History of LASSD

Legal Aid Society of San Diego - Legacy of a Dream

It was a noteworthy time to be practicing law in San Diego.  Edgar Luce was the City Prosecutor.  Eugene Daney was President of the Bar Association and was also general counsel for the Panama California Exposition taking place at City Park, later known as Balboa Park.  And Captain William Paxton Cane had hung out his shingle at the Union Office Building on Third and Broadway.

A young attorney was also practicing law.  A graduate of the University of San Diego and Stanford, DeWitt C. Mitchell was admitted to the Bar in 1911.

Pulled by a patriotic duty to fight for his country, he was pulled by another idea -- his dream of creating the office of public attorney.

In writing his will one year before entering the Army Air Corps, Mitchell set forth his vision of the public attorney…All persons who shall apply to the public attorney for assistance and who shall appear in need and without funds to employ an attorney, the public attorney shall prosecute or defend their rights and give them legal aid

While on active duty in San Antonio, Texas, DeWitt C. Mitchell died of pneumonia on May 17, 1918.  He was 34.  The Armistice would be signed six months later.  His vision of Legal Aid would become a reality in a year.

First National Bank of San Diego administered the Mitchell trust of $20,000 to fund the position of public attorney.  And the San Diego Bar Association conducted a competitive written examination among local attorneys to select the first public attorney.  P.A. Whitacre became the first.  The year was 1919.

A succession of prominent attorneys served the prescribed one-year term as public attorney including former Superior Court Judge John A. Hewicker, Municipal Court Judge Clarance Terry, Deputy County Counsel Duane J. Carnes, T.T. Crittenden, Wood F. Worcester, Cleveland Smith, John C. Thompson, Robert A. Estes, Ben Weissman, Alec Corey and U.S. District Court Judge Howard Turrentine.

In 1953, the Legal Aid Society of San Diego was incorporated.  Among the original board members were Edgar Luce, Ferdinand T. Fletcher, Richard K. Kahle, Olney R. Thorn, Duane J. Carnes, Gerald C. Thomas, Peggy S. Holliday, Renwick Thompson, Leon W. Scales, David H. Thompson, Charles E. Karpinski, John M. Cranston, Maurice James, Barbara Cory and Leroy Wright.

Today, our annual budget has grown to $15 million.  We have 120 staff members, including 49 attorneys and 50 advocates, all working on specialized teams in the substantive priority areas of housing and community development, health, welfare, immigration law, consumer protection law, family law, and SSI advocacy.  In addition, our pro bono team provides volunteer opportunities in all of these substantive areas, as well as tax, conservatorships, and domestic violence.  Other volunteer opportunities are available through our various court centered partnership clinics.

To this day, on the letterhead of the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, are the words “Office of the Public Attorney” and all of us are extremely proud to be part of the legacy of the dream of DeWitt C. Mitchell.