MATT. I. SULLIVAN
Matt. I. Sullivan, senior member of the law firm of Sullivan, Roche, Johnson & Barry, was born in Grass Valley,
Nevada county, California, on November 3, 1857. His parents, Michael M. and Margaret M. Sullivan, were born in
Ireland and immigrated to the United States before the middle of the last century. They came to California from
Connecticut by the Nicaragua route in the year 1852 and first settled in Nevada county. In 1862, with his parents,
five sisters and his brother, the late Jeremiah F. Sullivan, Judge Sullivan came to San Francisco, where he has
ever since resided.
He first entered the parochial school attached to the old Mission Dolores Church. For two years thereafter he attended
the public primary school in the Mission district. In 1868 he entered St. Ignatius College. He graduated from that
college in 1876 with a degree of Bachelor of Arts. In 1905 Judge Sullivan was honored by his alma mater with the
degree of LL. D., on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the college. In 1930, during the celebration of the
diamond jubilee of the college, which had in the meantime become the University of San Francisco, he received the
extraordinary degree of Juris Doctor Utriusque. He served as dean of the Law College of his alma mater from the
time it was opened and is now holding the same position in the Law College of the University of San Francisco.
He commenced the study of law in his brother's office in 1876 and entered Hastings Law College on its opening day
in 1878. He continued his legal studies there until November 10, 1879, when he was admitted to the bar by the supreme
court of the state of California. His brother, Jeremiah F. Sullivan, having been elected judge of the superior
court of San Francisco in 1879, he took over his brother's established law business, and thereafter developed a
large and successful practice.
The first official position held by Judge Sullivan was that of attorney for the sheriff of San Francisco in the
years 1883-4 and this position he again filled in 1893-4. In 1900 he formed a partnership with his brother, Jeremiah
F. Sullivan, the latter having resigned his office as judge of the superior court to join his brother in the practice
of law. The association of the brothers lasted without interruption until the death of Jeremiah F. in the year
In 1907 Francis J. Heney, the famous prosecutor, while engaged in prosecuting Abe Ruef, the political boss of San
Francisco, was shot down in open court and seriously wounded. Thereupon, Hiram W. Johnson, J. J. Dwyer and Judge
Sullivan voluntarily took his place as assistants to the district attorney, and after several weeks' trial, Ruef
was convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary.
Judge Sullivan is the author of the school teachers' retirement law, which was enacted by the legislature in 1913.
In 1914, at the instance of President Wilson, together with his law partner, Theodore J. Roche, he was appointed
assistant to the attorney general of the United States to prosecute, on behalf of the federal government, criminal
proceedings against certain prominent citizens. Among the cases prosecuted by him and his partner Roche was that
of "United States v. M. I. Diggs and Drew Caminetti" for the violation of the Mann act. After a protracted
trial, both defendants were convicted.
A signal honor came to Judge Sullivan in 1914, when Hiram W. Johnson, then governor of California, appointed him
chief justice of the supreme court of the state, to succeed Chief Justice William H. Beatty, to hold office until
the next general election. One week before the election, all of his associate justices complimented Judge Sullivan
by requesting him to submit his name to the electorate to succeed himself until the expiration of the term for
which Judge Beatty had been elected, and in an open letter to the public, the associate justices, among other things
"The undersigned, justices of the Supreme Court, without in the slightest reflecting upon the candidacy of
any other man for the position, believe and declare that the best interests of the court demand the election of
Hon. Matt. I. Sullivan, present Chief Justice for this term. So to elect him requires that the voters write his
name in the blank space on the ballot."
As a result of this expression of confidence by all of his judicial associates, forty five thousand voters wrote
his name on the official ballot and thereby elected him to succeed himself.
In 1914 Judge Sullivan volunteered his legal services on behalf of San Francisco in an action brought by the United
Railroads of San Francisco against the city to enjoin the construction and operation of the municipal railroad
on Market street from Church street to the ferry. As a result of his services gratuitously rendered, and after
long litigation, the city won the case and built its railroad on Market street.
In 1887, with the Most Reverend Archbishop P. W. Riordan, Rev. D. O. Crowley and others, he incorporated the Youths'
Directory of San Francisco and remained one of the active directors of that institution until the death of Father
Crowley in 1928.
