Superior Courts of California
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California California is a U.S. state, state in the Western United States, located along the West Coast of the United States, Pacific Coast. With nearly 39.2million residents across a total area of approximately , it is the List of states and territori ...
are the
state State may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Literature * ''State Magazine'', a monthly magazine published by the U.S. Department of State * The State (newspaper), ''The State'' (newspaper), a daily newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, U ...
trial court A trial court or court of first instance is a court A court is any person or institution, often as a government institution, with the authority to Adjudication, adjudicate legal disputes between Party (law), parties and carry out the admin ...
s with
general jurisdiction {{Globalize, article, USA, 2name=the United States, date=December 2010 A court of general jurisdiction is a court with authority to hear cases of all kinds – criminal law, criminal, civil law (common law), civil, family law, family, probate, an ...
to hear and decide any civil or criminal action which is not specially designated to be heard in some other court or before a governmental agency. As mandated by the
California Constitution The Constitution of California ( es, Constitución de California) is the primary organizing law for the U.S. state In the United States The United States of America (U.S.A. or USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or U ...
, there is a superior court in each of the 58 counties in California. The superior courts also have appellate divisions (superior court judges sitting as appellate judges) which hear appeals from decisions in cases previously heard by inferior courts.


Organization

The superior courts are the lowest level of state courts in California holding general jurisdiction on civil and criminal matters. Above them are the six
California courts of appeal The California Courts of Appeal are the state intermediate appellate courts in the U.S. state In the United States The United States of America (U.S.A. or USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US) or America, is a c ...
, each with appellate jurisdiction over the superior courts within their districts, and the
Supreme Court of California The Supreme Court of California is the Supreme court, highest and final court of appeals in the judiciary of California, courts of the U.S. state of California. It is headquartered in San Francisco at the Earl Warren Building, but it regularly h ...
. As of 2007, the superior courts of California consisted of over 1,500 judges, and make up the largest part of California’s judicial system, which is in turn one of the largest court systems in the United States. Superior court judges are elected by each county’s voters to six-year terms. California attorneys are allowed to run against sitting superior court judges at their retention elections, and have occasionally succeeded in doing so. Vacancies in the superior courts are filled by appointments made by the
governor A governor is an administrative leader and head of a polity A polity is an identifiable Politics, political entity – a group of people with a collective identity, who are organized by some form of Institutionalisation, institutionalized s ...
. Because
Los Angeles County Los Angeles County, officially the County of Los Angeles, and sometimes abbreviated as L.A. County, is the List of the most populous counties in the United States, most populous county in the United States and in the U.S. state of California, ...
has the largest population of any county in the United States, it also has the largest superior court. The
Los Angeles County Superior Court The Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, is the California superior court with jurisdiction over Los Angeles County Los Angeles County, officially the County of Los Angeles, and sometimes abbreviated as L.A. County, is the ...
is organized into dozens of highly specialized departments, dealing with everything from moving violations to
mental health Mental health encompasses emotional, psychological, and social well-being, influencing cognition Cognition refers to "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses". It enc ...
. It handles over 2.5 million legal matters each year, of which about 4,000 terminate in jury trials; this works out to about 4,300 matters per judge. Its 429 judges are assisted by 140 commissioners and 14 referees. In contrast, many of California’s smallest counties, like Alpine, Del Norte, Inyo, Lake, Lassen, Mono, and Trinity, typically have only two superior court judges each, who are usually assisted by a single part-time commissioner. To be eligible to become a superior court judge in California, one must have been a member of the
State Bar of California The State Bar of California is California's official attorney licensing agency. It is responsible for managing the admission of lawyers to the practice of law, investigating complaints of professional misconduct, prescribing appropriate disciplin ...
for at least ten years. One quirk of
California law The law Law is a set of rules that are created and are law enforcement, enforceable by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior,Robertson, ''Crimes against humanity'', 90. with its precise definition a matter of longstandi ...
is that when a party petitions the appellate courts for a writ of mandate (California's version of ''
mandamus (; ) is a judicial remedy in the form of an order from a court to any government, subordinate court, corporation A corporation is an organization—usually a group of people or a company—authorized by the State (polity), state to a ...
''), the case name becomes etitioner name''v. Superior Court'' (that is, the superior court is the respondent on appeal), and the real opponent is then listed below those names as the "
real party in interest In law, the real party in interest is the one who actually possesses the substantive right being asserted and has a legal right to enforce the claim (under applicable substantive law). Additionally, the "real party in interest" must sue in his own ...
". This is why several U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases that originated in California bear names like '' Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court'' (1987) and '' Burnham v. Superior Court of California'' (1990). The underlying justification is that the writ jurisdiction of the California Courts of Appeal is to make an order directing the Superior Court to enter an order in its records, while the real party in interest has standing to oppose the appellate application for a writ. Normally, there is "no appearance for respondent", but in certain rare circumstances, the Superior Court does have standing to oppose an application for a writ, and has actually done so.


