by Thompson & West, 1879, with illustrations

Chapter XIV - Courts and Bar of Yuba County

Law may be said to have been introduced into Alta California in 1769, when the Franciscan Padres, under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra, founded the Mission of San Diego.  The Padres had full civil control of the mission settlements and administered justice, not as we have been accustomed to in our courts of law, but in the manner best calculated to further the interests of their religion and government.  Later, when Pueblos were established, justice was administered by an Alcalde (Judge), whose authority and that of the other civil officers gradually encroached upon the jurisdiction of the Padres, until finally, when the Missions were secularized, the civil power obtained supreme control, its authority extending along the whole coast, and as far inland as the military arm had strength to carry it.

Under the Mexican laws of 1837, we find the courts established as follows for the territory of California.   The highest court, having an appellate jurisdiction and corresponding in character to our Supreme Court, was the Superior Court of California, consisting of four Judges and an Attorney General.  It was divided into the first and second benches, the three senior Judges composing the first and the junior the second.  The first bench was called the Court of the Third Instance, and its decisions were final.  Appeals lay to this court from the second bench or Court of the Second Instance.   The latter court had first jurisdiction of appeals from the Court of the First Instance, the highest local court then existing, and having somewhat the powers of our District Court.  It became customary for the First Alcalde to discharge the duties of Judge of the Court of the First Instance.  The lesser magistrates consisted of the Alcaldes and Justices of the Peace, whose duties were very similar and corresponded closely to those of our Justices.

During the period intervening between the American conquest, in 1846, and the establishment of the new courts under the Constitution in 1850, the courts became seriously disorganized.  In many places of recent growth, notably the towns and cities that dotted the valleys, brought almost miraculously into being by the inward rush of the eager gold seekers, there had as yet been no Court, and no law but that administered by the settler and the miner.   To remedy this defect, Gen. Bennett Riley, then Military Governor, issued a proclamation, June 3, 1849, in which, among other things, he called upon the people to elect Alcaldes and Judges, under the Mexican laws which were then in force, who should administer justice until the courts could be established by the Constitution should become clothed with the powers to be given them by that instrument.

It was by virtue of this proclamation that the inhabitants of the town of Marysville, January 18, 1850, elected Stephen J. Field, First Alcalde, and J.B. Wadleigh, Second Alcalde; these were the first magistrates in Yuba County.  Subsequently, Phil. W. Keyser was elected Alcalde of Eliza, Richard Snowden of Nicolaus, Gilbert A. Grant of Vernon, and Henry Fairchild of Yuba City.  Perhaps the honor of being the first magistrate attaches to Gen. John A. Sutter, who in the few years immediately preceding the American conquest was a Justice, or Captain, of the Sacramento District in which his grants were situated, and which embraced Yuba and Sutter Counties.  However that may be, his authority terminated long before this county became sufficiently settled to require a local magistrate.  The authority of the Alcaldes elected in January continued until June, at which time the Judges of the courts, as established by the Constitution, assumed the duties of their office.  The election to fill these positions occurred on the first Monday in April, and resulted in the election of Henry P. Haun, County Judge and Chief Justice of the Court of Sessions;  Wm. R. Turner was appointed Judge of the District Court by Governor Burnett.

The courts established by the Constitution of 1849, and their history so far as they relate to this county, are as follows:


By the constitution of 1849, the highest judicial power in the State was vested in a Supreme Court, with appellate jurisdiction of causes involving over two hundred dollars, and in all cases of tax, municipal fines, and criminal cases amounting to a felony, in questions of law only.  The Court consisted of one Chief Justice and two Associate Justices, any two of whom constituted a quorum.  The agreement of two of them was necessary to a decision.  The term of office was fixed at six years, one Justice to be elected in 1851, and one on each second year thereafter.  The Judge whose term was the first to expire was made the Chief Justice.  The first Justices were elected by the first Legislature and one of them was chosen by lot, whose term should expire January 1, 1952, one in 1854, and one in 1856.  The Governor was given the power to fill any vacancy by appointment until the next general election.  In February, 1852, Justice Heydenfeldt, by joint resolution of the Legislature, was granted leave of absence for six months.  It became evident after his departure that the remainder of the Court could not transact much business, because a disagreement between them rendered a decision impossible.  Therefore, March 25, 1852, the Legislature passed an act authorizing the Governor to fill any temporary vacancy by appointment.  The next day Hon. Peter H. Burnett was appointed, but declined to serve, deeming the act unconstitutional.  April 2nd, Hon. Alexander Wells was appointed.  The constitutionality of the act was tested on an agreed case, and the Court were divided in their opinions, Chief Justice Murray giving an opinion against the legality of the act, and Justice Anderson, one in favor.  There being then no decision of the question, Justice Wells took his seat May 5, 1852.  When Justice Heydenfeldt returned he gave an opinion concurring with that of Chief Justice Murray against the act, and thus it was declared unconstitutional; not, however, until Justice Wells had retired from the bench.  The constitutional amendments of 1863 altered the composition of the Court, establishing it as it is to-day.  The number of Justices was increased to five, one to be elected every second year with terms of ten years.  Five were elected in 1863, and the length of their terms decided among them by lot.  The causes which could be appealed were placed at those involving over three hundred instead of two hundred dollars.


