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California Supreme Court

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Title: California Supreme Court  
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Subject: American Civil Liberties Union, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Bela Lugosi, Common law, February 18, Sacramento, California, 1972, David Boies, Sharon Tate, Fremont, California
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California Supreme Court

Supreme Court of California
Seal of the Supreme Court of California
Established 1849
Country California California, United States United States
Location San Francisco, California
Authorized by California Constitution
Decisions are appealed to Supreme Court of the United States
Judge term length 12 years
Number of positions 7
Website Chief Justice
Currently Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Since January 3, 2011
Lead position ends January 2, 2023

The Supreme Court of California is the highest state court in California. It is headquartered in San Francisco and regularly holds sessions in Los Angeles and Sacramento. Its decisions are binding on all other California state courts.[1]


Under the original 1849 California Constitution, the Court started with a chief justice and two associate justices. The court was expanded to five justices in 1862. Under the current 1879 constitution, the Court expanded to six associate justices and one chief justice, for the current total of seven. The justices are appointed to 12-year terms by the Governor of California and are subject to retention elections by the voters.[2]


According to the California Constitution, to be considered for appointment, a person must be an attorney admitted to practice in California or have served as a judge of a California court for 10 years immediately preceding the appointment.

Retention votes

After justices are appointed, they are subject to a retention vote at the next general election and thereafter at 12-year intervals.

The electorate has occasionally exercised the power not to retain justices. Chief Justice Rose Bird and Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin were staunchly opposed to capital punishment and were subsequently removed in the 1986 general election. Newly reelected Governor George Deukmejian was then able to elevate Associate Justice Malcolm M. Lucas to Chief Justice and appoint three new conservative associate justices (one to replace Lucas in his old post and two to replace Reynoso and Grodin).

Current membership

Position Name Born Appt. by Took office Education, prior positions
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
(age 54)
Schwarzenegger, ArnoldArnold Schwarzenegger

UC Davis, UC Davis; California Court of Appeal (Sacramento, 2005–2011); Sacramento County Superior Court (1997–2005); Sacramento Municipal Court (1990–1997); Deputy Legislative Secretary (1989–1990); Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary (1988–1989); Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney (1984–1988).
Associate Justice Joyce L. Kennard

(age 73)
Deukmejian, GeorgeGeorge Deukmejian
USC, USC; California Court of Appeal (Los Angeles, 1988–1989); Los Angeles County Superior Court (1987–1988); Los Angeles Municipal Court (1986–1987).
Associate Justice Marvin R. Baxter

(age 74)
Deukmejian, GeorgeGeorge Deukmejian
CSU Fresno, UC Hastings; California Court of Appeal (Fresno, 1988–1991); Appointments Secretary (1983–1988).
Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar

(age 78)
Wilson, PetePete Wilson
UC Berkeley, GW Law School; United States Department of Justice; Director, Criminal Law Division, California Bar Continuing Education; Senior Staff Attorney, Supreme Court of California.
Associate Justice Ming Chin

(age 71)
Wilson, PetePete Wilson
USF, USF; California Court of Appeal (San Francisco, 1990–1996); Alameda County Superior Court (1990).
Associate Justice Carol Corrigan

(age 65)
Schwarzenegger, ArnoldArnold Schwarzenegger
Holy Names, UC Hastings; California Court of Appeal (San Francisco, 1994–2006); Alameda County Superior Court (1990–1994).
Associate Justice Goodwin Liu

(age 43)
Brown, JerryJerry Brown
Stanford, Yale; Associate Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law (2008–2011); Professor of Law, UC Berkeley School of Law (2003–2011).

Six current justices were appointed by Republicans (Cantil-Sakauye, Kennard, Baxter, Werdegar, Chin, and Corrigan) and one by a Democrat (Liu).

