Soon after the 1965 Watts riots left 34 people dead, Gov. Pat Brown ordered an investigation into the cause of the violence.
Among the findings — unemployment, poor schools, inadequate housing — a special commission highlighted the economic disadvantages faced by residents of the community. Random and discriminatory business practices led grocery stores to raise prices when welfare checks arrived. Companies charged more for items purchased on credit than with cash.
Brown and the state's attorney general decided to form the Consumer Fraud Unit and named a young attorney, known for his sharp wit, easy intelligence and commitment to justice to oversee its operations. It was an appointment that would change laws, redirect priorities and remind legislators that economic misdeeds are as heinous as other criminal wrongdoings.
More of an activist than a bureaucrat, Herschel Elkins was the architect of consumer law in California, fighting for more than 40 years for consumers who had been targeted by unscrupulous companies and had become victims of illegal business practices. Elkins died Oct. 7 of cancer in Los Angeles, said his son Jeremy Elkins. He was 87.
"Herschel Elkins was an institution," said former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who worked with Elkins from 1983 to 1990. "He survived us all and kept the light burning for consumer protection."
Working from his office in Los Angeles, Elkins helped write the so-called Lemon Law, giving car buyers recourse if the automobile they purchased was defective. He created the Bureau of Automotive Repair to help keep mechanics honest. He regulated door-to-door solicitations by mandating a three-day period for returns.
He took on General Motors, Herbalife, banks and lenders, telemarketers and more than 100 automobile dealerships statewide for false or misleading advertising. An advocate for what he whimsically called "truth in eating," he challenged restaurants for serving imported cheeses that weren't, fresh food that was frozen, veal that was pork, or whitefish that was cod.
"Herschel took enormous pride in his multimillion-dollar settlements, but he took more pride in making legislative changes that protected thousands of consumers in their daily lives," said Andrea Ordin, a colleague of Elkins in the 1960s and again in the 1980s.
"He thought that attorneys should play a role for good and make sure that everyone played by the rules," said Al Shelden, who succeeded Elkins as the head of the Consumer Law Section in 2004.
Serving nine attorney generals from 1956 to 2006, Elkins represented the office in more than 150 cases. He also appeared frequently on radio and television discussing the unit's work and educating the public on their rights.
"You can ask him the most obtuse question about a scam or fraud, and he'll have an answer. He's not only informative; he's entertaining," the consumer affairs reporter David Horowitz once said.
Upon retiring in 2006, Elkins wrote a handbook on consumer protection law and was appointed by the state Senate to the board that regulates the accounting profession.
"He was listened to," said Bill Lockyer, state's attorney general from 1999 to 2007, "and it had to do a lot with his focus both on marketplace fairness, which Republicans saw as important, and on consumer advocacy, which Democrats saw as important."
When Elkins joined the attorney general's office in 1956, he didn't expect to stay. But after a brief stint as a criminal trial deputy, he transferred to the civil division, and after developing an expertise in consumer law, he realized he had found his career.
"Here was an opportunity to do some things that hadn't really been done before," Elkins told The Times in 1986. "To try to see if the marketplace would be improved."
And, as he once wrote, it made it possible for him "to keep Shabbat and the holidays."
At the time, consumer law was often disparaged. When a judge got to a consumer case, "he didn't regard that as serious a matter" as criminal action, Elkins said. "You'd get a $50 fine; you'd get probation."
But new laws helped make consumer fraud easier to prosecute, and Elkins encouraged city and county attorneys to file civil suits. In time, injunctions, heavy fines and adverse publicity began to be effective in countering unethical business practices.
"He was not driven by rhetoric or ideology," said his son Jeremy, an associate professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College. "He was always very concerned about the specific victim and understood how people could be hurt by unscrupulous businesses and that the law could do something to help them."
Born in Brooklyn in 1929, Elkins came to Los Angeles eight years later with his mother, looking to be reunited with her husband after he'd abandoned them.
His idealism was formed early, his son said. A child of the New Deal, Elkins came to understand how the Roosevelt Administration navigated the country out of the Depression. Growing up in MacArthur Park, he was 16 when the Nuremberg Trials prosecuted the leadership of Nazi Germany for their crimes. He attended UCLA as an undergraduate and was in his first year at UCLA law school when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
During the Korean War, he served as an Army medical technician in Germany and witnessed a riot between white soldiers from his unit and black soldiers from another unit.
"He was stunned," said Jeremy. "Those whom he thought were his friends showed an ugly side to them. He wrote about the sense of helplessness after that, and he started to daydream about the possibility of the law in making things better."
Elkins was able to quickly cut through meandering debates, arguing that fairness or unfairness wasn't that complicated. "Unfair," he once said, "has an easy scientific definition. It is when the evidence is presented and the only reasonable response is 'My God, that's unfair.'"
Willing to do more than just prosecute unfairness, though, Elkins once took on a company that had solicited donations from the Vietnamese community in Orange County. A company had said it would buy food and other necessities to support relatives in Vietnam but ended up merely pocketing the cash. Elkins not only recovered funds but also negotiated with the State Department for the goods to be shipped.
Elkins and his wife, Miriam, supported small theaters in Los Angeles. A book lover, he would read aloud to his Miriam as she did the dishes or gardened.
They started a book club almost 55 years ago. He attended his last monthly meeting three months ago to discuss William Maxwell's "So Long, See You Tomorrow." Unable to speak, he would write on his smartphone and she would read his comments to the group.
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by two other children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.