Under the law of 1850, Yuba county was the Eighth Judicial District, and the first term of the court was commenced June 3, 1850, by Hon. Wm. R. Turner.  The jurisdiction of this Court was very large, including chancery, civil and criminal.  It had original cognizance in all cases in equity, and its civil jurisdiction included all cases where the amount exceeded two hundred dollars, causes involving the title to real property or the validity of any tax, and issues of fact joined in the Probate Court.  It had power to inquire into all criminal offences by means of a Grand Jury, and try indictments found by that body. 

The first Grand Jury assembled June 4, and was composed of the following citizens: - W. Fetter, foreman, F.W. Shaffer, Geo. Hubbard, W.W. Cleveland, A.T. Farish, J.S. Kelly, W.W. Nelson, N.D. Meek, John H. Washburn, Wm. King, I. Washburn, Normon Hudson, A.H. Johnson, Morton Cheeseman, W.E. Whitman and Wm. Ferguson.

In 1851, the Legislature took from the court its criminal jurisdiction and conferred it upon the Court of Sessions, leaving it the power of hearing appeals from that court in criminal matters, and the power to try all indictments for murder, manslaughter, arson, and other cases that could not be tried in the Court of Sessions.  At the same session the Legislature formed Yuba, Nevada and Sutter Counties into the Tenth Judicial District.  In 1851, Hon. Gordon N. Mott was appointed by the Governor to fill the vacancy caused by the removal of Hon. Wm. R. Turner to another district.

At the opening of the District Court, October 10, 1851, Hon. W.T. Barbour was present, with a commission from the Governor as District Judge of this district.  He intimated that he desired an interview with Judge Mott before making the formal demand for the office, and the court was adjourned till two o'clock in the afternoon.  During the recess Judges Mott and Barbour, together with the members of the bar, held a consultation in the office of the Recorder.  Judge Barbour stated that he had a commission from the Governor as District Judge of the Tenth Judicial District, given in consequence of his election to that office by the people at the last general election, and that he had taken the constitutional oath of office.  Judge Mott stated that he also had a commission from the Governor as District Judge, and claimed that, as his commission was given to fill a vacancy in the office occasioned by the failure of the Legislature to elect, and as it did not mention the term for which was to hold office, it would hold till the election of District Judges in 1852.  The Constitution provided for the filling of such vacancies "at the next election by the people," and the question of right lay on the interpretation of these words, whether they meant the next election, or the next regular election for the office to be filled.  Upon the assembling of the court in the afternoon, Mr. Barbour appeared and demanded the office and records (this course having been previously decided upon), and then the court adjourned to allow the matter to be carried to the Supreme Court.  There it was decided that Mr. Barbour was the rightful claimant to the position;  he accordingly took his seat without further interruption.  In 1853, the Tenth Judicial District was changed by the Legislature so as to embrace Yuba, Nevada, Sutter, and Sierra counties.  Again, in 1857, an alteration was made, reducing the district to Yuba and Sutter counties;  and in 1863, the size of the district was increased to four counties, Yuba, Sutter, Colusa and Sierra, since which time there has been no further alteration.  The Legislature also, in 1863, raised the civil jurisdiction from amounts over two hundred dollars to three hundred dollars, gave it exclusive power to try indictments for treason, mis-prision of treason, murder, and manslaughter.  Since that time there has been but little change in the powers of the District Court.  A District Judge has authority to hold court in any district, by request of the Judge of that district, or upon designation of the Governor.  The term of the Judge of the District Court was fixed by the Constitution at six years.


The County Court is held by the County Judge, whose term was fixed by the Constitution at four years.  Hon. Henry P. Haun was elected by the people of Yuba county on the first Monday in April, 1850, and opened the County Court, June 3, 1850.  An appeal lay to this court in civil cases from a Justice of the Peace and the Recorder's court.  the business transacted by this Court was at first necessarily very small.  In 1863, the Legislature made the jurisdiction of this Court to embrace cases of forcible entry and detainer.  The Court of Sessions having been abolished, criminal jurisdiction was given to this court with power to try all indictments, except for those for treason, mis-prision of treason, murder, and manslaughter, which indictments must be certified to the District Court for trial.  Since then there has been no change of note in the powers of this court.


