Is forever really forever? Question may be answered in lawsuit over UC Hastings name change
When California legislators in 1878 enacted a statute to name the state’s first public law school after a wealthy landowner and state supreme court chief justice, did they consider whether subsequent laws could change the agreement?
The question will likely come up in a recent California state court lawsuit filed by six descendants of Serranus Clinton Hastings, who gave the state treasury $100,000 to start the school.
About a decade ago, historians found that Hastings had organized a militia to kill Native Americans living near land he had claimed for himself. In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law changing the name to the University of California College of the Law at San Francisco.
The 1878 law said the school “should be forever known and designated” as Hastings College of the Law. The lawsuit seeks to keep the law school’s name and objects to a Hastings family board seat being removed. An alumni group is also a plaintiff.
“My guess is this was such a new and novel thing, people in 1878 weren’t contemplating what it would look like,” says Elizabeth Bawden, a private client and tax partner at Withers in Los Angeles who teaches an estate and gift taxation class at UCLA School of Law.
“Legislation is never beyond amendments, and the legislation can change at any time,” she adds.
School naming rights based on monetary donations are increasingly common, Bawden says, as are “bad boy clauses” in the agreements that allow for removing the donor’s name if a scandal arises.
“When I was first in practice, there were still naming rights based on an individual’s reputation or contribution to the community. I haven’t seen that in at least a decade; every naming right is tied to money,” she adds.
The lawsuit says there’s no direct proof Hastings financed the militia.
A 2016 book by Benjamin Madley, a UCLA history professor, details how eight people were arrested for the killings. Titled An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, the book says Hastings, in his judicial capacity, released the men on bail, and none of the cases were ever tried.
“I think he probably wanted to protect his investments in horses and cattle on his Eden Valley ranch,” Madley told the ABA Journal in 2018.
A law school spokesperson told the ABA Journal they are researching the 1878 statute’s legislative history. According to a statement released by the law school, all state assembly members and senators voted in favor of the 2022 legislation.
“The bill’s passage was the result of a lengthy, deliberate and transparent process at the college that included years of thoughtful research, several public hearings and input from a wide range of community stakeholders,” the statement reads.
ABAJournal.com: “Board of UC Hastings law school recommends name change in response to founder’s role in massacres”
ABAJournal.com: “UC Hastings law school will advocate for name change because of namesake’s role in massacres”
ABAJournal.com: “Founder’s role in massacres leads to reckoning for Hastings law school”