McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli

Just like the federal government, California has three branches of its state government – legislative, executive, and judicial. Article VI of the state constitution provides for the judicial branch of government. With a population just shy of 40 million it’s not a surprise that California’s judicial branch of government is the largest in the country.

It handles over 10 million criminal and civil cases each year. There are more than 2,000 judicial officers in this state and over 18,000 employees in the judicial branch of the state. There are three levels of courts in California – the Superior Courts, the Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. The administration of the courts is overseen by the Judicial Council.

There are also several other support entities for the judicial branch of government in California, including the Commission on Judicial Performance, the Commission on Judicial Appointments, the State Bar of California, and the Commission on Judicial Nominees.

California initially had a Supreme Court of only three justices. Eventually, in the late 1800s, a constitutional change established a seven-member high court with 12-year terms that exist today. The Supreme Court’s decisions were also required to be in writing. In the early 1900s, the Courts of Appeal were created. Around that time, the current system of gubernatorial appointments of the justices was adopted.

There are more than 400 Superior Court locations up and down California. There are more than 2,000 Superior Court judges and Superior Courts are located in each of California’s 58 counties. These trial courts have jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases, including specialized areas of the law such as family and probate law. Cases in this state are tried before juries and judges. Superior court judges are appointed by the governor when a vacancy occurs and they serve six-year terms. These trial court judges are also elected at the county level in general elections.

The Courts of Appeal are located in six districts, covering the entirety of California. These intermediate appellate courts have jurisdiction over appeals from cases tried in the superior courts. They also have jurisdiction over certain cases, such as: habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, certiorari, and challenges to decisions that are made by certain state boards.

Courts of Appeal justices are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. At the end of their terms, and in gubernatorial elections, the justices must also be approved by the voters. There are just over 100 justices who serve on the appeals courts.

Finally, there is the state Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the state. Among its numerous duties, the Supreme Court must review all death penalty cases. The high court has discretion to review civil appeals and other criminal appeals from the state’s Courts of Appeal. Cases from the appellate courts are based upon petitions for review and the justices decide to accept or decline the cases at their weekly conferences. Only a small number of cases are accepted for review. The Chief Justice and the six Associate Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed for 12-year terms by the governor.

You can find a transcript of today’s podcast here.