The Santa Clara County Superior Court System — Explained

PUBLISHED MAY 30, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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The Old Courthouse in San Jose has been in operation since 1868.

The Old Courthouse in San Jose has been in operation since 1868.   Photo By Eugene Zelenko / Wikimedia Commons   GNU Free Documentation License

For most Americans, other than when we go to a public school, our most direct and meaningful interaction with the government happens in the court system. Most of us don’t get to visit the Oval Office, the governor’s mansion or even the mayor’s office. But in court, we come face-to-face with government officials, and a system that can — and will — make an immediate and significant impact on our lives. 

For Santa Clara County residents, the local Superior Court system will most often be the first point of contact. But even before you get into a courtroom, the system can be confusing, and intimidating. 

But don’t let that get to you — courts are designed that way. When you walk into a courtroom, you’re supposed to feel the importance and solemn nature of the place and more importantly, of the judicial system. In reality the court system in Santa Clara County, or anywhere, is a flawed machine that is often geared toward churning out justice on an assembly line, and only rarely resembles the made-for-TV version as seen on Law and Order. Here’s a basic introduction to, and explanation of Santa Clara County Superior Court system, what it is, and how it works.

First, some history — and the Santa Clara courts have a lengthy one. Nearly a half-century before California became a state — and Santa Clara became a county — the region’s local court opened in a building located at what since became the corner of downtown San Jose’s Market and Post Streets. The court building, which also housed the San Jose mayor’s office as well as the local jail, operated there from 1805 until the demand for court services outsripped its capacity, and it was torn down in July of 1850, two months before California became the 31st state in the union.

Santa Clara County was formed a year later. The county court cycled through eight buildings until settling on what is now called Old Courthouse, also in downtown San Jose, at an address now numbered as 161 North First Street. 

The Old Courthouse was the site where Clara Foltz, the first woman ever to legally practice law in California, argued her cases. It was also the site of the historic case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company which produced the rather dubious landmark ruling that corporations have the same rights as people — a precedent which continues to exert a powerful, if not exactly salubrious, influence over American society, politics and law today.

Today, the Old Courthouse remains busy, with dozens of criminal and civil cases heard there every day (though its functions have been extremely limited during the coronavirus crisis). But the historic building is now one of eight courthouses in the Santa Clara Superior Court system. 

Others include Downtown Superior  Court, located nearby the Old Courthouse at 191 North First Street, where the county’s small claims court is located. The newer building also sees civil and probate matters in its courtrooms.

Family court for Santa Clara County, along with the county’s drug court, is also nearby, at 201 North First Street, in the Family Justice Center Building. The Juvenile Justice building sits at 840 Guadalupe Parkway in San Jose, while traffic court is located in the Santa Clara Courthouse on Homestead Road in Santa Clara.

Palo Alto and Morgan Hill also have their own courthouses, handling criminal cases. 

There are 77 judges spread among the eight courthouses, currently led by Presiding Judge Theodore C. Zayner who was first appointed to the bench in 2009 by Governor Arnold Schwarznegger. Zayner began his two-year term as presiding judge on January 1, 2021.

Under California law, the governor can appoint judges to fill vacancies on county courts, but those judges must then run in the next election to hold on to their seats. Of the current crop of Santa Clara County judges, only 11 initially won their seats by election, with most of the remainder being appointed by six different governors, going back to Gray Davis.

There are two main reasons why you would end up in front of one of those judges: you’re mixed up in a civil case — in other words, a lawsuit — or you are facing criminal charges. 

In the latter case, unless you are accused of a crime, you won’t have any reason to visit the Santa Clara County Superior Courts. But lawsuits are a different matter and in many significant ways much more complicated. 

Why would you file a lawsuit? The simplest reason is — you’ve been done wrong. Generally, lawsuits involve a violation of your legal rights, rather than actual crimes. Maybe you believe someone with whom you were in business broke a contract. Or perhaps you slipped and fell at a grocery store because the floor was too slick. Perhaps someone lied about you behind your back, so you want to sue for slander. The reasons for filing lawsuits are as limitless as your rights to binding contracts, personal safety, an unsullied reputation, and so on.  

But suffering a wrong, or perceived wrong, is only the start of the process that could lead you into a courtroom. You have to decide who to sue, and if you have a reasonable chance of winning the lawsuit. But most importantly, you must decide where and which type of court is right  for your lawsuit. This is called “jurisdiction,” and if you file in the wrong jurisdiction, your lawsuit will simply be thrown out, regardless of whether your claim is justified or not.

In the most basic terms, you have to file in the right place. If a business associate broke a contract that was signed in Santa Cruz, and you file suit in Santa Clara County, your suit will be tossed, and you’ll be forced to start all over again.

Of course, there are several other reasons that could land you in court outside of lawsuits and criminal cases. Santa Clara County probate courts, for example, handle a wide range of family and financial matters from distributing the property of dead people, to appointing guardians for children whose parents for whatever reason can’t do the job — or for adults who are impaired by age, mental illness, or some other incapacitating factor. 

Small claims court in Santa Clara County handles civil cases in which the money involved comes in at less than $10,000. The whole purpose is to make resolving these “small claims” cheap and relatively quick. As anyone who has watched Judge Judy understands, lawyers are banned from Small Claims Court. The plaintiff (that is, the person who is suing) and defendant (the one being sued) must stand in front of a judge and make their own arguments. 

Juvenile Court, in the Family Justice Center, handles criminal cases for defendants under 18 years old. But cases of child abuse and negkectalso go through the Juvenile Court system. 

While all of these various types of cases can be disconcerting and confusing, to say the least, the Santa Clara County Superior Court website makes the process much simpler and less cumbersome than it was in the pre-internet era. 

The court’s online Self Help Center allows county residents to file required forms in cases ranging from divorce to child custody, unlawful eviction and even a simple change of legal address — all from the comfort of a computer. The website also includes detailed information on how to proceed if you have been charged with a crime, need to fight a traffic ticket, or file a small claims suit, among numerous other legal functions.

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