Second of two parts.
Bringing peace to the rough-and-tumble Santa Clarita Valley was no simple task, and the court system wasn't particularly refined.
The California Judiciary Act of 1851 established a three-tiered system of District Courts, akin to modern Superior Courts, to handle all criminal and probate cases and civil cases involving amounts over $200; and County Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts, equivalent to later Municipal Courts, to handle smaller matters. Newhall had the latter, with John F. Powell as Justice of the Peace.
The system was cumbersome and ineffective and it didn't last. A constitutional convention was called in 1877 to revamp the system, culminating in a new California Constitution in 1879 that created the state Supreme Court, District Courts of Appeal and Superior Courts.
Still there wasn't much consistency, as different jurisdictions continued to relegate minor matters to any combination of Justice, County or Police Courts.
Powell's Main Street home probably doubled as a courtroom on occasion.
His first trial, evidently in 1875, was actually held in Castaic, where Andrew J. Kazinski (alternately Krazynski) manager of the Lyon's Station stagecoach stop in Newhall sued Sam Harper brother-in-law of station owner Sanford Lyon for $10 in damages.
Harper's cows allegedly damaged Kazinski's barley crop, and the trial, held under a cottonwood tree, drew a massive crowd. The tree turned out to be infested with bees and everyone scattered.
After two more hearings Kazinski was awarded 10 cents in damages. According to the story that was recapitulated half a century later by early Signal publisher Blanche B. Brown, the paltry sum was "due supposedly to prejudice because he was a Polish Jew."
Kazinski, for his part, ultimately got the better of Sam Harper and of Sanford Lyon. Kazinski figured out where the railroad was going to come through town and in 1876 built his own stagecoach stop next to the brand-new train tracks along Pine Street. Lyon's Station died.
Even then the court was keen on sending messages with its verdicts: Powell tabbed Harper with $140 in court fines as "an example of the folly of going to law for a trivial matter which two neighbors might better have settled amicably," Brown writes.
The message stuck, and Powell developed a reputation for settling cases out of court.
Brown relates that sometime prior to 1900 the Soledad Township had two justices, one acting as judge and the other appearing before him as an attorney. "This was the custom because lawyers were scarcer than now," she writes.
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Just how long Powell presided over the Newhall court is sketchy. Sometime after he was first appointed judge he left town to run a store near the Nevada border, but ultimately returned to the bench in Newhall.
Upon his voluntary retirement, for health reasons, at the end of 1922 (taking effect Jan. 1, 1923), Brown writes that he spent 20 years away from the bench, during which time his friends "tried to persuade him to again accept the office of justice." He agreed to do so in 1900 and held the position continuously until Port C. Miller succeeded him on Jan. 8, 1923.
Newhall still didn't have a true courthouse. Powell had conducted business in several oddball locations reportedly taking his gavel atop the Ridge Route late one night to settle a gambling dispute among the road crew. But his regular venue was an office on his own property. It accommodated three people.
By the time he passed the gavel, court was held in only slightly more orthodox surroundings. The local Masonic chapter donated building space to Powell, then Miller, free of charge because the county supervisors refused to pay for facilities rental. Instead the supervisors believed judges should be able to rent space out of their salary, which in 1923 was $70 a month.
Blanche Brown's Signal decried the inequity, noting that Miller (who "would still be underpaid if he received double that amount") had presided over 36 cases within his first two months on the job and collected $1,136 in fines for the county.
But changes were afoot in the law enforcement system.
In 1913 Los Angeles County had adopted its charter, giving the Sheriff the duty of policing the county's 24 unincorporated townships. Constables were no longer directly elected by the people; they were absorbed into the Sheriff's office and made ex-officio deputies although they continued to function much as they had done in the past.
In 1926 the board of supervisors voted to establish Sheriff's substations in the far-flung reaches of the county, including one in Newhall at 6th and Spruce Street (today's San Fernando Road). The building still exists; it's the Canyon Theater Guild office now.
Constables continued to work out of an office a block away on Market Street, alongside a new, two-story courthouse built and donated by the Masons. (The second floor was the Masons' meeting hall. It's a meeting hall again today, for recovering alcoholics).
In 1936 the separate constabulary was dissolved and the constables were fully deputized. The reconstituted position of "constable" became a civil-service job, responsible for serving subpoenas, summoning juries and acting as bailiff in the Justice Courts.
Neither Powell nor Miller were around to see the changes. Miller turned in his robes March 9, 1925, to take a job with the county forester. Miller was replaced by none other than A.B. Perkins, the valley's historian.
Powell had just celebrated his 86th birthday and was at home on Chestnut Street on Dec. 29, 1925, when the gavel fell for the final time.
Remembered in The Newhall Signal as "the first resident of Newhall and Justice of the Peace of Soledad Township for 35 years," John F. Powell had the distinction of never having had a verdict overturned by a higher court.
Unravel more SCV history mysteries at scvhistory.com on the Internet or stop by the Saugus Train Station in downtown Newhall, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.