Resource of the Month: Solano County's History of Female Attorneys

By Jonathan Watson

For this year’s Women’s History Month, I finally had the chance to fulfill a research promise that I made two years ago. To honor the first women to practice law in the United States and California, I wrote the piece “Legacy of American Female Attorneys.” Since then, I vowed to find out who the first women were to practice law in Solano County.


In 2006, in a Daily Republic article written about the then newly appointed Judge Wendy G. Getty, the now retired Judge Dwight Ely mentioned that “‘when I first started there were two women who practiced law in the county…’” (Sullivan, 2006). Given that Judge Ely was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1959, I began researching through (freely accessible at any Solano County Library branch) for any pre-1959 records on practicing female attorneys. I stumbled upon a 1940 U.S. Federal Census that listed female Vallejo resident F. (Frances) Marian Leachman’s occupation as an “attorney.” A 1940 voter registration record also listed her as an attorney, though identified her as “Miriam F. Leachman.” Since there were no other records from 1940-1959 (and even pre-1940) that listed a female attorney, I narrowed my focus on Leachman.


Leachman was born on September 3, 1908 to Ream Sesostris Leachman (1877-1962) and Anna Muller (1886-1969) in Vallejo, California. She was the first child, and would later have a younger brother named James Debo Leachman (1910-1938). Her father Ream was a prominent physician and surgeon who, during the course of his career, co-managed a hospital in Vallejo from 1912-1914 (Wichel, 1964). The Leachman family was mentioned in various social columns in the San Francisco Call. A Sacramento Union society article (January 29, 1922) even provides insights into Leachman’s early education. It was announced that Leachman had just completed her grammar school education, and was setting sail for Europe with her grandparents to study music and language arts at a French school. Leachman would later attend Stanford University, where she received her A.B. (Political Science; 1930) and LL.B (1939). This posting shows a photo excerpt of Leachman taken from the 1930 yearbook edition of The Stanford Quad (U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012 for F Marian Leachman; During her time at Stanford University, Leachman excelled in extracurricular activities such as theater, golf, basketball and tennis. She most likely inherited her athleticism from her mother, as Anna was a tennis star throughout Leachman’s formative years.


On March 7, 1938, tragedy befell the Leachman family. James died while flying a plane that was to be repaired in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time of his death, he was working as an airfield manager at the Walla Walla Airport in Washington (The Daily Herald, 1938). Leachman passed the California Bar exam the following year. By 1940, she set up her own private practice at 102 Civic Center Building in Vallejo (Stanford Illustrated Review, 41:7). In April 1942, she married fellow attorney Ellis Richard Randall (1905-1995). They may have met while serving as the Solano County Bar Association’s delegates at the 1941 Annual Meeting of the State Bar of California. Their union produced daughter Diane Leachman Randall (b. 1943). An online source stated that Leachman served as a World War II police judge during her pregnancy. However, although there are sources that allude to her being a member of the American Judicature Society, I searched through the Roster of State, County, City and Township Officials of the State of California… editions published during that time period but could not substantiate this claim.


According to Ladies Home Journal (Vol. 69, pg. 52), Leachman—now going by her married name Randall—became Vallejo’s first female council member in 1952. In the article, Randall stated that she was encouraged by her husband to run for office. It goes on to state that Randall was tactful in her new political role, though she was quoted as saying “’I don't want to hide behind my skirts as a woman in office.’" As of 1953, she likely continued practicing law while serving as a council member—as she was listed as having a practice at 600 Virginia Street in a Vallejo city directory. Thompson (2014) stated that she served one term, and that there would not be another female Vallejo council member “until Florence Douglas became mayor in 1963.” In the late 1950s, Randall remained active in other capacities. In a 1959 transcript, she was identified as the Vice President and the Legislative Chairman of the California Association of Recreation and Park Districts. It is uncertain, however, if she continued practicing law or working in politics in the 1960s and 1970s. What is known is that, in 1966, her husband Ellis was appointed Judge of the Solano County Superior Court. Randall passed away on February 26, 1975 in Vallejo.


