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Adams, Annette Abbottlocked

(12 March 1877–26 October 1956)
  • Beverly B. Cook

Adams, Annette Abbott (12 March 1877–26 October 1956), lawyer and judge, was born in Prattville, California, the daughter of Hiram Brown Abbott, a storekeeper and justice of the peace, and Annette Frances Stubbs, a teacher. Adams earned a teaching credential from Chico State Normal School in 1897 and became schoolmistress of a country school until she entered the University of California-Berkeley in 1901. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1904, she taught high school in a rural county, serving as principal from 1907 to 1910. Encouraged by county trial judge John E. Raker, Adams entered Boalt Hall and supported herself while earning a J.D. The dean recommended her, the only woman in the class of 1912, to Western Pacific Railway for their house counsel. The company rejected her on the basis of gender, and she opened a private practice in Plumas County. She hired an instructor to learn how to change her voice from soprano to baritone to suit her masculine legal role. In 1906 she married Martin H. Adams but left him after one month. By 1914 she let others assume that she was a widow, although she and Adams never divorced. For thirty years she shared her home with her brother.

In 1912 Adams moved to San Francisco to organize Democratic women throughout the state behind Woodrow Wilson’s candidacy for president. She went to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration and to ask for a patronage appointment. Continuing pressure exerted on the new administration by women’s club members; party leaders; Raker, who was now in Congress; and especially by U.S. Attorney for Northern California John Preston won for her the job of assistant U.S. attorney over the opposition of Attorney General James C. McReynolds. In 1914 she was sworn in as the first woman federal prosecutor. She vigorously pursued German and Hindu defendants who were accused of conspiracy to violate the neutrality act and later American socialists accused of war crimes.

Adams’s reputation as a party organizer and as a local prosecutor encouraged Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to invite her in 1920 to join his office in D.C. as the first woman assistant attorney general. Her initial assignment was to attend the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco and work for Palmer’s candidacy among the women delegates. During her short tenure she was responsible for the prosecution of violators of the Volstead Act in all federal court districts and for the operation of the federal prisons. She was a proponent of strict law enforcement and narrowly interpreted the rights of prisoners.

With the victory of Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding and his choice of another woman (Mabel Walker Willebrandt) to succeed her, Adams returned to San Francisco, where she remained active in state and national party activities. She failed to win election to the board of supervisors, despite an aggressive campaign in 1923. Blaming her loss partially on women who failed to vote, she worked for the inclusion of women in the party organization and won half of the California delegate-at-large seats for women at the 1924 national convention. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, she developed Democratic clubs in northern California for the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee. After his election she was offered the “woman’s seat” on the Board of Tax Appeals, to replace the first woman incumbent, Annabel Matthews.

Adams preferred to remain on the West Coast, where she joined Preston in private practice until his appointment to the state Supreme Court. Practicing alone, she earned a respectable income by handling cases in San Francisco for a prominent Redding attorney and by serving as counsel for the state dental board. She won a celebrated case against “Painless Parker,” the dentist who set up a string of inexpensive offices to serve poor clients, in 1932. She was also successful in several important public utility and water rights cases. Throughout her career she took stands that were favorable to government regulation of the economy and opposed to expansion of defendant’s rights but supportive of equal opportunity for women.

Adams wanted a federal judgeship and organized support among party, legal, and women’s groups for appointment to the vacancy in the Northern District in 1935. Instead, Roosevelt offered her a special counsel position in Los Angeles, working under Preston on oil and gas reserve cases. She moved to Los Angeles in 1935 and prepared the trial and appeal briefs that won for the government disputed Elk Hills Naval Oil Reserve land and more than $7 million compensation from Standard Oil Company in 1939.

The political reward of a valuable position finally came in 1942 from Governor Culbert L. Olson, who appointed her presiding justice of the state intermediate appellate court in Sacramento. To secure the position, she had to face the electorate, and in November 1942 she won a twelve-year term. In 1950 she became the first woman to serve on the state supreme court by assignment for one case. When she qualified for a pension in 1952, she retired immediately since her health prevented her from working. She died in Sacramento.

Adams watched her male colleagues receive public offices appropriate to their professional and political contributions, while her returns for great success as a litigator were always in subordinate or collegial positions. Although she was appointed by male politicians as the first woman to serve the public in the U.S. Department of Justice and the California appellate courts, she always felt that her ability, performance, and contributions to the Democratic party merited greater recognition and higher office.

Bibliography

There are no Adams papers, but letters and documents that cover some aspects of her career can be found in the Jesse W. Carter, William Denman, and James Phelan collections, Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley. Information on her U.S. Justice Department jobs in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles can be found in the records of the department, Criminal Division, at the National Archives and at the auxiliary center in Suitland, Md. Her judicial opinions appear in P2d for 1943–1952. Gladys Morgan, her court reporter, provided some information on her court years in a telephone interview, 10 July 1979. Biographical accounts include Arthur Dunn, “A Portia in the Federal Court,” Sunset Magazine, Feb. 1915, pp. 334–37; June Hogan, “Annette Abbott Adams, Presiding Justice,” the Trident, Oct. 1950, pp. 31–32; and Joan M. Jensen, “Annette Abbott Adams, Politician,” Pacific Historical Review 35 (May 1966): 185–201. An obituary is in the New York Times, 27 Oct. 1956.