History of the Placer County Court System
By Lori Smith
While Auburn is one of the oldest towns in the State of California, it wasn’t always located in Placer County. Originally, Auburn came within the boundaries of Sutter County, with the County Seat being at Nicolaus. In 1848, Court was conducted in a 20 x 20 wooden building with wooden floors and a zinc roof. The windows held no glass, and there were no doors, so when the sun rose and set on the zinc roof, it was incredibly hot.
By 1851, a Legislative Act organized the State of California into counties. Placer County was named and Auburn became the County Seat. The first elected Judges within the newly formed County where: County Judge: Hugh Fitzsimmons, District Court Judge: Seth Baird Farwell and Justices of the Peace were: G.L. Grilley, William Gwynn, Joseph H. Netherland, E.M. Faunce, William Cooper and James L. Davis.
Court was held in a wood and canvas structure located on Court Street, with an adjacent jail made from logs. It wasn’t an ideal site for a court, and by 1852, the community realized that a new court would be needed. An ad was placed in the Placer Herald Weekly to build a new court and the contract was awarded to Isaac M. Tidd for $16,000.00. On December 10, 1853 the Court of Sessions conducted court for the first time in the two story wooden courthouse. The lower level housed various county offices as well as an office for the Grand Jury and the upper level housed a courtroom and two jury rooms. It was reported that the courtroom was “finely furnished” with the floor being carpeted and the center window behind the judge’s chair decorated with long curtains reaching the floor of his desk.
Fire was the ever present danger in those early days and in 1855 Auburn suffered its first big fire. While the courthouse was saved, the adjacent jail was not. Soon many temporary structures were built and for a time lawyers and physicians ran their offices from the courthouse, and prisoners where kept in small rooms on the second floor under guard, day and night.
In 1891, and after 38 years of use, the wooden courthouse had endured time, age and fire. The building was now old, unsightly and unsafe. The Grand Jury reported that they had visited the courthouse building and that “while Placer has the reputation of being an enterprising county, it is a deplorable fact that the condition of its public buildings is a disgrace to modern civilization and a reflection on our intelligent community.” The decision to build a new courthouse was quickly made however; it would take seven years to complete the process.
The new courthouse would include a jail and a hall of records and would be built in four sections. The first section was completed in 1894 but it would take four more years for the other sections to be completed.
The new courthouse would be located at the same location as the old wooden court so the building was hoisted up onto rollers and moved to one side so that construction could be completed. The old wooden courthouse was finally destroyed in 1897.
Dedication of the new courthouse was held on July 4, 1898 and included a parade, oration, music and sporting events. Judge James E. Prewett stated in his dedicatory address “This grand building is one of the finest courthouses in the State. None can excel in fine artistic effect. It is out temple of justice, the repository of our titles, the fortress of our personal and property rights, the fountain head of our school system, the registry of our births, marriages and deaths, and its inmates stand guard by day and night over peace and good order of our communities.”
Over the next fifty years the courthouse would be used to conduct all county business. Fire extinguishers were installed as were water fountains and fire escapes. A permanent flag pole was erected in 1923 and an elevator installed in 1948. It was also in 1948 that the need for a second courtroom came before the Board of Supervisor’s who agreed to share their office space on the days they were not conducting business. This only worked for a short time and in 1953 the Placer County Bar Association petitioned the Board of Supervisors for a permanent second courtroom. Without available space at the courthouse, the Board decided to lease other buildings in Auburn where court could be conducted. They would continue to lease other buildings for several years.
For the next twenty years, county officials as well as judicial officers made the best out of what was available to them. The courthouse was now eighty eight years old and required extensive repairs.
In 1986, the Board of Supervisors approved a restoration plan which required all county offices to move from the courthouse. Court staff and judges were relocated to the DeWitt Complex where they would remain until 1990 when the restoration was completed on the courthouse. To celebrate the grand re-opening of the courthouse court employees and the community participated in a parade and dressed in costumes reflecting the first dedication held in 1898. From the porch, decorated and draped in red, white and blue, Judge Richard L. Gilbert gave a dedicatory address.
Within a few short months, due to a lack of space, some of the court staff was sent back to the DeWitt Complex and within a few short years all divisions except for the Civil Division had been moved back to DeWitt where court would continue being conducted until 2008.
Other court buildings would be established in Auburn. In 1990, a court was opened at the main jail and in 2000 a juvenile court was established.
There were many other towns and cities located within the boundaries of Placer County. Each Township, or what would later be called a Judicial District, had Justice’s of the Peace who conducted court hearings in each township.
Township 1 or what is now called Roseville was one such town. As with the other Townships in Placer County, each Justice of the Peace was required to provide their own offices and supplies for court. Court was generally conducted in their private homes, farms, ranches, in their mercantile or other places of business. Roseville started expanding in the early 1850’s as discouraged miners arrived there to take up farming. One of these early settlers was William Andrew Branstetter who owned a mercantile while he was a Justice of the Peace in 1887. It’s quite likely that he conducted his court hearings from his mercantile.