There is one Filipino-American justice (Cantil-Sakauye), one Eurasian-American justice (Kennard - Dutch father, Chinese mother), two East Asian-American justices (Chin and Liu), and three European-American justices (Baxter, Corrigan, and Werdegar). Kennard is the only justice with a visible physical disability; she has an artificial leg. The justices do not publicly discuss their religious views or affiliations.

All seven justices earned undergraduate degrees from California universities (two from a University of California campus, one from a California State University campus, and four from private universities). Three justices earned their law degrees from a UC law school, two from law schools at California private universities, and two from law schools at out-of-state private universities.


Between 1879 and 1966, the court was divided into two three-justice panels, Department One and Department Two.[5] The chief justice divided cases evenly between the panels and also decided which cases would be heard en banc by the Court sitting as a whole.

After a constitutional amendment in 1966, the Court currently sits as a whole (all seven together) when hearing all appeals. When there is an open seat on the court, or if a justice recuses himself or herself on a given case, justices from the California Courts of Appeal are assigned by the chief justice to join the court for individual cases on a rotational basis.

The procedure for when all justices recuse themselves from a case has varied over time. For a 1992 case, the chief justice requested the presiding justice of a Court of Appeal district (different from the one where the case originated) to select six other Court of Appeal justices from his district, and they formed an acting Supreme Court for the purpose of deciding that one case.[6] However, in a more recent case where all members of the Court recused themselves when Governor Schwarzenegger sought a writ of mandate (Schwarzenegger v. Court of Appeal (Epstein)), seven justices of the Courts of Appeal were selected based on the regular rotational basis, not from the same district, with the most senior one serving as the acting chief justice, and that acting supreme court eventually denied the writ petition.[7]



The Court has exclusive and direct appellate jurisdiction in all California state death penalty cases, although it has sponsored a state constitutional amendment to allow it to assign death penalty appeals to the California Courts of Appeal.[8] It has discretionary appellate jurisdiction over all cases reviewed by the Courts of Appeal; the latter were created by a 1904 constitutional amendment to relieve the Supreme Court of most of its workload so the Court could then focus on dealing with non-frivolous appeals that involved important issues of law.[9]


The Court is open for business year-round (as opposed to operating only during scheduled "terms" as is commonplace in jurisdictions that observe the legal year). The Court hears oral argument at least one week per month, ten months each year (except July and August). Since 1878, it has regularly heard oral argument each year at San Francisco (four months), Los Angeles (four months), and Sacramento (two months).

Throughout the year (including July and August), the justices have a conference every Wednesday the Court is not hearing oral argument, with the exception of the last week, respectively, of November and December (Thanksgiving and New Year's). New opinions are published online on Monday and Thursday mornings at 10 a.m. Paper copies also become available through the clerk's office at that time.

The Court is one of the few U.S. courts apart from the U.S. Supreme Court that enjoys the privilege of having its opinions routinely published in three hardcover reporters. The Court's Reporter of Decisions contracts with a private publisher (currently LexisNexis) to publish the official reporter, California Reports, now in its fourth series; note that the series number changes whenever the publisher changes. West publishes California decisions in both the California Reporter (in its second series) and the Pacific Reporter (in its third series). (The New York Court of Appeals opinions are similarly published in three reporters.)

Since the late 1980s, the Court has turned away from the traditional use of law clerks, and has switched to permanent staff attorneys.[10] The Court has about 85 staff attorneys, some of whom are attached to particular justices; the rest are shared as a central staff. The advantage to this system is that the reduced turnover of staff attorneys (versus the traditional system of rotating through new law clerks every year) has improved the efficiency of the court in dealing with complex cases, particularly death penalty cases.

