Steve Cottrell’s Echoes from our past: Sullivan brothers had distinguished legal careers |

Steve Cottrell’s Echoes from our past: Sullivan brothers had distinguished legal careers

Jeremiah Francis Sullivan (1851-1928) arrived in Nevada City with his parents in 1853, was admitted to the San Francisco Bar in 1874, and named to the California Supreme Court in 1926.
Courtesy California Supreme Court Historical Society

Between 1844 and 1850, during the Great Hunger, nearly a million people died in Ireland, and another million or more emigrated — 80% of them to the United States. Among those who made the journey from their home in County Cork to the U.S. were Michael and Margaret (Bohane) Sullivan, both born in 1822.

After arriving in America, the Sullivans settled in Litchfield County, Connecticut, and it was there in August 1851 that their first chid, Jeremiah, was born.

Two years later, the Sullivans were in Nevada County — first Grass Valley, then Nevada City — and the family began to grow by leaps and bounds. Honorah was born in 1856, Matthew in ’57, Margaret in ’59, and Katherine in ’61. Eventually, there were eight Sullivan children, including Mary and John, born nine months apart in 1863, the year the family moved to San Francisco.

Their Nevada City home was on Coyote Street, just beyond the current Washington Street overpass. Unfortunately, like many other homes and commercial buildings with historical significance, it was demolished in the 1960s during construction of the Golden Center Freeway — a destructive swath that forever split the community in half.

For the Sullivans, a home at Coyote and Washington streets was perfect: close to downtown and a short walk to the original St. Canice Catholic Church — built in 1853 and replaced by the current church in 1864.

Michael and Margaret were active with the church and helped organize annual St. Patrick’s Day balls, usually held at the courthouse. Michael was also active in local politics. Not as an officeholder, nor even a candidate, but as a longstanding member of the city’s Democratic Committee, charged with nominating Democratic Party candidates for local offices.

After settling in San Francisco in 1863, not far from Mission Delores, all eight Sullivan children attended both public and parochial schools, with Jeremiah and Matt graduating from St. Ignatius College, (now the University of San Francisco). Following college, the brothers became attorneys and embarked on careers that culminated with both men serving on the California Supreme Court.

Jeremiah was elected to the San Francisco Board of Education in 1877 and two years later became a Superior Court judge — an office he held for 11 years. Meantime, Matt, who was admitted to the bar in 1879, served as staff attorney for the sheriff of San Francisco County and later became a criminal defense lawyer.

Then, in the summer of 1889, Jeremiah decided to step down from the bench and join Matt in private practice under the firm name of Sullivan & Sullivan. The brothers had great success, and in 1914, to help investigate and prosecute City Hall graft following San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire, Matt was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to be a special assistant to U. S. Attorney General James McReynolds. And later that year, having helped the federal government win two major corruption cases, Matt was appointed by Gov. Hiram Johnson to the position of Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court to fill the unexpired term of William Beatty, who had died in office that August.

Earlier in their respective legal careers, Jeremiah had run unsuccessfully for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Although he lost in both the 1886 and 1888 elections, he became a prominent and respected defense attorney, serving as president of the San Francisco Bar Association from 1917 until 1924, and president of the California State Bar Association in 1923-24.

In November 1926, Jeremiah, then 75, had his earlier goal realized when Gov. Friend Richardson appointed him to serve the 42-day unexpired term of Justice William Lawlor, who had died. It may have been a purely political appointment, rewarding Jeremiah for his long and distinguished legal career and commitment to the Democratic Party, but whatever the reason, it resulted in Jeremiah and Matt Sullivan becoming the only siblings ever to serve on California’s highest court.

In January 1927, when Jeremiah’s brief time on the state Supreme Court ended, he and Matt reestablished a law partnership — one that included their longtime friend Hiram Johnson, the former governor who, in 1914, had appointed Matt to serve as chief justice of the state court.

Jeremiah Francis, oldest of the eight Sullivan siblings, died in San Francisco on Jan. 23, 1928 — 76 years old. Matthew Ignatius Sullivan died in San Francisco on Aug. 6, 1937 — 79 years old. They are buried at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, as are their parents, all six brothers and sisters, and several Sullivan descendants.

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at

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