The Sullivans of the State Supreme Court: Matthew, Jeremiah & Raymond

Even before the 1906 Earthquake, the SI Jesuits saw a need to separate its college from its high school. They came a step closer to that in 1911 by formally changing the name of St. Ignatius College to the University of St. Ignatius (a name used until 1919).

The School of Law began on September 18, 1912, when 29 students gathered in the Grant Building on Market Street for their first class. Serving as the first dean of that school was one of SI’s more famous graduates, Matthew I. Sullivan, who received his BA degree in 1876 and who went on to become chief justice of the California Supreme Court.

In 1987, Eric Abrahamson wrote about Matthew Sullivan in The University of San Francisco School of Law: A History. In his book, he reveals how SI graduates, such as Sullivan, were growing in political influence in San Francisco. The following is from Abrahamson’s book:

“On Sundays, Matt Sullivan went to five o’clock Mass and then walked from the Mission to his office in the Mills Building on Market Street. He worked until noon when his driver would pick him up to carry him home to 920 Guerrero Street where he lived with his brother John and his two sisters, Nora and Julia. From around the corner on Twenty-first Street, Sullivan’s nephew-in-law, Eustace Cullinan, Sr., would come with his family to join the party. Sometimes from down the block, ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph would drop by, and they would all eat together.

“It was Matt Sullivan, along with attorney Gavin McNab, who convinced Jim Rolph to run for mayor of San Francisco in 1911. A law partner with Theodore Roche and Governor Hiram Johnson, Sullivan was in many ways the workhorse behind a generation of Progressive leaders. He upset the political dynasty of blind boss Chris Buckley in the late 1880s, was appointed to the Board of Supervisors when members of Mayor Schmitz’s administration were indicted, and, along with Hiram Johnson, succeeded Francis Heney as special prosecutor in the Abe Ruef trials after Heney was gunned down in court.

“In 1912, after being elected governor, Hiram Johnson appointed Sullivan president of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and then, in 1914, appointed him chief justice of the California Supreme Court. When his term expired, however, Sullivan refused to run for the office. According to some, it was against his principles to run for office. According to his grandnephew Vincent Cullinan, ‘Uncle Matt knew he could make more money in private practice.’

“In 1912, when the law school at St. Ignatius was begun and Matt Sullivan appointed the first dean, there was hardly a more eminent lawyer in San Francisco, nor was there an attorney more committed to St. Ignatius. Graduated from the college when it was located on Market Street in 1876, Matt Sullivan, along with his brother, Jeremiah (also a justice of the California Supreme Court), played a major role in the formation of the Saint Ignatius College Alumni Association in 1878. Jeremiah served as the first president.

“Like Michael O’Shaughnessey, San Francisco’s preeminent engineer who was appointed dean of the College of Engineering in 1912, Sullivan lent his name and respectability to the new school at St. Ignatius but did not engage in the day-to-day administration. Nevertheless, he served as titular dean for 22 years until 1934. His contributions to the college as a whole were so significant — serving as president of the alumni association and engineering the purchase of the Masonic Cemetery land — it seems impossible that he did not play some role in directing the curriculum of the law school.”

Finally, Abrahamson notes that Sullivan “may be the unsung workhorse of the Progressive movement in San Francisco, which transformed city government from a patronage system into a modern, professional city management.” When Matthew Sullivan died in 1937, he was praised for his service to the city and to SI.20

Judge Jeremiah Sullivan (who attended SI for eight years, graduating with his Bachelor’s degree in 1870 and his Master’s degree two years later), was the first president of the SI Alumni Association. Like his brother, he, too, served on the California Supreme Court and served six years as president of San Francisco Bar Association, which he transformed into an advocacy group. According to Abrahamson, he championed “legal reform and professional improvement,” and his reputation led to his election as the first president of the State Bar.

Unrelated to Matthew and Jeremiah was Raymond Sullivan ’24, who died October 20, 1999, at the age of 92 after a distinguished career as a justice on the California Supreme Court.

Justice Sullivan was born January 23, 1907, in San Francisco and graduated from SI in 1924 before graduating magna cum laude from USF in 1928. He worked at SI between 1927 and 1935, where he coached the debate team, taught Latin, English, geometry and history, and moderated the senior debating society (the Senate). In the SI student newspaper, the Red and Blue of September 21, 1927, he is listed as a “brilliant college student, noted for his forensic ability. Moreover, he will guide the destinies of the Senate during the year.”

While on the SI faculty, he received a law degree in 1930 and a Master of Law degree in 1933 from USF. He left teaching in 1935 for private practice and, in 1961, was appointed to the state’s First District Court of Appeal, which then covered a swath of Northern California from the Oregon border to the central coast. He became the court’s presiding justice in 1966.

He was appointed to the high court in 1966 by Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and is best remembered for writing the 1971 decision that transformed the way the state’s public schools are financed.

An obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Sullivan “‘was regarded on the court as a lawyer’s lawyer,’ said former Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin, who served with Justice Sullivan on the faculty of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. ‘He was the court’s expert on procedure. He cared a lot about the process of the court. He was also very innovative.’

“In the landmark Serrano-Priest decision, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s system of using primarily property tax revenue to finance schools was unconstitutional because school districts in wealthy areas could spend more on a student’s education than could a district in a poor area.”

He was the recipient of many honors. SI gave him the Christ the King award in 1986 and USF bestowed on him the St. Thomas More Award for legal excellence in 1968 and an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1972. In 1991, Hastings students voted him Outstanding Professor of the Year, and in 1994, the State Bar of California awarded him the Bernard E. Witkin Medal for significant contributions to the quality of justice and legal scholarship of the state. The California Trial Lawyers Association also honored him in 1975 as Appellate Judge of the Year.