A San Francisco election controversy

According to the new San Francisco city charter of April 15, 1851 the mayor and other officers were to be elected annually. The first election should take place on April 28 and thereafter annually at the general election for state officers. Under the new laws the election was held as proscribed and the officials, with Charles J. Brenham as mayor, were duly installed into office. A small number of city residents then claimed that under the new city charter the next election for city officials should be held at the general election for state officers on September 3, 1851, but Mayor Brenham and others in his government insisted that they had the right to serve at least a year and thus the next election would be in September 1852.

Charles J. Brenham

While those in power refused to participate, the opposition party went ahead with an election ticket anyway. The residents of San Francisco paid little attention, believing the vote would be declared void. Those who did vote then chose Dr. Stephen R. Harris and the rest of his party, who had run unopposed. However, when Harris demanded his office Brenham refused to surrender it. Dr. Harris filed suit against Brenham in an effort to get the question settled. Levi Parsons, the district court judge, in a bit of convoluted legal wrangling, then ruled the election legal but that those currently in power could serve for a full year. That left Harris and his party waiting six months to assume office. Harris appealed to the Supreme Court, who agreed the election was legal but reversed Parsons decision that the incumbents could serve a full year and ordered that Harris be seated at once.

Dr. Stephan R. Harris

Brenham did as the court decreed and gave up his office to Harris, but the rest of the elected officials serving with Brenham had not been named in the suit and felt they were under no obligation to comply with the court order, and so they remained at their elected posts and declined to give up unless the newly elected officials would also resign and let the issue be decided before the people. This proposition was refused and there arose a considerable amount of bickering. Finally, near the end of the year, the old officers bowed out and the new ones took over.


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