During its first half-century of operation, the Court struggled to keep up with its soaring caseload and very frequently fell behind, until the California Courts of Appeal were created in 1904. This resulted in provisions in the 1879 Constitution forcing the Court to decide all cases in writing with reasons given[11] (to get rid of minor cases, it had often given summary dispositions with no reasons given) and requiring California judges to certify in writing every month that no matter submitted for consideration had been outstanding for more than 90 days, or else they will not be paid.[12] To comply with the latter provision, the Court does not schedule oral argument until the justices have already studied the briefs, formulated their respective positions, and circulated draft opinions. Then, after the matter is formally "argued and submitted", the justices can polish and release their opinions well before reaching the 90-day deadline. This differs sharply from the practice in all other federal and state appellate courts, where judges can schedule oral argument not long after written briefing is finished, but then may take up to a year after oral argument to release opinions.

Ancillary responsibilities

The Court supervises the lower courts (including the trial-level Superior Courts of California) through the Judicial Council of California, and also supervises California's legal profession through the State Bar of California. All lawyer admissions and disbarments are done through recommendations of the State Bar, which then must be ratified by the Supreme Court. California's bar is the largest in the U.S. with 210,000 members, of whom 160,000 are practicing.


As the Wall Street Journal said in 1972:

The state's high court over the past 20 years has won a reputation as perhaps the most innovative of the state judiciaries, setting precedents in areas of criminal justice, civil liberties, racial integration, and consumer protection that heavily influence other states and the federal bench.[13]

Statistical analyses conducted by LexisNexis personnel at the Court's request indicate that the decisions of the Supreme Court of California are by far the most followed of any state supreme court in the United States.[14] Between 1940 and 2005, 1,260 decisions of the Court were expressly followed by out-of-state courts (meaning that those courts expressly found the Court's reasoning persuasive and applied it to the cases before them).

Many important legal concepts have been pioneered or developed by the Court, including strict liability for defective products, fair procedure, negligent infliction of emotional distress, palimony, insurance bad faith, wrongful life, and market-share liability.

The California Supreme Court and all lower California state courts use a different writing style and citation system from the federal courts and many other state courts. California citations have the year between the names of the parties and the reference to the case reporter, as opposed to the national standard (the Bluebook) of putting the year at the end. For example, the famous case Marvin v. Marvin, which established the standard for non-marital partners' ability to sue for their contributions to the partnership, is rendered Marvin v. Marvin (1976) 18 Cal.3d 660 [134 Cal.Rptr. 815, 557 P.2d 106] in California style, while it would be Marvin v. Marvin, 18 Cal. 3d 660, 557 P.2d 106, 134 Cal. Rptr. 815 (1976), in Bluebook style. The California citation style, however, has always been the norm of common law jurisdictions outside the United States, including England, Canada and Australia.

While the U.S. Supreme Court justices indicate the author of an opinion and who has "joined" the opinion at the start of the opinion, California justices always sign a majority opinion at the end, followed by "WE CONCUR," and then the names of the joining justices. California judges are traditionally not supposed to use certain ungrammatical terms in their opinions, which has led to embarrassing fights between judges and the editor of the state's official reporters. California has traditionally avoided the use of certain French and Latin phrases like en banc, certiorari, and mandamus, so California judges and attorneys use "in bank," "review," and "mandate" instead (though "in bank" has become quite rare after 1974).

Finally, the Court has the power to "depublish" opinions by the Courts of Appeal (as opposed to the federal practice of not publishing certain "unpublished" opinions at all in the federal case reporters).[15] This means that even though the opinion has already been published in the official state reporters, it will be binding only upon the parties.[16] Stare decisis does not apply, and any new rules articulated will not be applied in future cases. Similarly, the California Supreme Court has the power to "publish" opinions by the California Courts of Appeal which were initially not published.[15]

Important cases

The Court has handed down many important and influential decisions, of which some are listed below (ordered by date descending). Most of the decisions listed below were landmark decisions that were the first such decisions in the U.S. or the world.