Appellate divisions

Another quirk is that because the superior courts are now fully unified with all courts of inferior jurisdiction, the superior courts must hear relatively minor cases that previously would have been heard in such inferior courts, such as
infraction A summary offence or petty offence is a violation of law, violation in some common law jurisdictions that can be proceeded against summarily, without the right to a jury trial and/or indictment (required for an indictable offence). Canada In Cana ...
s,
misdemeanor A misdemeanor (American English, spelled misdemeanour elsewhere) is any "lesser" crime, criminal act in some common law legal systems. Misdemeanors are generally punishment, punished less severely than more serious felony, felonies, but theor ...
s, "limited civil" actions (actions where the amount in controversy is below $25,000), and " small claims" actions.
Snukal v. Flightways Manufacturing, Inc.
', 23 Cal. 4th 754, 98 Cal. Rptr. 2d 1, 3 P.3d 286 (2000).

Housing Authority of Monterey v. Jones
', 130 Cal. App. 4th 1029, 30 Cal. Rptr. 3d 676 (2005).
The superior courts have appellate divisions (superior court judges sitting as appellate judges) which were previously responsible for hearing appeals from inferior courts. Now, the appellate divisions hear appeals from decisions of other superior court judges (or commissioners, or judges '' pro tem'') who heard and decided such minor cases. Unlike appellate divisions in other states (such as the
New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division The Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court of the State of New York are the intermediate appellate courts in New York State. There are four Appellate Divisions, one in each of the state's four Judicial Departments (e.g., the full title of th ...
), the appellate divisions of the superior courts are ''not'' considered to be separate courts. Like the vast majority of U.S. state trial courts, most superior court decisions involve the judge merely signing a proposed order drafted by one side or the other. Thus, superior court decisions are not normally reported either in
reporters A journalist is an individual that collects/gathers information in form of text, audio, or pictures, processes them into a news-worthy form, and disseminates it to the public. The act or process mainly done by the journalist is called journalism ...
or legal databases. However, appellate divisions of the superior courts do sometimes certify opinions for publication. Such opinions are published in ''California Appellate Reports Supplement'', which is included in the regular volumes of the ''California Appellate Reports'', the official reporter of the Courts of Appeal. Proposition 220 of 1998 created the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, which replaced the previous Appellate Department but retained the same jurisdictional authority.


Governance

Every California court may make local rules for its own government and the government of its officers as long as these local rules are not inconsistent with law or with the rules adopted and prescribed by the
Judicial Council of California The Judicial Council of California is the rule-making arm of the Judiciary of California, California court system. In accordance with the California Constitution and under the leadership of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California, the ...
.


