellent work.

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