Days of yore in the San Luis Obispo County courthouse

February 3, 2020

Jim Duenow


After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School and serving three years as a JAG officer at Oxnard Air Force Base, I came to San Luis Obispo in 1965. I went to work for a prominent sole trial lawyer, Abe Brazil.

He started me at the then generous salary of $800 per month. He added a membership at the country club. This was of little use to me as I was a Hubert Humphrey liberal Democrat and didn’t fit in with the club membership as it was at that time.

In 1965, we had two judges: Richard Harris and T.J. O’Reilly. There were about 60 lawyers in the county, not counting the District Attorney’s Office.

In those days, Monday was an important court day. The probable, family law, civil law and motion, and trial calendars were called between the two judges. As a result, about two-thirds of the lawyers in the county were in court each Monday.

We also had lots of civil jury trials in those days. About 20 to 25 per year. If a case could not be settled by insurance adjusters it just about always went to trial. There was no mediation, arbitration or any other ADR system — just a jury trial.

The civil jury trial was and is the great equalizer. It lets ordinary folks take on the rich, the corporate and government interests on a nearly level playing field. This was before the modern proliferation of the paid for “expert” witness. Before what some now call “the battle of the whores.”

Another change: in the old days everyone smoked in the courtroom. The judge, jurors, audience, lawyers — everybody who wanted to. Also in those days, juries deliberated late into the evening. It was not unusual for a verdict to come in at 9 or 10 p.m. Of course we had to call the judge in from home and sometimes sober justices up.

When I tell young lawyers that I tried 142 civil jury trials in my career, they sometimes audibly gasp. I actually had 16 in one year. The trial often lasted only four to six days. We’d pick the jury, do openings and make a witness or two on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were witness days.

We’d meet Thursday evening with the judge to decide on the jury instructions. Then argue Friday morning — starting at 8:30, so the jury would get the case before noon. Most often we would have a verdict by the end of the day on Friday, otherwise for some on the next Tuesday.

In those days discovery was much different. It was before the computer and when we thought the electric typewriter was a huge breakthrough. You couldn’t just push a button and spin out a hundred or so interrogatories. You had to actually draft them by hand.

So you can see what is consistent over time, the civil jury trial. We must see that the primary task of the justice system is preserved and that lawyers know how to practice this art form. Hope springs eternal.

Jim Duenow has lived in San Luis Obispo County for over 50 years. He is a civil trial lawyer, now semi-retired, who has served on multiple San Luis Obispo City commissions and committees.

Jorge Estrada

Get a copy of an old phone book from that time and you will read a much different County. That said, it is still a great county.