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Inventory of the Supreme Court of California Records
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Preface
  • Agency History
  • The Court's Numbering Systems

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Supreme Court of California Records
    Creator: Supreme Court. California
    Extent: see Series Description
    Repository: California State Archives
    Sacramento, California
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information

    Publication Rights

    For permission to reproduce or publish, please contact the California State Archives. Permission for reproduction or publication is given on behalf of the California State Archives as the owner of the physical items. The researcher assumes all responsibility for possible infringement which may arise from reproduction or publication of materials from the California State Archives collections.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives.


    This inventory has been prepared to aid research in the records of the Supreme Court of California. As primary material for study of the history of California's highest court, this record group constitutes an important source for many areas of legal history. It is also an extraordinarily rich source-particularly the great case file section-on many aspects of the economic, social, and political development of the state. Perhaps no other record group in the State Archives, with the exception of the lower, trial court records, provides such a commentary on life and conditions in California over the whole span of the state's history since 1850.
    The Supreme Court Record Group in the State Archives spans the period 1850-1965 and in volume totals in excess of 5,000 lineal feet. The State Archives has accessioned these records at irregular intervals over the past 50 years. Additional accessions are expected since the State Archives is the permanent repository of the court's records.
    The inventory provides (1) a brief historical sketch of the court, (2) a description of the court's numbering systems, and, (3) an inventory of the records of the court now housed in the California State Archives. Lists of judges who have served on the Supreme Court are available in the master finding aid at the California State Archives.

    Agency History

    The 1849 California Constitution provided for a Supreme Court to consist of a Chief Justice and two Associate Justices, any two of whom would constitute a quorum. (Constitution of 1849, Art. VI, Sec. 2.) The justices were to be elected at a general election for six year terms beginning January 1, 1850, provided, that the legislature shall, at its first meeting, elect a Chief Justice and two Associate Justices... by joint vote of both houses. (Art. VI, Sec. 3.) In accordance with this provision the legislature on December 22, 1850, elected S. C. Hastings as Chief Justice and Henry A. Lyons and Nathaniel Bennett as Associate Justices.
    On February 14, 1850, the first legislature passed an act to organize the Supreme Court which incorporated the relevant provisions of the Constitution, specified the terms of the justices, and outlined the court's powers. ( Stats. 1850, p. 57.) The Supreme Court was given appellate jurisdiction in all cases where the matter in dispute exceeds two hundred dollars; in all cases wherein the legality of any tax, toll, or impost, or municipal fine is in question; and in all criminal cases amounting to felony, on questions of law alone. (Sect. 7.) Original jurisdiction was limited to the power to issue writs of habeas corpus.
    The first court convened in San Francisco. Subsequent legislative amendments continued San Francisco as the principal seat. In 1854, the Supreme Court was authorized to sit only at the State Capital. ( Stats. 1854, p. 25.) Owing to a lack of space in Sacramento, the 1854 court sat most of the year in San Jose. Not until February, 1855, did the court move to Sacramento.
    In 1862, by constitutional amendment, the membership of the court was increased to a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices. The same law provided that the justices be elected at a special judicial election. ( Stats. 1862, pp. 583-585.) The first such election was held in October, 1863; elected were Oscar L. Shafter, Lorenzo Sawyer, Silas W. Sanderson, John Curry, and A. L. Rhodes. (For early elections of Supreme Court justices, see California Blue Book, 1893, pp. 259-262.) Vacancies were to be filled by the Governor, the appointee holding office until the next judicial election. ( Stats. 1863, p. 333, Sec. 4.) The new court was organized on January 2, 1864.
    The 1863 statute also specified there were to be four terms of the court during each calendar year-January, April, July, and October ( Stats. 1863, p.334.)-and that the court was to sit in the State Capital. By the early 1870's, as a result of the growing commercial importance of San Francisco, the court resumed sitting in San Francisco. This was formalized in 1874, the court holding January and July terms in San Francisco and April and October terms in Sacramento. ( Stats. 1873-74, p.941.) In 1878 the court increased the number of its terms to six, the two additional terms sitting in Los Angeles. ( Stats. 1877-78, p. 183.) The number of terms has gradually increased and annual sessions are now held at least four times each in San Francisco and Los Angeles and twice in Sacramento.
    The 1879 Constitution increased the number of justices to seven, at which number it has remained. In addition the court was empowered to sit either in department or in bank. The two departments, designated Department 1 and Department 2, were each composed of three Associate Justices. Each department had equal powers to hear and determine causes, subject to the provisions... in relation to the Court in bank. (Constitution of 1879, Art. VI, Sect. 2.) The use of departments allowed the court to handle the increasing work load.
    In 1885 the legislature passed an act allowing the court to appoint three commissioners to assist the court in the performance of its duties. ( Stats. 1885, pp. 101-102.) The number of commissioners was increased to five in 1889 and the court commissioner law was continued until 1905. Under amendment of Article VI, on November 8, 1904, the Supreme Court Commissioners were abolished. (Constitution of 1879, Art. VI, Sect. 25.) In their place were created three District Courts of Appeal.
    Since 1905 the basic structure of the Supreme Court has remained unchanged. As the highest court of record, the court has original jurisdiction in habeas corpus proceedings and proceedings for extraordinary relief in the nature of mandamus, prohibition, and certiorari. The court has appellate jurisdiction only in cases involving the death penalty. All other appeals from the Superior Court are taken to the Court of Appeal. The court can transfer to itself, on petition or on its own motion, a cause in a Court of Appeal; it can transfer a cause from itself to a Court of Appeal or from one Court of Appeal or division to another. (Constitution of 1879, as amended in 1966.) The court also admits applicants to the bar who have been judged qualified by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar. It also passes upon disciplinary recommendations of the Board of Governors of the State Bar.

    The Court's Numbering Systems

    An understanding of the organization of the Supreme Court RG requires a knowledge of the court's numbering systems. Since 1895 the court has maintained three offices-San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. (NOTE: The term office is used for lack of some other more definitive term applicable to the entire time period described below.) In 1895 each office created a separate series of filings for civil cases, using the prefixes SF, LA, and Sac. At the time of the preparation of this inventory this system is still employed. In criminal matters all cases, regardless of office, uniformly bear the prefix Crim.
    For the period prior to 1895 the numbering system is less well-ordered. Essentially, the older numbering system involves two series: numbers 1-4182 (1850-63), which includes both civil and criminal actions, and numbers 1-21201 (1864-1895). This series also contains both civil and criminal actions. The latter numbering system is complicated by the fact that at different dates blocks of numbers were set aside to distinguish between civil and criminal actions and between the records of the three offices. From 1864-71, civil and criminal actions were carried as in the earlier series. Thereafter, numbers 10000-11000 (1872-84) and 20001-21201 (1884-95) were reserved for criminal actions. Numbers 1-16036 (1864-95), ommitting 10000-11000, pertain to San Francisco (1864-95), Sacramento (1864-93), and Los Angeles (1871-93) civil actions. Numbers 18000-18399 (1893-95) pertain to Sacramento civil actions and numbers 19000-19592 (1893-95) to Los Angeles civil actions. For the early 1870's duplicate entries on all civil actions are found in the Sacramento and San Francisco Registers of Action.
    Further complicating an understanding of the numbering system, a W.P.A. project in the middle 1930's indexed some 30,800 Supreme Court cases (1850-ca.1935) and in doing so ignored the original court numbers and assigned new numbers in their place. For an explanation of the W.P.A. index, see entry 1.
    This inventory also includes a description of minute books, registers of actions, judgments, opinions, and other records created and preserved as a part of the Supreme Court's official records.