The Monterey County Superior Court System — Explained

PUBLISHED JUN 4, 2021 12:00 A.M.
Share this:  
Though stressful, taking someone to court will get a dispute settled  in a civil fashion.

Though stressful, taking someone to court will get a dispute settled in a civil fashion.   Sgerbic / Wikimedia Commons   Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

For most of us, the courts are the first place, and maybe even the only place, we ever come face-to-face with one of the three branches of government. The White House and the governor’s mansion—headquarters of the executive branches—seem far removed from everyday life. And beyond simply voting, how many people regularly testify before, or for that matter visit, Congress or their state legislatures?

But the judicial branch—whether it’s fighting a traffic ticket, getting a divorce, facing or pressing criminal charges, or any one of numerous other actions that directly affect our day-to-day existence—is often the court of first resort. Literally.

While the legislative and executive branches are set up for political conflict, the judiciary (at least when it functions properly) is designed to perform the opposite function. The courts are, at least in theory, the mechanism that keeps society running smoothly, by settling conflicts in an orderly, impartial manner. Put it this way: if your noisy neighbor is constantly raking his leaves into your yard while blasting Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen from the sound system of his Pontiac Trans-Am, you have a couple of choices. You can shoot him—or sue him.

The first option will get you in big trouble, in addition to being just plain wrong no matter what you think of his musical, automotive, and lawn-care predilections. Perhaps more importantly, if all disputes were settled by violence, modern society would simply fail to survive.

Taking your noisy neighbor to court, while it may be stressful and inconvenient, will get the dispute settled  in a peaceful, reasonably civil fashion. No one gets hurt, and society marches on.

How Justice Works

The Superior Court system serves that function in Monterey County, one of 58 Superior Court systems in California. Until 1998, each county had both a municipal and superior court system. But in 1998, voters passed Prop 220, which allowed counties to merge their two court systems into a single Superior Court. Within three years, all 58 counties had completed the merger.

Monterey County’s three courthouses—in Salinas, Monterey, and Marina—handle criminal and civil matters, ranging from murder and domestic violence to traffic and small claims.

The Salinas Courthouse, located at 240 Church St., handles criminal cases as well as mental health matters, drug treatment court, and writs of habeas corpus. The latter is a process guaranteed to incarcerated criminal defendants by which they may challenge their imprisonment, and is generally the last hope for prisoners who believe they are being held unlawfully. (Though rarely granted, perhaps the most famous successful writ of habeas corpus was granted in 1985 to boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, who was freed after 20 years of serving a life sentence for a triple murder he claimed he did not commit.)

Monterey County juvenile court also occupies a courtroom in the Salinas Courthouse.

Salinas became the county seat of Monterey County in 1872, when plans emerged to build a railroad straight through the city of Monterey. That’s why, since 1878, the county’s main courthouse has resided in Salinas. But Monterey nonetheless maintains an active court facility of its own, where the county’s civil cases—that is, lawsuits—are processed and tried.

Situated at 1200 Aguajito Road, the Monterey Courthouse handles the county’s civil trials, as well as family law and probate (that is, wills and estates) matters.

A third courthouse, located at  3180 Del Monte Blvd. in Marina, is the home of the county’s Small Claims Court, which is reserved for disputes over values less than $10,000. No lawyers are allowed in Small Claims Court. The litigants must duke it out between themselves, with a judge acting as referee. Traffic court and child support cases are also adjudicated in Marina.

A fourth county Superior Court building, in King City, has been closed since 2013.

Since January 1, 2020, the Monterey County Superior Courts have been led by Presiding Judge Julie C. Culver, who has had quite an inaugural year. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, all jury trials in the state were suspended as of March 23, 2020. But on April 11, Culver issued an order declaring that many court proceedings would go on, via remote video hookup, allowing hearings and other proceedings to take place, even with closed courtrooms.

Culver has served on the Superior Court bench since 2010, when she was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarznegger. A registered Republican, she was a prosecutor in the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office from 1985 to 1999. She later went into corporate law, as general counsel for the online shopping site, before Schwarznegger appointed her to the Superior Court.

But even before the pandemic hit, Monterey County Superior Court offered litigants a self-help option, to file documents for a variety of cases from home. The process for small claims, divorce, restraining orders, evictions, and several other types of legal cases can all be started from the privacy of your own computer.

Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact

Long form articles which explain how something works, or provide context or background information about a current issue or topic.

Join Us Today!