When the Sierra Court, which served eastern Madera County residents for more than a century, was set to close its doors Friday, Nov. 30, the last rural court of Madera and Fresno counties vanished. The court had existed, under various names at different locations, since 1893, when Fresno County was divided to form Madera County.
Justice courts, as the rural courts were known, were the bedrock of early California’s judicial system, and there were hundreds of them. Justice courts originated in England in the 1300s, when towns were small and isolated. They were the workhorses of English justice, using nonlawyer judges to dispense speedy justice in minor cases. The justice court system came to America with colonization, and soon every community had its own court. Their judges were elected from the community. It was in these justice courts that a rural dweller was most likely to come into contact with the justice system.
Most of the nonlawyer, or “lay” judges, were good, a few were not, and many were colorful. As a young prosecutor, I appeared regularly in the justice court at Guadalupe, a tiny coastal town west of Santa Maria. The nonlawyer judge, Robert Stewart, was the local milk delivery man, and he held court wearing his Knudsen jacket. Stewart was one of the best judges around, often imposing innovative sentences. In an effort to reform local alcoholics, he would post their names on doors of the town’s bars, forbidding their entry. Fresno and Madera counties also had their share of colorful lay judges. Some have become the subjects of legend, still recounted over coffee by our older attorneys.
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California’s use of lay judges ended abruptly in 1974, when California’s Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment’s right of due process was violated when a nonlawyer judge presided in a case where the defendant could be sentenced to jail. At that time, 60 percent of California’s justice court judges were nonlawyers. Other jurisdictions were unimpressed with the California ruling. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the opposite, and that court last year refused to consider a challenge to Montana’s continued use of nonlawyer judges. But as usual, California took its own path. Today, 22 states still allow nonlawyer judges to hear criminal cases.
Fresno County’s long reliance upon rural justice courts ended in 1994, when the courts in Coalinga, Kerman, Reedley, Firebaugh, Selma, Clovis, Kingsburg and Sanger were combined into a single Central Valley Municipal Court. Those courts continued to serve the rural population, but under a centralized administration. The same year, California voters approved an awkward ballot measure which eliminated the state’s remaining justice courts by changing them into municipal courts. Because municipal court districts required a minimum population of 40,000, most rural justice courts had to combine and accept centralized administration.
California’s march toward judicial centralization peaked in 1998, with the absorption of municipal courts into county superior courts, once again by voter approval. There would now be one Superior Court for each county, all administered centrally by the California Judicial Council in San Francisco. Fresno County’s eight rural courts would continue to function, as would Madera’s three, but as superior court branches. At least for a while.
First, Madera’s Superior Court closed its Borden branch, and soon shut down the one in Chowchilla. Then, in 2012, citing budget problems and courthouse deterioration, Fresno’s Superior Court closed all eight of its rural branches. Litigants and jurors would now drive as long as one and one half hours to attend to court sessions.
That left Madera County’s Sierra Court as the last of the rural courts in both counties. Nestled among the pines at Bass Lake, with a heavy caseload and a full-time judge, it continued to serve local residents, even expanding its services. But in the end, Sierra Court was doomed to follow the others into oblivion.
The California Judicial Council, which funds and oversees all state courts, determined the Sierra Court facility to be outdated, structurally deficient, and unable adequately to assure the safety of litigants, jurors and courtroom staff. Madera Superior Court’s administrative office requested a re-evaluation to determine eligibility for state funds to upgrade the facility, but the request was denied. Application was then made to Madera County officials for funding, but none was available, which spelled the court’s demise.
The last of the rural courts of Madera and Fresno counties has been swept away in the tide of centralization. Goodbye, Sierra Court, you served us well.
David Minier of Fresno is a retired Superior Court judge and former district attorney for Madera and Santa Barbara counties.