In 2015, Judge Cynda Riggins Unger led me towards a research path by naming a late Solano County female attorney: Adey May Dunnell. Dunnell was born on September 2, 1922 in Martinez, California to Leo Cornelius Dunnell (1897-1968) and Adey Laura Taffinder (1900-1998). Although the family was initially settled in Contra Costa County, Dunnell’s father Leo had established roots in Solano County. He graduated from Fairfield, California's Armijo High School in 1915, and went on to attend Stanford University (1917) and King’s College, University of London (1919) (Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, Incorporated, 1968). He married Adey Laura in 1921 and was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1923. By 1930, according to the U.S. Federal Census issued that year, the Dunnell family had resettled in Suisun, California. According to The Stanford Daily (August 13, 1931), he was appointed as an assistant to U.S. Attorney George Hatfield of San Francisco. The article goes on to mention that Leo worked as a Deputy District Attorney for Solano County for a four-year time span, and practiced law in Fairfield.


Dunnell would eventually follow in her father’s footsteps. She first obtained her A.B. at the University of Nevada (1944) before completing her LL.B. at her father’s alma mater Stanford University (1948). While at the University of Nevada, she was the business manager for the campus newspaper Sagebrush. Aside from her educational and professional endeavors, the 1940s also led to a significant change in Dunnell’s personal life. The Reno Gazette-Journal (October 25, 1943) announced Dunnell’s marriage to her first husband Bernard “Bernie” Shapiro, a fellow classmate at the University of Nevada. She was described as a “petite blonde bride…in [a] smart brown ensemble trimmed in red…[with an] orchid corsage.” The photo of Dunnell used in this posting was taken from the University of Nevada’s Artemisia Yearbook (1943).


In May 1948, it was announced in The Stanford Daily that Dunnell passed the California Bar exam. She would eventually form the law practice Dunnell & Dunnell with her father at 620 Great Jones Street in Fairfield. In 1966, Dunnell and her father attended the Eleventh Conference of the International Bar Association in Lausanne, Switzerland. During her years of practice, Dunnell was a member of the Solano County Bar Association. She was also an arbitrator for Solano County. Around 1997, she donated six-acres on Hilborn Road to the City of Fairfield (Antonius, 2009)—which is now known as the Dunnell Nature Park & Education Center Project. The park also goes by the names Dunnell-Burton Ranch and Peacock Ranch due to its peacock population. There is actually a family story behind the peacocks as, according to Judge Unger, they are descendants of a pair given to Leo Dunnell and Adey May Taffinder as a wedding present.


As Judge Unger recollects, Dunnell was well-versed in the culinary arts and bred and showed Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. Per the registries kept by the American Chesapeake Club, Dunnell gave her dogs colorful names such as Alibi Lonely Hunter. Dunnell passed away in Alturas, California on February 3, 2011.


In addition to Randall and Dunnell, there are other female attorneys that have made their mark in Solano County’s history:


According to Chalk (2011), Commissioner Barbara James was “the first female magistrate in Solano County.” Commissioner James came to Solano County “as a military brat whose parents settled down near Travis Air Force Base upon retirement” (Sullivan, 2011). She graduated from the McGeorge School of Law in 1973, and was “one of three women in her graduating class” (Chalk, 2011). Prior to becoming a Commissioner for Solano County Superior Court, she worked as a partner in several law firms and as a Deputy Public Defender in Fresno County (1979-1984). She retired in 2011 after serving on the bench for twenty-two years. [Photo source: Brad Zweerink / Daily Republic]



In my February 2017 blog posting for Black History Month, I mentioned that Judge Ramona J. Garrett was Solano County Superior Court’s first female and first African-American judge (Daily Republic, 2015). According to the UC Davis School of Law, Judge Garrett grew up in a military family. She entered Santa Clara University at age 18 as a single mother, and earned her Bachelor Degree in Philosophy in 1974. She later attended the UC Davis School of Law, and passed the bar exam in 1980. Prior to her judgeship, Judge Garrett worked for Solano County’s District Attorney Office—eventually becoming a Chief Deputy District Attorney. Judge Garrett retired in 2015 after serving on the bench for more than twenty-five years (Sullivan, 2015). [Photo source: UC Davis School of Law]