  • Summers v. Tice,[21] the Court shifted the burden to the defense to disprove causation when it was clear that one of two defendants must have caused the plaintiff's injury, but it was not clear which one.
  • People v. Anderson,[24] the Court relied upon the state constitutional clause prohibiting "cruel or unusual punishment" (note the difference from the federal Constitution's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause) to abolish capital punishment in California. The state electorate promptly overruled Anderson that same year with a popular initiative, Proposition 17, that kept the "cruel or unusual" clause but declared the death penalty to be neither cruel nor unusual.
  • Pitchess v. Superior Court,[25] the Court held that criminal defendants have a right to access the arresting officer's personnel file when the defendant alleges in an affidavit that the officer used excessive force or lied about the circumstances of the arrest.
  • Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California,[27] the Court held that mental health professionals have a duty to protect individuals who are being threatened with bodily harm by a patient. The original 1974 decision mandated warning the threatened individual, but a 1976 rehearing resulted in a decision calling for a "duty to protect" the intended victim, which did not necessarily require that a potential victim be informed of the threat.
  • Marvin v. Marvin,[28] the Court ruled in favor of the enforceability of non-marital relationship contracts, express or implied, to the extent that they are not founded purely upon meretricious sexual services. In other words, even though California does not recognize common law marriage, persons who cohabit for long periods of time and commingle their assets are allowed to plead and prove marriage-like contracts for support and division of property.
  • Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center,[29] the Court found that the broad right to freedom of speech in the state constitution included an implied right to freedom of speech in private shopping centers. The U.S. Supreme Court in turn held that the state supreme court's decision did not amount to a "taking" of the shopping center under federal constitutional law.
  • Thing v. La Chusa,[31] the Court withdrew from the expansive form of NIED set forth in Dillon and imposed a rigid bright-line test for recovery in bystander NIED cases. The Thing decision included extensive dicta hostile to plaintiffs which more generally limited the scope of recovery for both the tort of negligence and emotional distress damages in California.
  • Wendland v. Wendland,[33] the Court held that in the absence of a legally recognized method of determining who should make medical decisions on the behalf of an incompetent patient, the constitutional right to life and right to privacy granted special protection to the incompetent person.
  • In re Marriage Cases,[34] the Court held that sexual orientation is a protected class which requires strict scrutiny and under such scrutiny, laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional under the state constitution. The state electorate overturned the marriage portion of the decision that same year by enacting a popular initiative, Proposition 8, but left in place the discrimination protections.
  • People v. Diaz,[35] the Court held that the warrantless search of information in a cell phone was valid when incident to a lawful arrest.

Notable former justices

List of chief justices

# Name Term
1 Serranus Clinton Hastings (1850–1852)
2 Henry A. Lyons (1852)
3 Hugh C. Murray (1852–1857)
4 David S. Terry (1857–1859)
5 Stephen J. Field (1859–1863)
6 W.W. Cope (1863–1864)
7 Silas W. Sanderson (1864–1866)
8 John Currey (1866–1868)
9 Lorenzo Sawyer (1868–1870)
10 Augustus L. Rhodes (1870–1872)
11 Royal T. Sprague (1872)
12 William T. Wallace (1872–1879)
13 Robert F. Morrison (1879–1887)
14 Niles Searls (1887–1889)
15 William H. Beatty (1889–1914)
16 Matt I. Sullivan (1914–1915)
17 Frank M. Angellotti (1915–1921)
18 Lucien Shaw (1921–1923)
19 Curtis D. Wilbur (1923–1924)
20 Louis W. Myers (1924–1926)
21 William H. Waste (1926–1940)
22 Phil S. Gibson (1940–1964)
23 Roger J. Traynor (1964–1970)
24 Donald R. Wright (1970–1977)
25 Rose Elizabeth Bird (1977–1987)
26 Malcolm M. Lucas (1987–1996)
27 Ronald M. George (1996–2011)
28 Tani Cantil-Sakauye (2011–present)

See also


External links

  • Supreme Court of California
  • California Supreme Court Historical Society
  • At the Lectern - California Supreme Court Practice Blog

Coordinates: 37°46′50″N 122°25′04″W / 37.780543°N 122.417902°W / 37.780543; -122.417902

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