Barbara Babcock

 

On her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

Cover Interview of January 26, 2011

A close-up

I hope the reader would happen on one of the eighteen or so accounts of cases Foltz had and causes she tried.  They show her at her brave and skillful best in the rough and tumble of the western courts, where she won a reputation as jury lawyer and passionate advocate.  Perhaps the most significant of these cases is People v. Wells in the last chapter of the book.

In 1892 James Wells, once a successful real estate man with an office near Foltz, was charged with forgery.  He was in jail and broke when she took his case, apparently out of friendship.  It was to be her last major jury trial.  She believed that the prosecutor, desiring to best a woman lawyer (or not lose to one), conspired with the police chief to present false and misleading evidence against her innocent client.  The case was hard-fought on both sides with scathing cross-examinations, angry objections and frequent denunciations of opposing counsel.  Through transcripts and other legal sources as well as lavish newspaper coverage, we can revisit the high drama of the trial.

After days of adversary contest, the jury convicted.  Foltz was sure they were influenced by the prosecutor’s illegal tactics.  She took an appeal and won, establishing a leading precedent in the country on prosecutorial misconduct.  The need to counter the misbehavior of district attorneys became one of her major arguments for a public defender.