Shelley J. Higgins

[City Seal]
City of San Diego

Shelley J. Higgins

Judge & San Diego City Attorney

Mr. Paramount Rights Case

Born: June 2, 1886 in Burlington, Iowa
Died: February 21, 1956 in San Diego, California

[ San Diego County ]
County of San Diego


Mr. Higgins arrived in San Diego during 1910 following graduation from the University of Michigan’s Law School. He was admitted to the California Bar and worked as an attorney in private practice for four years before joining the City Attorney’s staff on January 21, 1914. He was a deputy and later assistant city attorney during the regime of Mr. Terence B. Cosgrove. Until the current city charter was adopted in 1931, the City Attorney was appointed rather than elected.

On November 29, 1919 Mr. Higgins was appointed City Attorney following the resignation of Mr. Cosgrove who entered private practice. He served as City Attorney until August 13, 1927 when he was appointed to a two year term on the San Diego Superior Court bench. During his time as City Attorney he was responsible for trying the City’s Paramount Rights Case against the Cuymaca Water Company and what is now the Helix Water District. This case affirmed the City of San Diego’s ownership of the waters of the San Diego River and established the groundwork of the City’s present local water sources. The judgment affirming the City’s position was upheld on appeal to several higher courts.

From 1930 until 1947 Judge Higgins was in private practice and served as legal counsel to the Fallbrook Public Utility District, Crest Public Utility District, Coronado’s City Attorney, and later special water counsel for the City of San Diego. From 1947 until his death he was assistant to City Attorney Jean F. DuPaul.

In addition to expert specialized knowledge of California’s water law, Judge Higgins was an original thinker in other aspects of municipal law. When legal questions were raised regarding the City’s providing water to unincorporated areas in what is now South San Diego, he developed the unique underbay legal shoestring allowing San Diego’s annexation of Nestor, San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, and Brown Field, thus ending the controversy.

Without the pioneering work of Judge Higgins there would be no Strategic Water Plan for San Diego or Water Department Capital Improvement Program in their present form. The citizens of San Diego remain in his debt for providing the basis for our inexpensive and abundant water in what is really a desert environment.

Link to a historical chronology of the San Diego Water System.
Link to the City of San Diego's Homepage.


Adapted from: Higgins, Shelley J. and Richard Mansfield. This Fantastic City San Diego. San Diego, California: City of San Diego. 1956. 352 pp.


Questions, comments, and corrections to Phil Abbey at pr_abbey@hotmail.com. Uploaded June 9, 1997. Revised 14 March 2005.

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