The Court of Sessions was composed of the County Judge as Chief Justice, and two Justices of the Peace as Associate Justices, whose term of office was one year, and who were elected annually by the Justices of the county.  The first term was commenced June 10, 1850.  The duties of this Court included those now discharged by the Board of Supervisors, which the court continued to perform until 1855, when the Board of Supervisors was organized.  In 1851, the power to inquire into criminal offenses by means of a Grand Jury, was transferred from the District Court to this court.  All criminal indictments were tried here, except for murder, manslaughter, and arson.  In 1863, this court was abolished by the Legislature.


The County Judge is also Judge of the Probate Court.  The jurisdiction of this court embraced all probate matters.  Issues of fact joined here were adjourned into the District Court for trial, or by agreement could be tried in this court.  Afterwards, by act of Legislature, the Probate Court was given the power to summon juries and try issues of fact.  There has been no great alterations in the powers of this court since that time.


The charter by which the City of Marysville was incorporated in 1851, provided for a Recorder's Court, to be held by the Recorder of the city, elected annually by the people.  The first to fill this position was Gordon N. Mott, elected in 1855.  The jurisdiction of this court extended to the city limits, and embraced the same civil and criminal powers of those possessed by a Justice of the Peace.  It also had exclusive jurisdiction of all violations of a city ordinance, nuisances in the city, vagrancy, and disorderly conduct.  By the charter of 1855, the civil jurisdiction of this court was taken away.  The office of Recorder was abolished by the Legislature of 1862, and a Mayor's Court established;  all the powers of the Recorder were transferred to the Mayor of the city, who held the new court.  By act of the Legislature, the city was re-incorporated in 1876, and the Mayor's Court was changed to the Police Court, as it exists at present, with the same powers as those possessed by the Mayor's Court.  The Police Judge is elected annually by the Mayor and Common Council.


By the law of 1850, the term of a Justice of the Peace was fixed at one year;  his jurisdiction extended to the limits of the township in which he was elected.  He had cognizance of actions on contract, for damages, and to recover specific property when the amount or value did not exceed two hundred dollars.   In 1851, his powers were considerably increased.  He had jurisdiction of actions to recover money, for damages to personal property, for fines, penalties and forfeitures, actions on bonds, enforcement of lien on personal property, actions to recover personal property, and judgment by confession, where the amount in all these cases did not exceed five hundred dollars, and on a bond taken by him, even if the amount did exceed that sum, cases of forcible entry and detainer, and the trial of the right of mining claims.  The criminal jurisdiction included vagrancy, disorder, petty larceny, assault and battery, breaches of the peace, and all misdemeanors punishable by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars and not more than one year's imprisonment.  In 1863, forcible entry and detainer cases were transferred to the County Court, and the civil jurisdiction reduced to amounts not exceeding three hundred dollars.  In 1870, the jurisdiction of this court in cases of misdemeanors was extended to fines of one thousand dollars and imprisonment one year.  In 1874, this jurisdiction was reduced to fines of five hundred dollars and six months imprisonment.  In the city of Marysville, the Police Court has cognizance of criminal cases to the exclusion of the Justice's Court.


The new Constitution, adopted by the voters in an election held May 7, 1879, changes the whole system of judiciary.  Article VI., Section 1, of that instrument reads:  "The judicial power of the State shall be vested in the Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment, in a Supreme Court, Superior Courts, Justices of the Peace, and such inferior Courts as the Legislature may establish in any incorporated city or town, or city and county."  The Supreme Court is to consist of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices, elected by the people, and their term of office is fixed at twelve years.  There are to be twelve  Judges of the Superior Court in the City and County of San Francisco, two in each of the counties of Sacramento, San Joaquin, Los Angeles, Sonoma, Santa Clara, and Alameda, one in the counties of Yuba and Sutter combined, and one in each of the other counties of the State.

The Superior Court combines the duties and powers of the present District, County, and Probate Courts.  The term of a Judge of the Superior Court is fixed at six years.  The Judges of the Supreme and Superior Courts will be chosen at the next general election, and will assume their duties on the first of January, 1880.  The powers and duties of these courts will be defined by the Legislature at its next session.  "The Legislature shall determine the number of Justices of the Peace to be elected in townships, incorporated cities and towns, or cities and counties."  It will also have the power to establish inferior Courts.


The disciples of the law have played an important part in the history of this county, and much of its success is due to the efforts of these gentlemen.  Most of those in the profession during the pioneer days of the county have moved to other localities, some rising to prominence, some sinking into oblivion, and others are numbered with the dead.  The Bar of Yuba has always been, and is now, justly celebrated for the learning, culture, and ability of its members, and has given to the country many who have achieved a national reputation in the higher walks of political and judicial life.

In the following list, the date immediately following the name is the year in which practice was commenced at this Bar.  Although some of the gentlemen came to the State prior to 1850, yet none are marked earlier than that, as the courts did not assume their duties until June of that year.  The second date is the year of death, or removal from this Bar.  Those marked (*) are still practicing here.


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