The Law in these Parts
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 first judge in the district which included Contra Costa County was John Watson (above); his district included Santa Cruz County, and he gave his name to the town of Watsonville. 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 was assigned one judge, and the court handled civil cases and acted as a probate court. F.M. Warmcastle (left) was Contra Costa’s first County Judge. This court also took appeals from the Justice’s Court. The Court of Sessions acted in concert with the County Court, handling only criminal matters and criminal appeals from the Justice’s Court. Its composition was unique, consisting of the County Judge and two justices of the peace, acting as associate judges. The associate judges were elected by all the justices in the county.
At the bottom were the Justice’s Courts. The history of this court system dates back to 13th century England, when the office of justice of the peace was created. These were community judges and handled local matters. There was a similar office in Mexican California, “the Alcalde,” who was a respected community member. His job was to resolve neighbor’s 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, seeing the office as similar to their own justice of the peace. Many Americans served as alcaldes during the first years of the California Republic and statehood. The Justice’s Court was local, easy to understand, and dealt with most of the issues that concern any community. Until late in the 20th century, the local justice of the peace was known by everyone and knew everyone in turn. It was a system that worked well and helped to foster a familiarity with the law and a respect for its processes. Sadly, it is long gone.
RECORDERS’ COURT: The State Constitution of 1850 also established this court, which could be set up in any incorporated city. Martinez was the first city to incorporate, in 1876, and in that year established the first Recorders’ Court in the county. This court was a variation of the Justice’s Court, and was concerned primarily with the violation of city ordinances. It later became known as the City Court.
MAYORS’ COURT: This was a variation of the Recorders’ Court, but was presided over by the mayor of an incorporated city.
JUDGE OF THE PLAINS: Probably the most unique of the judicial officers of the county, the “Judge of the Plains” was appointed for a term of one year by the Court of Sessions to attend rodeos and decide all disputes over ownership of cattle or other farm animals. In the early days of California statehood, it was a felony to alter or deface any mark or brand on most farm animals; such offence was punishable by imprisonment for 1 to 5 years.
The California Constitution was completely revised in 1880. Amended hundreds of times, it is still the constitution in use today. The County Court and the Court of Sessions were abolished and the Superior Court system was created. When the County Court was eliminated, the last judge was Thomas Brown (above), who then became Contra Costa County’s first Superior Court Judge. Until 1914, there was only one Superior Court judge. In that year, Department 2 was created, and Judge Alfred McKenzie became the first judge in that department. As the population has increased, new departments were created and the number of judges has increased accordingly.
The first Municipal Court in Contra Costa County was formed in 1953, in the city of Richmond. The city had grown tremendously during World War II, as had the entire county, and the need was felt for the broader jurisdiction of the Municipal Courts, and judges trained in the law (as the justices frequently were not). By 1969, five Municipal Courts had been created, and were located in Richmond, San Pablo, Concord, Walnut Creek and the Delta (River Court). They assumed the functions of the old Justice’s Court, and by 1972 this venerable institution had passed into history. By 1991 the number of Municipal Courts had been reduced to four, as the San Pablo Court had been joined with the Bay Municipal Court (formerly Richmond). On June 8, 1998 (in the words of former Judge Wayne Westover) “. . . the Contra Costa Municipal Courts went the way of the County’s justice courts when, by unanimous consent of all the judges of both courts, only the Superior court would remain.”
An Evolving Court
For over 100 years, the judges in our county comprised an exclusive white men’s club (unless you count Henry Alvarado who, as a “native Californian,” may have occupied a special niche in California history). The doors began to open to other groups in the 1950s.
The first female judge in Contra Costa County was Betsy Rahn, who was elected to the Walnut Creek Justice Court in November, 1958. On December 24, 1959, the Walnut Creek Municipal Court was established, by judicial order, and she was automatically elevated to the Municipal Court. She continued to serve as a judge until the mid-1970s.
George D. Carroll was our first African-American judge. He was appointed to the Bay Municipal Court, by Governor Edmund G. Brown, in 1965. He also served as the city of Richmond’s first African American Mayor.
Patricia McKinley was the first African American woman to serve as a judge in Contra Costa County. She was appointed to the Bay Municipal Court by Governor JerryBrown in 1982, at the young age of 33. Tragically, she died just four years later of cancer.
Irene Takahashi was our first Asian American judge. She was appointed by Governor Deukmejian in 1989 to the Bay Municipal Court in Richmond (the Richmond Court was the site of many legal firsts)
Joni Hiramoto is the first Asian American judge on the Superior Court bench.
Appointed to the Bay Muni Court by Governor Pete Wilson in 1998, she was elevated to the Superior Court three weeks later when the Municipal Courts were abolished. As of the date of this article, she is still an active Superior Court judge.
Barbara Zuñiga was the first Hispanic judge in the county (unless you count Henry Alvarado, 1923-1932), and the first Hispanic judge on the Superior Court.
Ms. Zuñiga served as a Municipal Court Judge in the Walnut Creek-Danville Court from 1985 to 1994. She was then elected to the Superior Court, where she served until her retirement in 2014.
E. Patricia Herron was the first woman to serve on the Superior Court. Appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 1977, she served for ten years and left to enter private practice. Women now outnumber men on the Superior Court bench.
Diana Becton is the first African American judge on the Superior Court bench. Ms. Becton began her career in 1995, when she was appointed to the Bay Municipal Court, by Governor Pete Wilson. She was automatically elevated to the Superior Court in June of 1998 when the Municipal and Superior Courts were consolidated. Recently elected to the office of Contra Costa County District Attorney, she now captures two new firsts as the first woman and the first African American to hold that office.
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 offences, are now carried on in one of the Superior Court buildings in the county (most of them in Martinez). But the job of the judge remains the same as it has always been—to mete out justice in as fair and impartial manner as possible.
Note: Much of the material for this article was taken from The Bench and Bar of Contra Costa County, by Wayne Westover Jr, Judge of the Superior Court, printed in 2002. This article is an abridged version of an exhibit, curated by the author Donald Bastin, 1st VP of the Contra Costa County Historical Society and Clementina Diaz , about the legal history of our county, on view at the History Center of the Contra Costa County Historical Society, 724 Escobar Street, Martinez. More info at cocohistory.org.