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Historical Perspective

Evolving from its Spanish provincial past over two hundred years ago, the Los Angeles Judicial System has grown and developed into an organization that provides services to the largest metropolitan area in the State of California. The Superior Court provides services to over 9.5 million residents who live and work throughout the 4,080 square miles of Los Angeles County. In over one hundred and fifty years of existence, the courts have grown along with the geographic expansion of this region.

Historical Tradition

The history of the judicial system started with the Mexican provincial territory and the pueblo of Los Angeles governed by the 'Alcalde' system of justice. The "Alcalde" was the executive, legislative and judicial governmental entity all rolled into one official. The Alcalde had general authority over criminal matters and public disputes and performed other administrative duties that are equivalent to those performed by a city's mayor. The alcalde system was disbanded when California declared its statehood in 1849 and became a part of the United States. The first California Constitution of 1849 authorized the legislature to establish such municipal and other courts as deemed necessary. President Millard Fillmore signed a law extending the United States judicial system to California in 1850, thus creating the first courts in the State.

The California Judiciary Act of 1851 was adopted to establish a court system for the State; it divided the State into sections and created "Districts." Los Angeles was a part of a district with San Bernardino and San Diego Counties. This early predecessor to today's judicial system comprised District, County, and Justice of the Peace Courts. Judge Agustin Olvera of the County Court and Judge Jonathan R. Scott of the Justice of the Peace Court were the first judges to hold these positions. District Courts, similar to today's Superior Court, had jurisdiction in civil cases where the matter in dispute exceeded $200.00, in all criminal matters, and in probate matters. County Courts were similar to today's Municipal Courts. The early District Court system was immediately burdened by the vast expanse of the district which a District Judge served. A District Judge was required to hold court proceedings where the cases were filed. Because of the miles a District Court Judge had to travel to conduct trials and due to the sudden growth in population after the discovery of gold, which led to an increased caseload, the early District Court system became ineffective and non-responsive to the needs of its constituency. County Judges, however, were able to provide services more on a local level.

Spurred by unrest by the populace over the structure of state government and the inadequacies of the existing judicial system, a Constitutional Convention was called in 1877. The result of the convention was the adoption of a new State Constitution of 1879 in which a new court structure was developed. The new Constitution created a Supreme Court, District Courts of Appeal, and Superior Courts. The State Constitution dropped all reference to Municipal Courts, and the term did not reappear until 1914. During this period, Justices of the Peace and County Judges served in a number of different city and county court systems, including Justices Courts, County Courts, and Police Courts. Superior Courts were established in each county in the state. Los Angeles County had two judges, Judges Ygnacio Sepulveda and Volney E. Howard, in this new Superior Court.

The County's population in 1880 was 33,381, and records indicate that 633 actions were filed in the new court and 57 attorneys practiced in Los Angeles.

Clock Tower Court
Red Sandstone Court

The Superior Court's humble beginnings started in a ramshackle adobe structure on Main Street north of the Plaza. Unable to house all of its functions from the outset in this courthouse, many court proceedings were held in rooms in hotels, private residences and office buildings throughout the downtown area. These temporary facilities served as the Superior Court's home during its formative years as a District Court and during its early years as a newly formed Superior Court. The two original judges of the new Superior Court, Judges Ygnacio Sepulveda and Volney E. Howard, were housed in these temporary facilities until the first permanent facility, known as the "Clock Tower Courthouse," was occupied in 1861 and purchased in 1871 for $20,000.00. In 1891, the "Red Sandstone Courthouse" was constructed at a cost of $518,810.00 in the Los Angeles Civic Center area. As the workload grew and more judges were appointed to the Superior Court, the Court again had to look for temporary facilities in which to conduct its business. Starting in 1910, the Superior Court began to use the Hall of Records whenever additional space was needed for courtrooms.

In 1914, Article 11 of the California Constitution was amended to authorize the establishment of Municipal Courts in cities or counties with over 350,000 people. These courts were created by city charters.In 1924, Article 6 of the Constitution was amended to authorize the Legislature to establish a Municipal Court "in any city and county and in any city which is governed under a charter framed and adopted under the authority of this Constitution containing a population of more than forty thousand inhabitants." The purpose behind the establishment of these Municipal Courts in the larger cities of the state was to relieve the congestion in the Superior Courts. The Municipal Courts were given jurisdiction over all misdemeanors committed within the county; civil cases involving $1,000.00 or less; actions of forcible entry; and detainers involving rentals of $100.00 or less per month and damages or $1,000.00 or less; and cases to enforce liens on personal property involving $1,000.00 or less.

