Justice & Judges: The History of the Courts in Contra Costa County

donald-bastinVisit our exhibit, “Justice and Judges: The History of the Courts in Contra Costa County.” The Contra Costa County Historical Society (CCCHS) History Center is located at 724 Escobar Street in downtown Martinez. We are the designated repository of a very substantial portion of the legal documents of the County, including criminal, probate, civil, and immigration records. Our huge archive is available to the researcher every Tuesday through Thursday and the third Saturday of every month. Phone: 925-229-1042. Visit online at: cocohistory.com.

Our Society recently received a substantial donation from the Contra Costa County Superior Court. The donation consists of artifacts and extensive court documents that once belonged to Judge Richard Arnason, who passed away recently. Judge Arnason served as a Superior Court Judge for 49 years—longer than any judge in the history of our county. The donation was received from former Presiding Judge Barry Goode, who suggested the idea of an exhibit honoring Judge Arnason. Our Executive Director saw the potential for using these and other materials to educate the people about the history of the courts in Contra Costa County, and thus, an exhibit was born.

The legal system in Contra Costa County has undergone many changes over the years. California’s original constitution, enacted in 1850, created a fairly complex system consisting of several courts. At the top (as far as the county was concerned) was the District Court. The district included Contra Costa County and several other counties, originally as far south as Santa Cruz and Monterey. The District Court Judge heard major criminal and civil cases, and appeals from lower courts. Below the District Court were the County Court and the Court of Sessions. The County Court, which handled civil cases and acted as a probate court, was assigned one judge. The Court of Sessions acted in concert with the County Court, handling only criminal matters and criminal appeals from the Justice’s Court (later called “Justice Court”). Its composition was unique, consisting of the County Judge and two Justices of the Peace, acting as Associate Judges.

At the bottom were the Justice Courts, the history of which goes back to 13th century England, when the Office of Justice of the Peace was created. These were community judges who handled local matters. There was a similar office in Mexican California—the Alcalde, who was a respected community member. His job was to resolve neighbors’ disputes and to render swift justice to miscreants. The Americans who flooded into California during the Gold Rush adapted to the Alcalde system without a problem, and many Americans served as Alcaldes during the first years of the California Republic and statehood. The Justice Court was local, easy to understand, familiar, and dealt with most of the issues that concern any community. Until late in the 20th century, the local Justice of the Peace was well known in the community and knew those in the community in turn. It was a system that helped to foster a familiarity with the law and a respect for its processes. With continued high growth rates in the county and the state, that model of courts was eventually replaced.

The California Constitution was completely revised in 1880 (and though amended hundreds of times, it is still the constitution in use today). As part of the revisions to the Constitution, the Superior Court system was created and the District Courts, County Courts and the Court of Sessions were all abolished.

At first, there was only one Superior Court Judge in Contra Costa County, and only one department. As the population increased, new departments were created and the number of judges increased.
The first Municipal Court in Contra Costa County was created in 1953, in the city of Richmond.

Richmond, like the rest of the county, had experienced enormous population growth, due to the war boom, and the Justice Courts, often manned by judges untrained in the law, were straining to meet the challenge of this growth. By 1969, five Municipal Courts were in operation (Richmond, Concord, San Pablo, Walnut Creek, and River) and by 1972 they had replaced the Justice Courts. A long tradition of local justice passed into history, though with some controversy. Many people felt that community judges provided common sense judgment and an intimate knowledge of the local population that the Municipal and Superior Court judges could not duplicate.

By the early 1990s, there were only four Municipal Courts, as the San Pablo Court had been absorbed into the Bay (Richmond) Municipal Court. The tide of consolidation was relentless, though, and in June of 1998, by unanimous consent of all the judges in both the Superior and Municipal Courts, the Municipal Courts were abolished.

Today, only the Superior Court remains in our county. The name “Superior Court” has lost its core meaning, as it is now superior to nothing. All civil and criminal cases, from small claims to traffic court to divorce proceedings, to the most serious criminal offenses, are now carried on in one of the Superior Court buildings in the county, which are located in Martinez, Richmond, Pittsburg, and Walnut Creek.

Donald Bastin is on the Board of Directors of the Contra Costa County Historical Society and is the Editor of the Society’s quarterly newsletter, the Bulletin. He holds a Master’s Degree in History from California State University, East Bay.