A Brief History of the Justice Courts of Mendocino County

by James Luther, June 15, 2016

Thank you for Bob Dempel’s article about Judge Manning and the old Sanel Justice Court in Hopland (AVA, May 18, 2016). Like Mr. Dempel, I have listened to Judge Manning’s sentencing lecture. In the early 1970s I appeared with my client in the Judge’s living room to enter a Guilty plea to Driving Under the Influence. I remember some of the Judge’s words: “Well, sometimes we all like to have a little fun and have a few drinks, and that’s OK, but it’s dangerous to then go out and drive a car. You could hurt someone. So be very sure you don’t ever do that again.” Followed by a lot of elaboration on that message and, eventually, pronouncement of judgment with a fine and probation. His attitude was empathetic and counseling rather than judgmental. He was one of several exceptionally good judges among the non-lawyer justice court judges then sitting in Mendocino County. Another was Judge Collins in the Little Lake Justice Court up in Willits before whom I once tried a misdemeanor jury case. I never appeared before them but at least got to meet Judge Carver who sat in Laytonville, Judge Storer in Fort Bragg, Judge Reynolds in Mendocino, Judge Slavens in Point Arena, and Judge Mannix in Boonville, and my impression of them was that they knew and acted as though they were expected to be well-respected judges in their communities and so they were.

Mostly part-time and usually presided over by lay judges, the justice courts in California had a long history. Established even before statehood by the Constitution of 1849 and first known as “justice of the peace courts,” there were about 600 of them still operating in their small individual judicial townships in the early 20th Century. Twelve of them were in Mendocino County. (See the attached chart, “Mendocino County Justice Courts in 1919.”) While a superior court in each county handled the “big” cases, California’s justice courts had jurisdiction over the traffic and criminal infractions and misdemeanors, small claims, and small civil cases. Some of them also conducted felony preliminary hearings. The counties had to pay most or all of the expenses to operate their justice courts. Because of that and because the county supervisors knew their counties’ local territories and the needs of their local populations for access to justice, the decision to operate—or to close—a particular county’s justice court was legally up to the board of supervisors in that county.

In 1930, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors closed the justice courts in Potter Valley and Westport.

In 1969, the Board closed the justice court in Elk.

As Mr. Dempel noted, in the mid-1970’s the law changed to require that all justice court judges in California had to be lawyers licensed to practice law. So after the elections of 1976 there were no more lay judges in Mendocino County.

In 1982, the Board closed the justice courts in Mendocino and Hopland.

In or just before 1990, the Board consolidated the justice courts in Ukiah and Willits into a single two-judge judicial district. Court sessions continued to be held in both Ukiah and Willits. Because it contained more than 40,000 residents, the new district became a municipal court district called the Mount Sanhedrin Judicial District.

So by 1994 in Mendocino County there were five justice courts, each with its own judge, one sitting substantially more than half-time in Fort Bragg, and the other four sitting part-time in Covelo, Point Arena, Laytonville, and Boonville (the justice court in Yorkville had earlier been moved to Philo and then to Boonville.) There was one municipal court with two judges both sitting full-time in Ukiah and Willits. To hear the felonies, probate, family law, juvenile, large civil and the other unlimited jurisdiction cases, the County’s one superior court now had three judges, all sitting full-time in Ukiah.

That year, 1994, by constitutional amendment, all the justice courts in the state were abolished and became municipal courts, each with its own full-time judge. In Mendocino County, the municipal courts then held court in seven locations: Covelo, Point Arena, Laytonville, Boonville, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, and Willits.

By the end of 1996, a statute had been enacted scheduling two of the seven new municipal court judgeships in Mendocino County to be eliminated—one in 1998 and the other in 2000—leaving five municipal court judges continuing to hold court in the seven existing municipal court locations.

In 1998, another constitutional amendment granted the judges in each county the power to unify their separate superior court and municipal courts into a single superior court and to elevate all their municipal court judges into superior court judges. Within two months the municipal court judges and the superior court judges in Mendocino County voted to do that, making them all superior court judges. (By 2001, the judges in all 58 California counties had voted to do the same.) So in 1998 Mendocino County’s seven municipal court locations became seven branch court locations of the Mendocino County Superior Court.

After 1998, the state rather than the counties controlled the funding of California’s trial courts. So whether to operate or close an outlying court in a county was no longer a question for its board of supervisors to decide; instead from then on it was a decision for the judges in that county to make.

In the early 2000s, the judges in Mendocino County closed the branch courts in Laytonville and Boonville.

In 2009, the judges closed the branch court in Willits.

Last year, the judges closed the branch court in Covelo.

Today there are no more justice court judges or municipal court judges in California. There are only superior court judges. In Mendocino County, there are eight superior court judges. Seven of them sit in Ukiah, and one of them sits in Fort Bragg. The Fort Bragg judge also travels to Point Arena to hold court there, three days every year. Court is no longer held anywhere else in the County.

Court House Ukiah, CA

Mendocino County Justice Courts, in 1919*

Justice of the Peace / Constable / Judicial Township

E. V. Jones / Grover King / Potter Valley Township, Potter Valley

J. C. Hurley / Joe Weselsky / Ukiah Township, Ukiah

E. M. Whitney / J. M. Whitcomb / Little Lake Township, Willits

G. R. Redwine / W. H. Ries / Round Valley Township, Covelo

F. A. Whipple / Bert Johnson / Ten Mile River Township, Fort Bragg

C. M. Walker / C. J. Buchanan, Jr. / Cuffey’s Cove Township, Elk

J. W. Kingren / W. A. Kirkland / Arena Township, Point Arena

George E. Furniss / J. E. Branscomb / Long Valley Township, Laytonville

George M. Roach / A. B. Snider / Westport Township, Westport

W. T. Wallace / A. L. Patton / Big River Township, Mendocino

F. H. Brown / George E. Reilly / Anderson Township, Yorkville

James Clendenin / A. H. Adams / Sanel Township, Hopland

* Source: California Secretary of State, Roster of State, County, City, and Township Officials, October 1, 1919.

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