Long Beach was the first city in the state to take advantage of the Act, and it established a Municipal Court of five judges commencing July 24, 1925. The City of Los Angeles followed in December of 1925 with 24 judges.

In 1933, the Superior Court's "Red Sandstone Courthouse" was condemned after it suffered considerable earthquake damage. For twenty-five years, the Superior Court continued to operate out of temporary quarters around the Civic Center area, including the County's Hall of Records. It was not until 1959 that the Superior Court was able to find a permanent home in the present Stanley Mosk Courthouse located on the corner of First and Hill Streets in the City of Los Angeles. (The courthouse was known as the “Central Civil Courthouse” until June 10, 2002 when it was renamed the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in honor of Justice Mosk who was a Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court from 1943-1959. After serving as the Attorney General for California, he served on the California Supreme Court from 1964 until his death on June 19, 2001.)

In 1947, the Legislature directed the Judicial Council to study the courts below the Superior Court level and to make recommendations for improvement. The next year, the Council reported that the principal defect was the existence of six separate types of inferior courts and their duplication of functions. The Judicial Council's recommendations led to the enactment of the Municipal and Justice Court Act of 1949. The electorate adopted a proposed constitutional amendment and a statewide system of Municipal and Justice Courts took effect. Under this arrangement, Municipal Courts were no longer established by cities but were a part of a county system. The Legislature provided for the division of each county into judicial districts for the creation of a uniform system of Municipal and Justice Courts wherein a Municipal Court was established in each district with over 40,000 people and a Justice Court was established in each district with less than 40,000 people.

Period of Growth

The first twenty-five years of the Twentieth Century saw the growth of Los Angeles and, with it, the migration of residents out into the new territories of the County. With this tremendous geographic, population, and transportation growth came the increased workload burdens on, and demand for services from, the judicial system.

In 1905, juvenile delinquency and dependency hearings were added to the Superior Court's jurisdiction. Under Juvenile Court procedures, judicial officers of the Superior Court handle all cases involving delinquent, incorrigible, abused and neglected children. The Court's caseload in this area has grown from 213 as reflected in its early statistics to approximately 36,968 filings in 2003. The earliest records of the Superior Court conducting hearings on mental health matters appeared in 1914. The Superior Court holds hearings on issues dealing with persons who are mentally disordered. Approximately 1,047 cases were heard in 1914 while approximately 34,966 cases were heard in 2005.

Aside from the expansion of its jurisdictional areas, the Superior Court needed to grow physically to meet its growing constituency's needs. In 1925, the State Legislature authorized the first branch of the Superior Court in Long Beach, the same year in which the City of Long Beach established a Municipal Court.Over the next two decades, Los Angeles County's population nearly doubled from approximately 2.7 million to 4.1 million. Again, the Superior Court was forced to expand to meet this increase in demand for services. Over this time period, seven additional District Courts were added to the Superior Court system. The seven new districts were:

  • 1931 Pasadena
  • 1933 Pomona
  • 1935 Santa Monica
  • 1943 Glendale
  • 1947 Inglewood and San Fernando
  • 1949 Compton and Southgate
  • 1950 Burbank

Realizing that the haphazard establishment of courts in the various municipalities throughout the County was not an effective or resourceful manner in which to manage the largest trial court in the country, the Superior Court entered into a three-year study to develop a planned growth of the County's court system. The study, which was performed with the cooperation of the legislature, other justice agencies and members of the legal community, resulted in passage of a redistricting plan in 1959 to establish nine districts where services and courts were consolidated into centrally located facilities which served communities within defined district boundaries. The boundaries for two new districts were formed in 1959 by merging the Burbank and Glendale Districts to form the North Central District and by the merging of South Gate and Compton to form the South Central District.

Other Superior Court districts which were delineated following the Re-districting Plan of 1959 are:

  • Northeast District 1959
  • Northwest District 1959
  • Southeast District 1969
  • Southwest District 1969
  • North Valley District 1983
  • North District 1994

1959 began an era of great expansion for the Superior Court. Two new courthouses opened that year; a $1.9 million courthouse was opened in March in Glendale. January saw the opening of the present day Stanley Mosk Courthouse where court operations and courtrooms, which had been scattered at various governmental and privately owned buildings throughout the Los Angeles downtown area, were centralized. This was the first time since 1933 that all of the civil courtrooms in the downtown area were housed in one location. Today, the Stanley Mosk Courthouse continues to house a majority of the civil clerical operations and approximately 70 civil courtrooms in the Central District, plus the Family Law Courts, the Probate Division and the Superior Court's Executive and Administrative Offices. The Civil Division of the Sheriff's Office is also located in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.After the opening of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and the Glendale Courthouse, the Superior Court's expansion continued into the next two decades when facilities were opened to meet the growth of service in the newly formed districts. New courthouses were opened in:

