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A 150-Year-Old Mystery : Law Clerk Tracks Down Portrait of Early California Justice

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The case of the missing justice began in the California Supreme Court’s gallery of former members, where the men who crafted the state’s early jurisprudence peer out from ghostly black and white photographs.

Hanging on the walls are portraits of 109 justices, some in scraggly beards and grim expressions, each reflecting the fashion of the time. But in the frame reserved for No. 8, Charles H. Bryan, there was only a faded piece of cardboard with a brief biography.

The gap in history gnawed on current Chief Justice Ronald M. George. Books said that Bryan, noted for his “electric eloquence” nearly 150 years ago and for dying alone and alcoholic in frontier Nevada, resembled Otto von Bismarck, the famed German chancellor.

Determined to look at the face of Bryan, George assigned one of his most dogged law clerks, David W. Miller, to the trail. “In fairness,” George cautioned the clerk, “I should tell you that you may not find a photograph.”

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Combing for clues throughout the state’s early history, Miller, 39, became a sleuth in the style of Hercule Poirot. It became a welcome distraction from the dry legal briefs he reads at the busy court.

The soft-spoken clerk methodically began to retrace his prey’s steps through the frontier West, forming a bond to the justice he affectionately came to call “Chuck.” It was a search that both captivated and frustrated him.

“I looked at his life like a treasure map that would have all the clues,” he said.

Bryan had been born in Ohio in the early 1820s, Miller learned. As a young man, the justice was described by one chronicler as “handsome as an Adonis,” with light brown hair and blue eyes. He also was a crafty lawyer with an ability to leave juries spellbound. He made scads of money but spent it recklessly.

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A Yuba County district attorney and former state senator, Bryan was active in the first decade of California’s statehood. The gold rush had started, and San Francisco was the center of commerce.

Gov. John Bigler, the state’s third governor, appointed Bryan to the Supreme Court in 1853, three years after statehood, to fill the unexpired term of a justice who had died.

The early court bore few resemblances to today’s institution. It had only three justices instead of the current seven. They ran for election on political tickets, and their rulings were notably brief.

In contrast to today’s court opinions, which run an average of 56 pages, the early rulings were often dispatched in two pages or less, in part because of a scarcity of law books.

One ruling delivered in the year Bryan served contained only three sentences. An intoxicated man had fallen into an uncovered hole on a sidewalk and sued a company that had left the hole. The company blamed his drunkenness for the accident.

But the Supreme Court reasoned: “A drunken man is as much entitled to a safe street as a sober one, and much more in need of it.”

Although Bryan was among the most illustrious members of the bar, the 33 opinions he wrote for the Supreme Court were not particularly remarkable. He joined in one opinion that allowed the state to move its seat of government from San Jose to Sacramento.

After serving only one year, Bryan was defeated in an election by David S. Terry, who carried a bowie knife, stabbed a man in the neck and killed another in a duel during his court tenure.

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Bryan returned to a law practice in Marysville. The discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City lured him to Nevada, where he made a lot of money in mining litigation and spent it gambling and racing horses.

Within 10 years, his drinking became excessive and “his mental faculties were breaking down,” a historian wrote. Another said that Bryan grew so crazed that he imagined himself the head of an imaginary army.

Bryan apparently never married nor fathered children. He died in a Nevada restaurant, choking on a piece of beef, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

“Gifted with intelligence superior to the great majority of men, highly cultured and possessed of brilliant oratorical powers, Judge Bryan . . . would have distanced any competitor in this state but for that single overwhelming curse of intemperance,” said a newspaper obituary.

Miller was moved by the story. He saw Bryan as “the classic case of a flawed genius, someone who could have gone on to make his mark . . . but was relegated to a footnote in history. He had wasted a lot of his life and his talent.”

The tenacious clerk compiled a list of every community where Bryan had lived and contacted chambers of commerce and historical societies. The court’s assistant librarian, Michael Ginsborg, searched electronic databases and other sources for old newspaper and historical references.

It was discovered that two other in-depth searches had been launched for Bryan’s photograph, the first in 1892 and the second 52 years later. Miller’s probe began 52 years after that. And it struck him that Bryan also may have died at the age of 52, depending which birth date is believed.

Miller’s sleuthing eventually led him to the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce. An official there suggested Miller call a certain bookseller.

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Although the bookseller proved unhelpful, a historian at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno offered her help. One day she called Miller at his court office.

“I’m looking at your boy,” she said triumphantly.

She had tracked down a photograph of Charles H. Bryan in an 1898 edition of “50 Years of Masonry,” a history of the fraternal, civic organization.

Miller was excited but troubled. How could he be sure this was the right Charles H. Bryan?

Poring over a historian’s notes, Miller discovered that the Bryan in the portrait had been affiliated with the Masons only in California. This perplexed the clerk because Justice Bryan had spent much of his life in Nevada. Why no record of membership there?

After reviewing other records at a Masonic library, Miller discovered that the Charles H. Bryan in the photo had died 36 years after the justice choked to death.

“I thought, as I was driving back to the office that afternoon, that this was probably the point where most people would give up,” Miller said.

Sheepishly, he admitted that a line from the movie “Apollo 13" egged him on: “Failure is not an option.”

“I felt I had all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and I just hadn’t put them together yet,” Miller said. “I had the overriding sense that the answer was right in front of me, and I just hadn’t spotted it yet.”

Miller figured Bryan had a stupendous ego and must have posed before a camera “for the scrap of immortality it offered.” The clerk consulted his copious notes again, seeking some overlooked clue.

Recalling that a law school professor once advised him to look at a problem from different angles, Miller decided to go back to the justice’s father, John Bryan.

The elder Bryan had served both as an assistant postmaster general of the United States and as the charge d’affaires to Peru. The town of Bryan, Ohio, was named after him.

Miller called the Bryan Chamber of Commerce in Ohio, and learned that the elder Bryan had three sons, including the justice, and that the sons had descendants.

A series of phone calls finally led him to a San Diego woman who is the family’s informal historian.

Digging through an old shoe box, she found a daguerreotype made in 1872, five years prior to the justice’s death. Her mother had written on the back, Charles Henry Bryan.

She had the portrait professionally copied and sent Miller the prize.

When he opened the package in San Francisco, a dark-haired, middle-aged man stared out. The hair was parted and combed, the beard haphazardly trimmed. He looked sad and a little puzzled, and yes, he resembled Bismarck.

A beaming Chief Justice George unveiled the portrait at a staff gathering last fall, finally completing the gallery outside the justice’s chambers.

“I really didn’t want to disappoint him,” Miller said.


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