After the earthquake and fire which devastated the greater part of San Francisco in 1906, he, James Rolph, Jr.,
and other residents in the Mission district, opened a relief station which cared for as many as twenty thousand
sufferers from the fire in one day.
In 1907 he was appointed, by Mayor Taylor, supervisor with fifteen other citizens to temporarily administer the
affairs of San Francisco, in the place of sixteen supervisors, who, admittedly guilty of accepting bribes, were
forced to resign their offices.
In 1912 Judge Sullivan was appointed by Governor Hiram W. Johnson to represent the state of California at the Panama-Pacific
International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915, and to expend five million dollars contributed by the
state for the purposes of the exposition. After the close of the exposition, through his efforts, the state accepted
as its share of the returns from the exposition in lieu of cash, a large tract of land now known as the Marina.
Thereupon, with the members of the Exposition Preservation League, plans were laid to secure the land from the
state for a public park. He framed and presented to the state legislature a bill providing for the donation by
the state to the city and county of San Francisco the Marina to be used for all time as a public park. The legislature
in 1918 passed the bill as presented. In this manner the city acquired our beautiful Marina. In 1925 the Judge
framed a congressional bill, granting to the city and county of San Francisco the Palace of Fine Arts and ten acres
of land in the Presidio Reservation upon which it is located. He forwarded this bill to Senator Johnson at Washington,
who, with other representatives from California, pushed the bill through both houses. The bill was approved by
President Coolidge on March 5, 1925, less than one month after its introduction in the senate.
Another case of civic importance in which Judge Sullivan figured occurred in 1913 when, by unanimous vote of the
board of supervisors of San Francisco, he was appointed chairman of the water advisory committee of the board which
was delegated to carry on negotiations with Spring Valley Water Company for the purchase of its properties. He
was the only private citizen on the committee. On August 10, 1914, Judge Sullivan, as chairman, presented to the
board of supervisors the committee's report recommending the purchase of the property of the water company for
the agreed purchase price of thirty four million five hundred thousand dollars, and capital expenditures of the
company since January 1, 1912, not to exceed five hundred ninety five thousand dollars. Under the agreement with
the water company, the ratepayers were to receive one million dollars from moneys which had been impounded in litigation
between the city and the company. The report was adopted by the board, but upon submission of the proposition to
the electorate, a substantial, but not two thirds, of the people voted in favor of the purchase on the terms stated.
As the city charter required a two thirds majority to carry such a measure, the purchase of the property was deferred.
A few years later, the people voted to purchase the same properties, less about six thousand acres of land, from
the water company for forty million dollars, and without the return of any money to the ratepayers.
Judge Sullivan participated in the preparation of the first Transbay bridge bill, which was introduced in the United
States senate by Senator Hiram W. Johnson. He accompanied Mayor Rolph to Washington, D. C., for the purpose of
urging the passage of the bill. It was promptly passed by the senate, but was never taken out of the house committee,
which had the bill in charge.
He framed the first city planning ordinance, and the setback line ordinance of San Francisco, and served as president
of the City Planning Commission from the date of its organization until his resignation in 1930, a period of thirteen
In 1928 he presented to the board of supervisors ordinances compelling the removal and disinterment of all bodies
interred in the Masonic Cemetery and Odd Fellows' Cemetery. The ordinances were promptly passed by the board of
supervisors and approved by the mayor. He procured for his alma mater an option from the Masonic Cemetery Association
to purchase its cemetery for the sum of six hundred ninety thousand dollars. He successfully defended the right
of the city to compel the removal of bodies from the cemeteries. In the litigation conducted by him, the courts
determined for the first time in California that in the exercise of the police power, the municipal authorities
have the constitutional right to compel the abandonment of cemeteries.
In January, 1931, he was appointed attorney for the superintendent of banks of California.
Recently the governor appointed him chairman of the water resources commission of California, composed of nine
members. The commission was appointed to study and report upon the conservation, development and distribution of
water resources of the state, including particularly findings and recommendations as to the economic phases involved
in said plan, and such appropriate resolutions and constitutional amendments as may be necessary.
Judge Sullivan walks to his office every day from his home in the Mission district, a distance of three miles,
and is still actively engaged in the ordinary routine work of a busy law office.
The History of San Francisco, California
Lewis Francis Byington, Supervising Editor
Oscar Lewis, Associate Editor
The S. J. Clark Publishing Company
Chicago-San Francisco 1931
San Francisco, CA
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