Superior courts in California are the state trial courts with general jurisdiction to hear and decide any civil or criminal action which is not specially designated to be heard in some other court or before a governmental agency. As mandated by the California Constitution, each of the 58 counties in California has a superior court. The superior courts also have appellate divisions (superior court judges sitting as appellate judges) which hear appeals from decisions in cases previously heard by inferior courts.
The superior courts are the lowest level of state courts in California holding general jurisdiction on civil and criminal matters. Above them are the six California courts of appeal, each with appellate jurisdiction over the superior courts within their districts, and the Supreme Court of California. As of 2007, the superior courts of California consisted of over 1,500 judges, and make up the largest part of California's judicial system, which is in turn one of the largest court systems in the United States.
Superior court judges are elected by each county's voters to six-year terms. California attorneys are allowed to run against sitting superior court judges at their retention elections, and have occasionally succeeded in doing so. Vacancies in the superior courts are filled by appointments made by the governor.
Because Los Angeles County has the largest population of any county in the United States, it also has the largest superior court. The Los Angeles County Superior Court is organized into dozens of highly specialized departments, dealing with everything from moving violations to mental health. It handles over 2.5 million legal matters each year, of which about 4,000 terminate in jury trials; this works out to about 4,300 matters per judge. Its 429 judges are assisted by 140 commissioners and 14 referees.
In contrast, many of California's smallest counties, like Alpine, Del Norte, Inyo, Lake, Lassen, Mono, and Trinity, typically have only two superior court judges each, who are usually assisted by a single part-time commissioner.
One quirk of California law is that when a party petitions the appellate courts for a writ of mandate (California's version of mandamus), the case name becomes [petitioner name] v. Superior Court (that is, the superior court is the respondent on appeal), and the real opponent is then listed below those names as the "real party in interest". This is why several U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases that originated in California bear names like Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court (1987) and Burnham v. Superior Court of California (1990). The underlying justification is that the writ jurisdiction of the California Courts of Appeal is to make an order directing the Superior Court to enter an order in its records, while the real party in interest has standing to oppose the appellate application for a writ. Normally, there is "no appearance for respondent", but in certain rare circumstances, the Superior Court does have standing to oppose an application for a writ, and has actually done so.
Another quirk is that because the superior courts are now fully unified with all courts of inferior jurisdiction, the superior courts must hear relatively minor cases that previously would have been heard in such courts, such as infractions, misdemeanors, and "limited civil" actions (actions where the amount in controversy is below $25,000). The superior courts have appellate divisions (superior court judges sitting as appellate judges) which were previously responsible for hearing appeals from inferior courts. Now, the appellate divisions hear appeals from decisions of other superior court judges (or commissioners, or judges pro tem) who heard and decided such minor cases. Unlike appellate divisions in other states (such as the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division), the appellate divisions of the superior courts are not considered to be separate courts.
Like the vast majority of U.S. state trial courts, most superior court decisions involve the judge merely signing a proposed order drafted by one side or the other. Thus, superior court decisions are not normally reported either in reporters or legal databases.
However, appellate divisions of the superior courts do sometimes certify opinions for publication. Such opinions are published in California Appellate Reports Supplement, which is included in the regular volumes of the California Appellate Reports, the official reporter of the Courts of Appeal.
Proposition 220 of 1998 created the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, which replaced the previous Appellate Department but retained the same jurisdictional authority.
Every California court may make local rules for its own government and the government of its officers not inconsistent with law or with the rules adopted and prescribed by the Judicial Council of California.
The concept of having a superior court of general jurisdiction in each of California's counties dates back to the ratification of the second California Constitution in 1879. Previously, the California Judiciary Act of 1851 had created multi-county district courts of general jurisdiction which supervised county courts and justice of the peace courts of limited jurisdiction.
Notably, the superior courts did not always enjoy the unified jurisdiction that they possess now. By the mid-20th century, California had as many as seven types of inferior courts of limited jurisdiction under the superior courts. In 1947, the state Judicial Council commissioned a study which found that at the time, California had a total of 768 courts. The council proposed and the legislature enacted the Municipal and Justice Courts Act of 1949 to reduce the number of inferior courts to two: municipal courts and justice of the peace courts, known as "justice courts". This dropped the total number of courts in California to less than 400. For the Act to be fully effective, a constitutional amendment had to be submitted to the state electorate as Proposition 3, which was duly approved in 1950.
Starting in the mid-1970s, California began to slowly phase out the use of justice courts (in which non-lawyers were authorized by statute to preside as judges) after a landmark 1974 decision in which the Supreme Court of California unanimously held that it was a violation of due process to allow a non-lawyer to preside over a criminal trial which could result in incarceration of the defendant. In response, the Judicial Council arranged for the immediate enactment of legislation to pay for up to thirty attorneys already sitting as justice court judges to "ride circuit" and hear such trials in any justice court then presided over by a non-lawyer judge.
The California Law Revision Commission published a comprehensive study in January 1994 in response to SCA 3, a constitutional revision proposed by state senator Bill Lockyer which would have unified the superior, municipal and justice courts in each county into a single "district court." The Commission's report carefully evaluated options for the proposed court's name such as "district," "superior," "county," "trial," "unified," and "circuit," and concluded that the preferable name was "superior court." The Commission acknowledged the name could be confusing due to the absence of any inferior courts after unification, but contended this was outweighed by the benefits of continuing to use a familiar name, not having to spend money on changing existing superior court signs and letterhead, and not having to amend over 3,000 references to the superior court in 1,600 statutes.
In 1998, Proposition 220 was approved by the state's voters; it amended the state constitution to authorize judges in each county to decide whether or not to retain municipal or justice courts. By 2001, every California county had consolidated its municipal and justice courts into the superior courts. Thus, at present, the superior courts are actually not "superior" to any inferior courts within the judicial branch. They are still superior to certain types of administrative hearings within the executive branch; dissatisfied litigants can appeal to superior courts through administrative mandamus.
Many of California's larger superior courts have specialized divisions for different types of cases like criminal, civil, traffic, small claims, probate, family, juvenile, and complex litigation, but these divisions are simply administrative assignments that can be rearranged at the discretion of each superior court's presiding judge in response to changing caseloads (that is, regardless of whether the division is colloquially called "traffic court" or "family court", all orders are issued by judges of the superior court). In contrast, inferior courts were creatures of statute and thus were slightly more difficult to rearrange. Judges stationed at rural superior courts too small to set up specialized divisions must be generalists who can handle everything; the state judicial education center provides a special training program for "Cow County Judges."
Another peculiarity of California law is that traditionally, the superior courts did not own their own buildings, and the state was not required to provide them with buildings, even though the superior courts were part of the judicial branch of the state government. Rather, county governments were supposed to provide buildings and security for the superior courts out of their own local budgets. At the same time, courthouse construction and maintenance were often overlooked among the numerous mandatory responsibilities placed upon counties by California law. Even worse, because so many of the responsibilities delegated to county governments were of a nature which people were likely to sue over, this arrangement put superior court judges in the awkward position of frequently ruling on lawsuits involving the very county governments responsible for maintaining their courthouses.
After several decades of complaints about dilapidated courthouses, the California Legislature passed the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 and then the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 to begin the process of transferring courthouses from county to state ownership. The first transfer, in Riverside County, took place in October 2004. On December 29, 2009, the Administrative Office of the Courts announced that the process of transferring 532 facilities to state control was complete with the transfer of the Glenn County Superior Courthouse.