Another early location for court proceedings was at the railroad depot in Roseville. By 1950, the Board of Supervisors leased a building on the corner of Church and Washington Streets. Justice of the Peace Leonard Mortimore Layton, III was the first judicial officer to conduct court from this location. He was a well educated man who at one time had been a school teacher and had also owned a furniture store in Roseville. Always looking for ways to improve his court, he drafted a standardized form letter which would be used by all the other Justice Courts in connection with traffic offenses.
After a strong windstorm hit Roseville blowing the roof off of the Church Street court, the judge and his staff moved to a temporary court set up at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall in 1964.
Judge Howard Gordon Gibson was the first judge to work from the Civic Center Complex located on Oak Street in 1973 and he would move again in 1981 to Taylor Street.
The earliest known court in Colfax, or Township 4, was in the basement of Justice of the Peace Charles T. Crowe’s home in 1949 however, by 1952 he was able to move his court to the Colfax Memorial Hall. This building would be used until 1972 when Judge George Yonehiro established a new court on property donated by Earl J. Chase. Judge Yonehiro played a prominent role in the construction of the new facility and even helped to select the furniture and fabric colors.
Courts in Foresthill, or Township 5, were probably held in mining camps from the 1850’s through early 1900’s. The first known court location was in the home of Justice of Peace Edgar B. Quigley in 1931 and then in the home of Justice of Peace Franklin Pierce Beckstrum. In 1945, newly elected Justice of Peace Earl Benjamin Schueller rented a small cottage in the backyard of Constable Ernest Botts. This arrangement was short lived however as when Justice Schueller made the grave mistake of complaining that the Constable’s children made too much noise he was promptly evicted by the Constable’s wife. He then built a cottage in his own backyard where he would conduct hearings until 1961.
Frances Pearl Rains was the first woman Justice Court Judge in Foresthill. In 1961, due to a boom in the logging industry, traffic citations had increased and Judge Rains needed larger courtrooms. Thanks to the private donations of local citizens Earl J. Powell and Burt Mischke who provided spaces over the years to conduct court, she was able to keep up with the increased case load however she had to move her court several times.
Loomis, or Township 9, could be described as a quiet and quaint little town but it was also considered a clearinghouse for traffic cases stemming from arrests made on the “transcontinental highway.” The first known courthouse was that of Justice of Peace John Randolph, which was located on the main street through town. When he retired, Pearl Blemer, a tea shop owner in the same building was appointed as his successor. Pearl was outspoken and advocated strongly for the standardization of traffic fines. It wasn’t until 1953 until a more appropriate office space was located at the Loomis Memorial Hall. Judicial District Judge George English was the first judicial officer to conduct court here but there would be many others who followed him. Around 1991 changes occurred once more when the Loomis Traffic Court moved into a building located on Shawn Street. Judge Robert McElhany would be the only judge assigned to this court and they would remain there for about six years before moving to Roseville.
Lincoln or Township 10 is rich with stories of gold and copper miners, the railroad and farming. Lincoln has had various court locations throughout the years however the earliest location may have been in Thomas Burrell Harper’s variety store right on the main street through town. Thomas served as the local Justice of Peace in 1898 and as his home was located behind his store there is a very good chance that he conducted his court proceedings right in the store. In 1911, William Martin Sparks purchased the variety store from Thomas and when he became the Justice of Peace in 1912 the chances are that he too conducted court right in the store. Justice of the Peace Edward Alexander Grey conducted court on 5th Street from 1953 – 1962 and Justice Court Judge Frank Farnsworth conducted court on G Street from 1965 – 1971.
And last but not least was Tahoe City or Township 8. There are not many early records left which provide clues to where court locations may have been in those early years but we do know that in 1926, Justices of the Peace George Bliss and his wife Evelyn Bliss both conducted court proceedings from a small corner in their living room in their home located on Grove and Front Streets. In 1946, Justice of the Peace Clarence William Vernon conducted his court from a newly constructed building which housed a novelty store, an office he used as the Manager of the Public Utility District, a small court and living quarters upstairs. This space would be used through 1959 until the court moved to the Tahoe Community Center where court was conducted upstairs above the Post Office.
Finally, in 1960 a new building was constructed at Burton Creek where court proceedings continue being heard to this day.
Placer County Courts have seen many changes since 1851. Judicial titles, court titles and court locations have changed and there have been 588 judicial officers.
In 2008, the court moved from Auburn to Roseville to the newly constructed Santucci Justice Center. The Auburn Jail and Juvenile Courtroom’s remain in Auburn and the Tahoe City Court remains open.