  • Santa Monica 1964
  • Torrance and Van Nuys 1967
  • Norwalk, Long Beach and Pomona 1968
  • Pasadena 1969
  • Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles 1972 (This courthouse was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center on February 8, 2002, in honor of Ms. Foltz who was the first woman lawyer in California, the first female prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the "Mother of the Public Defender Movement.")
  • Compton 1978
  • San Fernando in 1983

In 1991, the Central Civil West branch location was opened in Los Angeles in the Mid-Wilshire area to house additional civil courtrooms, civil operations and administrative staff. Today, the Central Civil West location houses civil trial courtrooms, Family Law courts and two courts handling "failure to provide" family law issues.

In 1992, a new courthouse was built to centralize the Juvenile Dependency court operations. Constructed with the latest innovations in courthouse design and in partnership with community and private entities, the Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court facility provides an environment conducive to conducting proceedings with children and their parents. (This courthouse was named in honor of Mr. Edelman, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from 1974-1994, in recognition of his many efforts on behalf of the County’s children.)

In the new millennium, two additional courthouses opened to meet the needs of the County's expanding population: the Chatsworth Courthouse in 2002 and the Michael D. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse in October, 2003. (The Antelope Valley courthouse was named in honor of Mr. Antonovich who has been a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from 1980 to present.)

The court's general jurisdiction workload now includes civil cases, felony criminal cases, family law matters, Juvenile Delinquency and Dependency proceedings, and probate proceedings. The Probate Department handles matters pertaining to estates of deceased persons, guardianships of minors and incompetents, and conservatorships. The Family Law operation adjudicates all legal proceedings concerning child custody, family support, dissolution of marriage and other proceedings between and concerning domestic relationships.

Limited jurisdiction courts hear civil claims which include personal injury, contracts, and landlord-tenant cases where the amount in dispute is less than $25,000.00 as well as small claims cases of $5,000.00 or less for businesses and $7,500.00 or less for individuals. Limited jurisdiction courts also have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors, which are offenses generally punishable by fine and/or a County Jail term, and over other infractions such as traffic tickets. The limited jurisdiction courts also handle preliminary hearings on felony charges to determine if there is sufficient evidence to require a defendant to stand trial.

Coordination and Unification of the County Courts

Between the 1970's and the last decade of the 20th century, the Superior Court was strongly committed to court coordination with the twenty-four former Municipal Court Judicial Districts throughout Los Angeles County. Through these efforts, the participating courts were able to maximize use of their limited resources to provide necessary services in support of judicial, clerical and administrative functions. Furthermore, duplication of functions was eliminated and centralized operations were set up to administer certain court support functions. Whereas each judicial district and court location had been responsible for arranging its own interpreters for court proceedings, in 1971 the Superior Court assumed responsibility for coordinating, providing and scheduling court interpreters for all courts in the County. Not only did this eliminate duplication of efforts by each court, but it also provided a more comprehensive data base from which to locate unique language interpreters, thereby providing better support service to these courts.

Similarly, all juror qualification, selection, and assignment functions were consolidated under one office of Juror Services in 1974. This office qualifies all prospective jurors, sends notices to jurors and assigns them to Superior Court locations for service. Since this effort began, the courts have been able to manage more efficiently the jury pool throughout the County and standardize the jury selection process.

The Superior Court and each former Municipal Court Judicial District maintained their own budgetary system, although a combined budget request had to be submitted to the State. However, each court was required to perform particular financial functions in a like manner. To this end, the Superior Court developed and implemented a county-wide system to monitor and process payments to court appointed attorneys in 1973, which was a function each court had previously had to perform itself. Rather than have each jurisdiction set its own claim procedures and process claims for matters heard in its courts, this centralized operation better served the courts, as well as the claimants, by establishing uniform processing procedures and a centralized unit which processed all claims. This system was further expanded in 1989 when a unified county-wide database was established.

To maximize the use of judicial resources, Municipal Courts and the Superior Court began in 1988 to cross-assign cases. This program involved having judges at each court level hear court matters that were normally not within the jurisdiction of their court, thereby assisting in reducing case backlogs.

The former Municipal Courts developed a county-wide automated criminal case processing system for use in all Los Angeles County Municipal Courts. This system, known as the Municipal Court Information (MCI) system, utilized one case processing system to manage and process each criminal case from its inception in the Municipal Court through disposition in the Municipal Court. This system was subsequently modified to manage criminal cases from inception in the Municipal Court through disposition in the Superior Court, and was adopted by all the courts in the County by 1993. The system was renamed the Trial Court Information System (TCIS).

