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Hangtown No More: El Dorado County’s Court System, Explained

Here’s how the El Dorado County court system works.

PUBLISHED AUGUST 27, 2021
The historic El Dorado County courthouse, built in 1913.
The historic El Dorado County courthouse, built in 1913. Bobak Ha'Eri / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 3.0 Unported License

Seven months before California became the 31st state in the union, El Dorado County became a county. Originally called Coloma County, it adopted its current name before California’s first state legislature officially made El Dorado, along with 26 others, one of California’s first legally recognized counties. That was on Feb. 18, 1850. But it wasn’t until four years later that the county courts ordered their first hanging.

Hangings were such a significant feature of El Dorado County that Placerville, the county seat, was given the nickname “Old Hangtown.” As recently as May of 2021, the city council voted to retain the 170-year-old nickname, over objections that the name could be construed as racially insensitive, as well as just plain unpleasant. But the council voted to remove the image of a noose from Placerville’s official city seal.

El Dorado County’s History of Hangings

The county, and its county seat, are so closely associated with hangings that California officially recognizes “Hangman’s Tree”—nowadays just a stump at 305 Main Street in Placerville—as a historical landmark. The seemingly unsavory association began in 1849, when a “jury” of citizen vigilantes in the crime-ridden Gold Rush town hanged three accused criminals in one afternoon from the large white oak that later became that landmark.

That triple hanging, the first known public execution in Gold Country, was followed by several other hangings over the subsequent months, earning the town its enduring nickname. But when El Dorado became a county, it also opened its own district court and decided to take charge of the situation, establishing a legal process for hanging people.

The presence of a functioning district court didn’t put an end to the hangings, however. The final hanging in El Dorado County did not take place until 1929—19 years after the two-story courthouse in Placerville burned down and was replaced with a less vulnerable, concrete building.

Desperate Need for New County Courthouse

That building, completed in 1913, stands at 495 Main Street and remains the main El Dorado County courthouse in 2021. But perhaps not for too much longer. The three-story building contains just four courtrooms where the majority of legal proceedings in the county, with its population of just under 200,000, take place—including criminal cases, family law, juvenile and domestic violence cases.

The court also has space in Placerville Building C Branch, at 2850 Fairlane Court. That facility houses just two courtrooms, and has to share one of them with the county’s planning commission. Civil cases, traffic court, and more criminal matters run through those courtrooms. But the main courthouse is hopelessly outdated. There’s no jury room, forcing jurors to line up in the corridors, and no conference rooms for lawyers to confer privately with clients or with each other.

The courthouses are also short on security features. It has no separate area for defendants who are being held in custody, and just two holding cells which are built to house one defendant each, but often are stuffed with several at a time. Even the official California court system website describes the Historic Placerville Courthouse as “inadequate to the court’s needs.”

Despite the high-priority requirement for a new courthouse in El Dorado County, when the state’s 2019-2020 budget set aside $2.8 million to purchase land on which to build one, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed that line item, saying that the state Judicial Council—the policy-making arm of the state court system—had not yet finished its review of infrastructure needs for courts throughout the state.

Other El Dorado County Courthouses and What They Do

The El Dorado County Superior Court also occupies a South Lake Tahoe branch, where civil cases, small claims, family law and probate cases are heard, as well as branches in Cameron Park and on Fair Lane (not to be confused with Fairlane Court) in Placerville.

Those facilities accommodate nine judges. The presiding judge is Suzanne N. Kingsbury, who was first elected to the El Dorado County bench in 1996. She has been in the county legal system since 1985, first as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, then switching sides to serve as a public defender starting in 1990, before running for judge.

The El Dorado Superior Court also contains a system of four “collaborative courts”—courts designed not to punish defendants who fall into certain, mostly nonviolent categories, but to help them. A court for repeat DUI offenders offers them the chance to complete a court-supervised treatment program rather than serve jail time.

The county’s Behavioral Health Court deals with mentally ill adults and some youth offenders, and the Veterans Treatment Court offers support to offenders who are military veterans and may be dealing with the various issues that can come with service in the armed forces. The Family Wellness Court provides alternatives to traditional sentencing for young offenders whose problems stem from family-related issues.

Like all California courts, the El Dorado County Superior Court largely closed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then reopened with masking and social distancing restrictions in place. But while many other counties have kept at least some of the health restrictions in place, the El Dorado courts lifted almost all of them on July 1. People who remain unvaccinated, or only partially vaccinated, against COVID are “encouraged” to maintain social distance, and are required to wear masks. Those who have been vaccinated are not required to mask or distance.

Air Quality Causes Court Closings

Beyond the pandemic, however, El Dorado County has its own set of region-specific problems that have caused some temporary closures. Namely, the wildfires that continued to rage in the county and the Tahoe region through the summer of 2021. Potentially dangerous air quality issues have caused several of the court buildings to shut down.

Even when buildings close, the court offers a range of online services that allow some basic legal business to be conducted from home, including initial court filings, and payment of criminal and traffic fines.

One thing that the El Dorado County courts no longer allow in Old Hangtown is hanging. Or any kind of executions. The state abolished hanging as a form of execution in 1937, switching to the gas chamber, and then to lethal injection in 1994 when a federal court ruled that gassing condemned convicts was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore prohibited by the United States Constitution.

In 2019, Newsom settled the capital punishment matter, at least for present time, by signing an executive order halting executions in the state by granting a reprieve to all death row inmates. 

EXPLAINER

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