History of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office

hojWhile the prosecutorial powers of the District Attorney are clearly outlined today, the very first judicial powers in the area presently known as San Francisco were not as precise. California was admitted into the Union on September 9th, 1850. American military forces, however, claimed California for the Union in 1846 and, consequently, the Mexican town of Yerba Buena came to bear the American flag and changed its name to San Francisco in 1847. During the years between 1846 and 1850, when California was under American control but not admitted to the Union, the town of Yerba Buena continued the Mexican tradition of electing an Alcalde ordinario, a municipal magistrate with both judicial and administrative powers. This is the first public role close to resembling what the District Attorney does today. The first Alcalde for Yerba Buena under American rule was Washington Bartlett (who later became Mayor of San Francisco in 1883).

It is worth noting that during the early Yerba Buena days, the area was sparsely populated. Only a few hundred people lived in the town in 1848. Therefore, it did not require the prosecutorial discretion that is needed with a much larger population. By 1849, due to the many economic opportunities available in San Francisco, the population had surpassed 30,000 residents. With such a large increase in such a short time frame, the crime rate increased as did the need for a system of governance that adequately addressed these concerns. Judiciary and executive powers began to separate in 1849 when a Judge of the First Instance took over the Alcalde’s civic cases for disputes over $100. By 1850, California had been admitted into the Union and the city of San Francisco had adopted a new city charter which allowed for the Recorder’s Court, Justice of the Peace Courts, and County Court of Sessions to jointly take over the Alcalde’s judicial obligations.

After being admitted to the Union, California’s state laws mandated that “There shall be a district attorney in each county of this state[...].” At the time, the city of San Francisco was part of San Mateo County and adhered to the prosecutorial powers of its District Attorney. It was not until after the Consolidation Act of 1856 consolidated San Francisco as a city and a county that San Francisco’s first District Attorney, Henry Byrne, was elected.

Since Byrne, twenty-seven different individuals have held the esteemed prosecutorial title, including San Francisco’s current District Attorney, Chesa Boudin. The following list specifies the different District Attorneys of San Francisco and their respective tenures:

Henry H. Byrne, 1856

William K. Osborn, 1857

Harvey S. Brown, 1858-1860

Nathan Porter, 1861-1867

Herry H. Byrne, 1868-1871

Daniel J. Murphy, 1872-1873

Thomas P. Ryan, 1874-1875

Daniel J. Murphy, 1876-1879

David L. Smoot, 1880-1881

Leonidas E. Pratt, 1882

Jeremiah D. Sullivan, 1883-1884

John N. Wilson, 1885-1886

Edward B. Stonehill, 1887-1888

James D. Page, 1889-1890

William S. Barnes, 1891-1898

Daniel J. Murphy, 1899-1900

Lewis F. Byington, 1900-1905

William H. Langdon, 1906-1910

Charles M. Fickert, 1910-1919

Matthew Brady, 1920-1943

Edmund G. Brown, 1944-1950

Thomas C. Lynch, 1951-1964

John J. Ferdon, 1964-1975

Joseph Freitas, 1976-1979

Arlo Smith, 1980-1995

Terrence Hallinan, 1996-2003

Kamala Harris, 2004-2010

George Gascón, 2011-2019

Suzy Loftus (interim) 2019-2020

Chesa Boudin 2020 - Present


History of the DA Office


Gargielde, S., and F.A. Snyder. Compiled Laws of the State of California.1 Aug. 1853. Acts of the Legislature of a Public and General Nature, Now In Force, Passed at the Sessions of 1850-51-52-53. Massachusetts, Boston.

Hansen, Gladys. San Francisco Almanac: Everything You Want to Know About Everyone's Favorite City. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1995. Print.

Lotchin, Roger W. San Francisco, 1846-1856: From Hamlet to City.New York: Oxford UP, 1974. Print.

"Timeline of San Francisco History." Encyclopediaof San Francisco.San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, n.d. Web.<http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/timeline/>.