In 2000, Judge Cynda Riggins Unger became Solano County Superior Court’s first elected female judge. According to the series Judicial Profiles, Judge Unger grew up in Woodland, California and spent much of her time at her father’s ballet studio (Oberthur, 2006). She attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and obtained her B.A. from UC Davis. She then attended the University of the Pacific's McGeorge Law School where she graduated with honors with Order of the Coif recognition. Prior to her judgeship, she worked for eleven years at Dobbins Weir (she became a certified family law specialist during the course of her employment) before joining the family law division of Solano County’s District Attorney Office. In 2006, she was recognized as the California State Bar Association Family Law Executive Committee's Judicial Officer of the Year (State Bar of California, 2016) [Photo source: State Bar of California]



Solano County’s Public Defender Office was established on November, 4, 1968 (Adkins, 2016). On July 25, 2010, Lesli Caldwell became the first female Public Defender in Solano County’s history. As Hamlin (2010) stated, Caldwell—a native of Nampa, Idaho—grew up in Fremont, California. According to her profile on the Public Defender’s website, she received her B.A. in Sociology from UC Berkeley and her J.D. from the University of Santa Clara (1979). Prior to becoming the Public Defender, Caldwell worked as a Deputy Public Defender for Contra Costa County for twenty-seven years before becoming a Chief Deputy for Solano County in February 2007 (Hamlin, 2010). [Photo source: Public Defender—Executive Management, Solano County webpage]



According to York (2012),Claudia Quintana may be Vallejo’s first female and first Latino City Attorney. In an interview with Vallejo Together, Quintana stated that she grew up in El Salvador before immigrating with her family to the United States under political asylum. She would receive her B.A. in English from the University of California, Riverside and her J.D. from UC Hastings College of Law (1995). Upon passing the California Bar exam in 1995, Quintana initially worked as a Deputy Public Defender before becoming a Deputy City Attorney in 2004. The following year, she was admitted to practice before the Eastern District Court of California and subsequently represented the City of Vallejo in several federal cases (City of Vallejo, 2013). [Photo source: City of Vallejo webpage]



The resource History of Solano County… (1879) stated that Solano County’s first District Attorney took office in 1850. In 2014, in what was then the department’s 164th year of existence, Krishna Abrams became Solano County’s first female District Attorney. According to Sullivan (2014), San Francisco native Abrams was admitted to practice law in 1993. She completed her undergraduate education at UC Davis before obtaining her J.D. at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. Prior to joining the District Attorney’s Office in 2000, Abrams worked as a criminal defense attorney near Fresno and for Solano County’s Public Defender office. In 2013, she was “recognized as the leading prosecutor in the state by the California District Attorneys Association” (Chalk, 2013). [Photo source: Daily Republic]


This blog posting is only scratching the surface, as there are many more historical details that are just waiting to be uncovered. It is my hope that this piece will encourage readers to research the history of Solano County’s female attorneys in greater depth. If you have a historical fact that you would like to share, please feel free to contact me at Solano County Law Library at (707) 421-6520.


Any materials shared by Solano County Law Library is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Please contact a lawyer for advice on specific legal issues.

Leave a Comment

Concerned Solano Citizen

It is truly unfortunate that many women have the profound opportunity to leave a legacy for the advancement women as a whole, yet cause more harm than good. In the case of Judge Cynda Unger, she has been one of the many women that we see ravage and attack other women. The subject of two recall attempts in 2014 and 2018, Cynda Unger is well-known in Solano County for being a woman's worst nightmare in the Family Law courtroom. Even male attorneys refuse to represent women in front of Judge Unger because her bias against women is so blatant and truly ruthless. She mocks, berates, and belittles women that seek protection for themselves and their children about proven abuse. She rips children away from loving, fit mothers, and is known, not for being even-handed to all litigants, but for being an abusive father's best advocate. It is true that women often can be more ruthless to other women than a man could ever be, and that is the sad legacy of Cynda Unger. Hopefully, other women will rise up in Solano County and help heal the trauma she has inflicted to hundreds of women and children here. This commentary is not coming from someone that ever had her as a judge, but from someone that works among the legal community in Solano County, and is willing to speak up about the injustices happening to women in this place.



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