Placer County’s Court System: How it Started and How it Works Today

PUBLISHED MAY 31, 2021 12:00 A.M.
Share this:  
Placer County's historic courthouse, circa 1897.

Placer County's historic courthouse, circa 1897.   Sunset Magazine (1903) / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

A French immigrant named Claude Chana, who had initially settled in New Orleans, is considered the founder of Auburn, the county seat of Placer County. After making the hazardous journey west, as thousands of pioneers did (Chana is believed to have traveled part of the way with the ill-fated Donner Party) he worked for a while in New Helvetia (today’s Sacramento) then headed north when he heard that his friend, James Marshall, had struck gold at a place called Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, the discovery that set off the California Gold Rush.

En route to Sutter’s Mill on May 16, 1848, Chana found it — gold, in a place called North Fork, which thanks to Chana’s discovery and the mining industry that spring up quickly around it, soon became the settlement named Auburn.  And thanks to the gold mining boom ignited by the Chana and Marshall discoveries, just two years later California was accepted into the union as the 31st of the United States. 

It took another year, however, for Placer to become its  own county, splitting off portions of Sutter and Yuba counties, two other gold-rich regions. Auburn was designated the county seat, and one of the first functions of the new entity was to elect a slate of public officials. Among those elected was Hugh Fitzsimmons, a lawyer who had settled in Auburn the previous year. Fitzimmons was named the first County Judge, signalling the inauguration of the Placer County court system.

Not much else is known about Fitzsimmons, except that he was a Democrat who served from 1851 through 1854, when he was defeated in his reelection bid by James Ellery Hale, a member of the Whig Party who had served as a Presidential Elector for Whig candidate Winfield Scott, a former general in the Mexican-American War. Scott ultimately lost the election, and the southern vote, due to his vocal opposition to slavery. (Pro-slavery Democrat Franklin Pierce became the 14th President through that election.) 

Today, Placer County Superior Court is staffed by 10 judges, as well as four Commissioners who handle family law-related cases. In fact, since 1851, while their titles have often changed, Placer County has seen 588 judicial officers, total. Since 2009, the presiding judge of Placer County Superior Court has been Alan V. Pineschi, who has been a judge in the county since 1986, and also served as presiding judge from 2002 to 2004.

Presiding judges in Superior Courts throughout California’s 58 counties are voted in by the other judges in their respective counties, and are in charge of assigning specific judges to cases, as well as overseeing the overall function and policies of the Superior Court system.

The main courthouse now sits, and has since 2008, in the Bill Santucci Justice Center, a complex located on Justice Center Drive in Roseville. The center is named for the lifelong Roseville resident who served stints on both the city council and the Placer County Board of supervisors as well as numerous other local government boards before he passed away in 2008.

The actual Placer County Superior Courthouse within the Santucci center was renamed in 2015 in honor of Howard G. Gibson, who served as a Placer County judge from 1958 to 1984, serving all but the final two years of that time on Roseville Justice Court before then-Governor Jerry Brown named him to the Superior Court in 1982. Gibson was also the first judge to work out of Roseville’s Civic Center Complex, where he based his courtroom from 1973 to 1981.

Like the Placer County court system itself, the county’s courthouses have evolved immeasurably since the mid-19th century, when the first courthouse in Auburn — before Pacer had even become a county — was nothing but a wooden hut, 20 feet by 20 feet (more of a cubicle, really) with a metallic roof. As a result, when the sun hit the roof, anyone inside the courthouse would bake, even though the little building’s windows had no glass.

Though the modern courthouse named for Gibson is the central location for all genres of adjudicated legal proceedings in Placer — criminal and civil cases, traffic court, family and probate court — the county also maintains a courthouse for juvenile offender cases in Auburn, while a share of family law cases, as well as criminal and civil trials, are heard at the Historic Courthouse (pictured above circa 1903), also in the county seat. A jail courthouse for criminal cases only is located on Go For Broke Road in Roseville, while Tahoe Courtroom in Tahoe City is the site of criminal cases on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the county’s drug court on the first Thursday of each month.

The drug court – one of more than 200 drug courts throughout the state — is an alternative sentencing program open to nonviolent drug offenders who have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to at least 90 days behind bars. Rather than serve the time, offenders are given the choice of participating in a closely monitored treatment program of between nine and 18 months in duration, with unannounced drug tests — as well as regular appearances before a judge — throughout. 

If participants are able to  get through the program without major lapses to a judge’s satisfaction, they avoid serving prison time altogether.

The Placer County Superior Court also includes an appellate division, in which defendants who have been convicted and sentenced for a felony or misdemeanor offense can appeal those convictions. The deadline for filing an appeal is 30 days after sentencing for a misdemeanor, 60 for a felony. 

Appeals within the superior court must be based only on legal errors made during the original trial. They are not retrials, and may not include any evidence not introduced at trial.

As with most California Superior Courts, which tend to be clogged with cases, much of the initial process involved in going to court can be carried out online, with the dozens of different forms available on the court’s website. The court also offers a “Self-Help Center” which under normal circumstances is open by appointment from Monday through Friday in the Howard Gibson Courthouse. The center offers assistance for litigants who want to do as much as possible in their cases without the assistance of a lawyer. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the self-help center conducted most business online or by phone.

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.

Related Articles
The district attorney and public defender are at the heart of Placer County's criminal justice system.
Placer County's D.A. and Public Defender, Explained
Anyone charged with a crime in Placer County should get to know the district attorney and public defender. Here's how their offices work.
Placer County's grand jury serves an important role investigating government conduct.
How Placer County's Grand Jury Works, Explained
The Placer County grand jury acts as the county's leading government watchdog body. Here's how the grand jury works, and how to become a grand juror.
Join Us Today!