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Understanding the California Court System Hierarchy

Most California residents are familiar with their local courthouse and may have appeared there for a traffic matter, divorce, or even jury duty. However, the local trial court is only one tier of the California court system.

This article explains the judicial branch of California law, how the judges or justices are chosen, and what types of cases are presented at each level. Let’s start from the top down.

California’s Highest Court – The Supreme Court

Court Authority. All California courts are required to follow Supreme Court decisions. This court convenes regular sessions in three locations — San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. Special sessions are possible in other locations as needed.

Court Officials. The Supreme Court has one Chief Justice and six associate justices who are appointed by the Governor and then confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. The voting public decides whether to confirm the appointment at the next election and also at the end of each justice’s 12-year term.

Cases Heard. Cases requesting extraordinary relief, such as a writ of mandamus (which commands the performance of an official act or duty) or certiorari (a request to review an administrative or judicial decision), start in the Supreme Court without having to go through the other court levels. The court also has original jurisdiction in habeas corpus writ proceedings where a person under arrest is brought before the court.

Judicial Powers. The Supreme Court has the authority to review decisions of the State Courts of Appeal with the power to decide important legal questions and maintain continuity in California law. The court can specify certain issues to be reviewed, or it may decide all the issues in a case. The Supreme Court must also review all death sentence cases which are automatically appealed directly from the trial court to the Supreme Court.

California’s Reviewing Courts – The Courts of Appeal

Court Authority. California’s intermediate courts of review were established in 1904. When the trial court has the first right to hear a case, the Courts of Appeal then have jurisdiction to review the trial court’s ruling. In some instances, the appellate court has original jurisdiction to hear special cases like the Supreme Court.

Court Officials. The Courts of Appeal are divided into six appellate districts based on state geography. The 106 appellate justices are appointed following the same rules that govern the selection of Supreme Court justices.

Cases Heard. These courts generally hear cases that are appealed from the trial court level. Also, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and the Public Employment Relations Board can bring writ proceedings to the appellate court.

Judicial Powers. Appeals are heard by a three-justice panel. The panel’s decisions, called opinions, are published in the California Appellate Reports if they meet certain publication criteria. To be published an opinion must establish a new rule of law, involve a legal issue of continuing public interest, criticize existing law, or make a significant contribution to legal literature.

For more information, you can download A Visitors’ Guide to the California Courts of Appeal from the Official California Courts website.

California’s Trial Courts – The Superior Courts

Court Authority. California has 58 trial courts with one court located in each county. In the past, California’s trial court system contained two different forums — superior and municipal courts. In June 1998, California voters approved Proposition 220 which permitted the combination of superior and municipal courts into the Superior Court system.

Court Officials. The trial level is made up of 1,743 authorized judges and hundreds of authorized commissioners and referees. County voters elect their local superior court judges on a nonpartisan ballot in a general election for six-year terms. The Governor fills any vacancies by appointment.

Cases Heard. Superior courts hold trials in all criminal and civil cases. A judge or a jury hears witnesses’ testimony and receives evidence to decide cases by applying the relevant law to the relevant facts. In California, over 6 million cases are filed each year in the superior court system.

As civil litigation attorneys, both Noreen Evans and Deirdre Kingsbury are licensed to appear and argue legal cases in every level of the California court system. At Evans Kingsbury LLP we provide our clients with decades of litigation experience. Call us today at (707) 596-6090 or fill out our easy contact form to discuss your case.

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