A recent article in the Sacramento Bee draws parallels between Assembly member Adam Gray, who chairs the Governmental Organization committee, to James D. Garibaldi, who, after serving two terms in the Assembly representing Merced in the 1930s, went on to become one of the most powerful lobbyists at the State Capitol. Described as the best and top negotiator, Garibaldi represented the interest of various clients from horse tracks to California Highway patrolmen in Sacramento for nearly five decades.
While Garibaldi is widely known at the Capitol, he is little known in his hometown partly because he left the Merced area in 1942. During the 36 years he spent in Merced, Garibaldi accomplished much and should be remembered as an effective legislator, a shrewd lawyer, and a talented Superior Court judge.
Born on July 27, 1906 in Merced, James Donald Garibaldi was the only child of James Joseph and Theresa Garibaldi. He went to Merced High School and was a member of the football team in 1923. He would remain a sportsman throughout his life as he also played for the Stanford University baseball team while attending school there. Garibaldi then went to the University of California, Berkeley, and obtained his law degree from Boalt Hall.
Garibaldi was admitted to the California State Bar in 1932 and joined the practice of C. Ray Robinson in Merced. He was elected and served as an Assemblyman representing Merced and Madera counties from 1935 to 1939 and served as Merced County Superior Court judge from 1939 to 1942.
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There was no surprise in young Garibaldi’s achievements as he came from a long line of business entrepreneurs, educators, and government officials. His outstanding lineage began with his grandfather Giacomo Garibaldi, an Italian immigrant, who came to California during the Gold Rush. When Merced was established in 1872, he entered a partnership with Andrew Olcese of Hornitos and opened a general store on the northeast corner of 16th and Canal streets and became a pioneer merchant of this new railroad town.
Garibaldi’s father James J. also went into the grocery business after college. James J. initially worked in his father’s store and then formed a partnership with his older brother John B. to establish the Garibaldi Brothers. In 1913, James J. was appointed county tax collector, a position he would hold for the next two decades. When his son was ready for public office and wanted to take a shot at the State Assembly, old James J. decided not to seek re-election in 1934. Partly because of the name recognition on the ballot, James Donald Garibaldi won the election to the Assembly.
While in the State Assembly, Garibaldi worked hard to pass bills to protect the interests of Merced Irrigation District and the struggling dairy farmers during the Great Depression. By the end of his second term, Garibaldi decided to run for a judgeship in Merced County instead of re-election. He defeated the sitting judge Elbridge N. Rector in 1938 and began his short, but productive, judicial life in January 1939.
During his brief time on the bench, Judge Garibaldi accomplished a great deal and his rulings in two civil cases left a lasting legacy in California legal history. One case was Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno, 24 Cal.2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944). Gladys Escola, a waitress in Tiny’s Waffle Shop in Merced, was injured while stocking Coke in the refrigerator on Aug. 21, 1941.
Judge Garibaldi ruled that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (Latin for “the thing speaks for itself”) applied to this case. That is, since there was no other possible explanation as to why the bottle exploded and injured Ms. Escola’s hand, it must be the negligence of the bottling company who had control over the defective bottle. Escola v. Coca-Cola, sustained by the State Supreme Court, became a must-read tort case for law students. One of Ms. Escola’s attorneys was Melvin M. Belli who later became known as “The King of Torts.”
Another case held close to Judge Garibaldi’s heart was the case of Williams v. City and County of San Francisco, 56 Cal.App.2d 374 (Cal. App. 1942). It was a water rights case in which Dan Williams, a riparian right landowner along the Tuolumne River, challenged San Francisco’s diversion of water from the Tuolumne River to the city through the Hetch Hetchy Dam.
In his decision, Judge Garibaldi sided with San Francisco. In his analysis of riparian water rights, he held that while riparian water rights were the primary right in California, an adverse user could divert water upon a showing of beneficial use where the riparian water right-holder could show no beneficial use. So for the greater good of the State and the people of San Francisco, the adverse users’ rights prevailed over the riparian right-holder in this case. Judge Garibaldi’s decision was ultimately affirmed by the California Supreme Court.
In 1942, Judge Garibaldi took leave from the bench and joined the Army Air Corps to serve the country during World War II. After the service, he and his wife Marion settled in Southern California where he opened a law practice. He became a lobbyist in 1946 until he died on Sept. 10, 1993.
Judge Garibaldi lived a legendary life; however, only a few traces of his presence in Merced are found: his childhood home at 443 W. 22nd St., his law office in the Mondo Building, and his historic courtroom in the Courthouse Museum where a photo of him is on display. To view this photo and the superior courtroom where he presided, please visit the Courthouse Museum. While at the museum, don’t forget to check out our current exhibit titled, “Promoting Merced: A County of Many Resources.”
Sarah Lim is director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.