Nevada County’s Court System Explained, From the Gold Rush to Today

PUBLISHED JUN 14, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Nevada County's courthouse, as it appeared in 1866.

Nevada County's courthouse, as it appeared in 1866.   Unknown / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

At the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1851, as the population of the region grew thanks to the great California gold rush that exploded just a few years earlier, a new county was carved out of what was then Yuba County. Nevada County was named after the city that became its county seat and remains so to this day, as well as the mountain range whose name is derived from the Spanish word for “snowy.” 

The population boom in the newly popular gold-mining region was only one factor that necessitated the creation of Nevada County (as well as Placer and Sierra Counties) from the land belonging to Yuba, which itself became a county only a year earlier, in the same year that California was admitted to the union as the 31st of the United States. 

Another was the great distance people were required to travel in order to get to a courthouse. This was not an incidental matter. Crime was rampant in gold-rush country, and justice often hard to come by. Splitting the newly formed Nevada County from Yuba also created a whole new court system, allowing the region’s residents easier access to the legal system.

Offenses such as stealing pitchforks were met with vigilante justice, which often meant hanging, or such grotesque punishments as facial disfigurement, which happened to one Chilean immigrant whose ears were cut off after he was accused of using slave labor to mine more land than he would otherwise be entitled to.

The courts provided some layer of protection against miner vigilantism and lynch mobs, but even the legal system showed little pity for violators of the miner’s internal code of justice. In 1851, the same year that Nevada County was inaugurated, the newly formed state legislature passed a law making the theft of over $100 (about $3,500 in today’s cash) punishable by death. And for prospective pilferers who thought they could get away with stealing less than $100, the law also mandated 50 lashes across the bare back for “petty larceny.” 

The Nevada County court system was born into that wild and wooly environment. Fortunately, the crime situation is considerably more under control today. According to 2018 statistics from the California Department of Justice (the latest available online), the county saw just 250 violent crimes that year, including two homicides, 22 rapes, 24 robberies, and 202 aggravated assaults. In the property crimes department, the county experienced 357 burglaries, 171 motor vehicle thefts, 761 larceny thefts, and 4 arsons in 2018.

California Catches Up

The court system has also come a long way since its wild west founding days. Like Superior Court systems in all 58 California counties, the Nevada County courts are administered by the state. There were two trial court systems in California until 1998, when voters passed a constitutional amendment allowing each county to consolidate its Municipal Courts and Superior Courts into one unified system. 

The idea of unifying court systems had been around in the United States since 1906, when the dean of Harvard Law School first inveighed against what he called the archaic nature, even then, of the various types of courts throughout the U.S. It took California until 1992 to take up the call, however, when the first legislation to subsume the municipal court system into the Superior Courts to create a single network of trial courts was introduced. After a series of failures in the legislature, the constitutional amendment was finally passed in 1996, and ratified by the state’s voters two years later.

Though the unification was voluntary, all 58 counties had merged their court systems within three years. Nevada County was one of the first,  completing the merger on July 1, just one month after passage of the constitutional amendment.

The Court Today

Today, California has about 500 Superior Court buildings but Nevada County with its relatively modest population of just under 100,000 (36th of the 58 counties) gets by with just two courthouses and five judges in its Superior Court. The primary facility is Nevada City Courthouse, at 201 Church Street. The courthouse is the site of all types of cases —criminal, civil, family law, traffic court, small claims court and others. 

The smaller facility is the Truckee Courthouse, in Joseph Government Center at 10075 Levon Avenue in Truckee, where criminal, civil, family and traffic cases are also heard. Both courthouses also house self-help centers, where prospective litigants can go to begin filing court papers, or receive assistance with other necessary paperwork. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, both self-help centers were closed to the public, with services available only by phone, or by email.

Those cases are apportioned among five judges, plus a court commissioner who presides over family, traffic, and Department of Child Support Services cases. The presiding judge since 2019 has been Linda J. Sloven, whose own judicial assignments cover criminal and traffic cases. Sloven is one of two women on the six-person Nevada County bench, and was first appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012. She ran unopposed for reelection in 2014.

The other woman serving as a Nevada County judge is Candace S. Heidelberger, who was first appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarznegger in 2007, after serving in private practice as a contract attorney for the Nevada County public defender’s office since 2004. She was also an assistant public defender in Placer County from 1997 to 2002, handling mostly juvenile cases. As a Nevada County Superior Court Judge, she now handles juvenile dependency and family law.

Heidelberger is one of the two longest-serving judges on Nevada County’s bench. The other is Thomas M. Anderson, who served as the county’s public defender for seven years before becoming a Superior Court judge in 2007. Anderson held the presiding judge’s role from 2010 to 2012, and has been the presiding judge of the county grand jury since 2010. That means he oversees juror selection for the jury, which is the county’s official government watchdog group. Though the grand jury is independent, Anderson is available to provide guidance on the preparation and submission of the jury’s annual reports.

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