In 1993, the Los Angeles Superior Court was administratively unified with a number of Municipal Courts. Santa Monica, Malibu/Calabasas and Pasadena Municipal Court Judicial Districts remained unified with the Superior Court until 1998. During 1998 and 1999, an additional 17 Municipal Court Judicial districts joined the Administratively Unified Courts. At that point, the judicial districts which joined with the Superior Court in the Administratively Unified Courts were: Alhambra, Antelope, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Calabasas, Citrus, Compton, Culver, Downey, East Los Angeles, Glendale, Huntington Park, Long Beach, Los Cerritos, Lynwood, Malibu, Pasadena, Pomona, Rio Hondo, Santa Anita, Santa Monica, South Gate and Whittier.

"Administrative unification" meant that these 20 Municipal Courts, along with the Superior Court, shared one Executive Officer/Court Administrator. The Superior Court and the Administratively Unified Courts worked together to increase efficiency in such areas as purchasing, collections, personnel policies and procedures, and caseload management.

Each of the above-mentioned efforts was undertaken with the expressed intent to maximize the use of courts' dwindling resources and to coordinate functions, procedures and processes in order to serve the public better. In furtherance of these efforts, the courts in Los Angeles County formed the Trial Courts Coordination Committee in 1995. The committee worked to further coordination efforts between the twenty-five former court jurisdictions in Los Angeles County.

Other advancements in court administration which benefited the manner in which the court does business internally and with the public included the establishment of uniform exhibit processing procedures in 1986, which prescribe how exhibits are processed, stored and returned after a case has been disposed, and the adoption of county-wide uniform criminal Local Court Rules, so that there is uniformity and consistency in how criminal cases progress through the system. Additionally, there is now just one set of Local Rules of Court for all of the courts in Los Angeles County.

Finally, on January 22, 2000, the judges of the Los Angeles Superior and Municipal Courts voted to unify all of the Los Angeles County trial courts into one court, the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles. This unification was allowed by the provisions of Proposition 220, the state constitutional amendment passed by California voters in June of 1998. The fact that most of the courts had been working together for a number of years as partners in the Administratively Unified Courts smoothed the transition to the status of a single trial court, and made this move a logical next step for the courts to take in their progress toward a more efficient court system.

Throughout their long history, the Los Angeles Municipal and Superior Courts were continually challenged with providing the expeditious and timely processing of cases in a judicial system which has had, and continues to have, probably the largest caseload in the country. The unified Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles is dedicated to excellence of service and responsible and effective use of resources in providing fair and timely disposition and accurate recording of its legal proceedings.

The court continues to remain in the forefront of developing and implementing modern methods of court administration and automation technology in their operations. For example, the Superior Court has established specialized courts and services such as Drug Court, Proposition 36 courts (another form of drug court), Homeless Court, Domestic Violence Clinics, Self-Help Centers, Informal and Juvenile Traffic Court and the Juvenile Mental Health Court. Confronted with limited resources, facilities and manpower, and faced with a significantly diverse populace and challenging demographic needs, the Superior Court has been able to, and continues to provide equal access to justice in an expeditious and timely manner to the people of Los Angeles County.

Additional Reading Materials

Los Angeles, From the Mountains to the Sea,
John Stevan McGroarty, The American Historical Society, New York, 1921
[Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) 979.41 L881-11]

Managing the Unmanageable, A History of Civil Delay in the Los Angeles Superior Court,
Molly Selvin, Patricia A. Ebener, The Rand Corporation, Institute for Civil Justice, Santa Monica, California, 1984
[LAPL, 347.09794 S469]

Averting Gridlock, Strategies for Reducing Civil Delay in the Los Angeles Superior Court
James S. Kakalik, Molly Selvin, Nicholas M. Pace, The Rand Corporation,
Institute for Civil Justice, Santa Monica, California, 1990
[LAPL, R 347.09794 K13-1 002]

Judicial Profiles,
Roger Pfaff, Los Angeles Daily Journal
[LAPL, 920.07941 P523]

Further information on history of Los Angeles County may be found at the Public Library in the History department, call number 920.

Los Angeles County Superior Court, Executive Officer's Report, 100 Years of Justice
(Biennial Reports by the Court's Executive Officer), Los Angeles Superior Court, 1979.

Additional Executive Officer Reports used in writing this historical perspective are from the years 1959, 1964, 1966, and 1967. (Available from the Court upon request)

[References to LAPL books which are obtainable from the Los Angeles Public Library and their call numbers are provided for your reference]

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