History

The concept of having a superior court of general jurisdiction in each of California's counties dates back to the ratification of the second
California Constitution The Constitution of California ( es, Constitución de California) is the primary organizing law for the U.S. state In the United States The United States of America (U.S.A. or USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or U ...
in 1879. Previously, the original California Constitution of 1849 and the California Judiciary Act of 1851 had created multi-county district courts of general jurisdiction which supervised county courts and
justice of the peace A justice of the peace (JP) is a judicial officer of a lower or ''puisne'' court, elected or appointed by means of a commission (letters patent) to keep the peace. In past centuries the term commissioner of the peace was often used with the same ...
courts of limited jurisdiction. Notably, the superior courts did not always enjoy the unified jurisdiction that they possess now. The 1879 state constitution authorized the state legislature to establish inferior courts at its discretion in any city, town, or city and county, with powers, duties, and terms to be fixed by statute. By the mid-20th century, California had as many as six, seven, or eight types of inferior courts of limited jurisdiction under the superior courts, depending upon how they were counted. There were two types of municipal courts (one of which was called "police court"), two types of police courts (not to be confused with the "police court" which was a kind of municipal court), city justices' courts, city courts, and Class A and Class B judicial township justices' courts. In 1947, the state legislature directed the state judicial council to study the structure of the state's inferior courts. The council's 1948 study found: "There are six separate and distinct types of inferior courts, totaling 767 in number, created and governed under varied constitutional, statutory, and charter provisions." The council found there was much "multiplicity and duplication" between the superior courts and the various types of inferior courts, resulting in "conflict and uncertainty in jurisdiction." Even worse, most inferior courts were not staffed by full-time professional judges; they were presided over on a part-time basis, either by laymen who also operated outside businesses or attorneys in private practice. Chief Justice Phil S. Gibson remarked that "there are very few lawyers who can correctly name all the types of trial courts in the state, much less give the sources and extent of their jurisdiction." To fix this colossal mess, the judicial council proposed and the legislature enacted the Court Act of 1949 to reduce the number of types of inferior courts to two: municipal courts and justice of the peace courts, which were renamed "justice courts". This dropped the total number of courts in California to less than 400. To solve the problem of inferior courts which overlapped one another, all county boards of supervisors were required to divide their counties into judicial districts. Each district would be served by only one inferior court of limited jurisdiction underneath the superior court. Districts with populations more than 40,000 would be served by municipal courts, and districts with lesser populations would be served by justice courts. Municipal court jurisdiction was limited to civil cases where the amount in controversy was $2,000 or less and criminal misdemeanors, while justice court jurisdiction was limited to civil cases involving $500 or less and so-called "low grade misdemeanors." For the Court Act to become fully effective, a constitutional amendment had to be submitted to the state electorate as Proposition 3, which was duly approved on November 7, 1950. Despite ongoing calls for further reform and trial court unification, California's trial court system remained quite complex for several more decades. In 1971, a legislative select committee found that the trial court system was fragmented into "58 superior courts, 75 municipal courts, and 244 justice courts, of which 74 percent were single-judge courts". Starting in the 1970s, California began to slowly phase out the use of justice courts (in which non-lawyers were authorized by statute to preside as judges) after a landmark 1974 decision in which the
Supreme Court of California The Supreme Court of California is the Supreme court, highest and final court of appeals in the judiciary of California, courts of the U.S. state of California. It is headquartered in San Francisco at the Earl Warren Building, but it regularly h ...
unanimously held that it was a violation of
due process Due process of law is application by State (polity), state of all legal rules and principles pertaining to the case so all legal rights that are owed to the person are respected. Due process balances the power of law of the land and protects the ...
to allow a non-lawyer to preside over a criminal trial which could result in incarceration of the defendant. This was a "bombshell" decision because at the time, non-lawyer judges were presiding over 127 justice courts. In response, the Judicial Council of California arranged for the immediate enactment of legislation to upgrade 22 attorneys already sitting as justice court judges from part-time to full-time service and allow them to " ride circuit" and hear such trials in any justice court then presided over by a non-lawyer judge. Another change was that all new justice court judges after that point in time had to be attorneys. The next major attempt at trial court reform and unification started in 1992 when state senator
Bill Lockyer William Westwood Lockyer (born May 8, 1941) is a retired American politician from California, who held elective office from 1973 to 2015, as California State Treasurer, State Treasurer of California, California Attorney General, and President P ...
introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 3, which would have unified the superior, municipal and justice courts in each county into a single "district court". In response, the California Law Revision Commission published a comprehensive study in January 1994 which carefully evaluated options for the proposed court's name such as "district", "superior", "county", "trial", "unified", and "circuit", and concluded that the preferable name was "superior court". The Commission acknowledged the name could be confusing due to the absence of any inferior courts after unification, but contended this was outweighed by the benefits of continuing to use a familiar name, not having to spend money on changing existing superior court signs and letterhead, and not having to amend over 3,000 references to the superior court in 1,600 statutes. SCA 3 passed the state senate but failed to pass the state assembly; it remains historically important, however, because it laid the groundwork and created political momentum towards the more gradual reform process which ultimately prevailed. In 1994, the state electorate approved Proposition 191, which amended the state constitution to eliminate the remaining justice courts and force them to consolidate with the municipal courts. In 1998, the electorate approved Proposition 220, which amended the state constitution to authorize trial court judges in each county to decide whether or not to retain municipal courts. Within two months, by December 31, 1998, judges in 50 of California's 58 counties had voted for consolidation of municipal courts with superior courts. The last county to achieve trial court unification was Kern County, where the state's last four municipal court judges were sworn in by Chief Justice Ronald M. George as superior court judges on February 8, 2001. Therefore, at present, the superior courts are actually not "superior" to any inferior courts within the judicial branch. They ''are'' still superior to certain types of administrative hearings within the executive branch; dissatisfied litigants can appeal to superior courts through administrative mandamus. Many of California's larger superior courts have specialized divisions for different types of cases like criminal, civil, traffic, small claims, probate, family, juvenile, and complex litigation, but these divisions are simply administrative assignments that can be rearranged at the discretion of each superior court's presiding judge in response to changing caseloads (that is, regardless of whether the division is colloquially called "traffic court" or "family court", all orders are issued by judges of the superior court). In contrast, inferior courts were creatures of statute and thus were slightly more difficult to rearrange. Judges stationed at rural superior courts too small to set up specialized divisions must be generalists who can handle everything; the state judicial education center provides a special training program for "Cow County Judges". Another peculiarity of California law is that traditionally, the superior courts did not own their own buildings or employ their own staff, and the state government was not required to provide them with such things. Even though the superior courts were clearly part of the judicial branch of the ''state'' government, they were actually operated by ''county'' governments who were expected to provide buildings, security, and staff for the superior courts out of their own local budgets. At the same time, courthouse construction and maintenance were often overlooked among the numerous mandatory responsibilities placed upon counties by California law. Even worse, because so many of the responsibilities delegated to county governments were of a nature which people were likely to sue over, this arrangement put superior court judges in the awkward position of frequently ruling on lawsuits involving the very county governments responsible for maintaining their courthouses and providing their staff. Counties were allowed to collect trial court fees, fines, and forfeitures to help fund trial court operations, but those sources of funds were not sufficient. The enacting of Proposition 13 by the state electorate in 1978 became a catalyst for reform of trial court funding because it placed California counties into such severe financial distress that they could no longer bear the burden of such a partially-funded mandate. The paradox of state judicial officers working in county-operated organizations culminated in a 1996 case in which the Supreme Court of California upheld the constitutionality of a statute under which the superior court of
Mendocino County Mendocino County (; ''Mendocino'', Spanish language, Spanish for "of Antonio de Mendoza, Mendoza) is a County (United States), county located on the North Coast (California), North Coast of the U.S. state of California. As of the 2020 United Sta ...
was bound by the county board of supervisors' designation of unpaid
furlough A furlough (; from nl, verlof, "leave of absence") is a temporary leave of employees due to special needs of a company or employer, which may be due to economic conditions of a specific employer or in society as a whole. These furloughs may be s ...
days for all county employees, including those who worked for the superior court. The
California State Legislature The California State Legislature is a bicameral State legislature (United States), state legislature consisting of a lower house, the California State Assembly, with 80 members; and an upper house, the California State Senate, with 40 membe ...
attempted to fix these issues by first enacting the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 to begin the process of transitioning the superior courts from county budgets to the state budget.
People v. High
', 119 Cal. App. 4th 1192, 15 Cal. Rptr. 3d 148 (2004).
Next came the Trial Court Employment Protection and Governance Act of 2000 to separate trial court employees from county governments, followed by the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 to transfer courthouses from the county governments to the state government. The first courthouse transfer, in Riverside County, took place in October 2004. On December 29, 2009, the Administrative Office of the Courts announced that the process of transferring 532 facilities to state control was complete with the transfer of the Glenn County Superior Courthouse.


List

Number in parenthesis represent cities/communities with multiple courthouses County seats are highlighted in bold.


See also

* Criminal procedure in California * Judiciary of California


References


Further reading

*


External links


Judicial Council of California website


of all Superior Courts statewide, from the Judicial Council

listing officers of all trial courts statewide, from the Judicial Council {{California topic, , Superior Court, title=Superior Courts of California, exclude-regions=yes, exclude-cities=yes, exclude-suffix=yes Superior courts in California California state courts