Sacramento County’s Legal System: The Superior Courts, Explained

Sacramento’s county courts have seen a series of high-profile trials. But here’s how the system works for anyone who comes in contact with it.

PUBLISHED OCT 16, 2021 12:00 A.M.
Share this:  
The Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse in the state’s capital city.

The Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse in the state’s capital city.   Nathan Hughes Hamilton / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 2.0 Generic License

Sacramento constructed its first courthouse in 1851, the year after California was accepted into the union as the 31st state. A year later, the city was still largely a ramshackle amalgam of wood-and-canvas huts built in a hurry to accommodate would-be miners chasing the Gold Rush. Yet it volunteered itself to become the new state’s capital. The legislature moved in and the courthouse was instantly converted into the California Capitol building.

Two years after that, the courthouse burned down, along with a large swath of the city. The capitol remained in Sacramento, where it resides to this day, and Sacramento built a second courthouse that endured for another century, until it was abandoned as obsolete.

Courthouse Named for Groundbreaking Judge

A new courthouse opened in 1965—the same year Gordon D. Schaber was appointed presiding judge of Sacramento County’s Superior Court. Schaber was the highly respected dean of McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. And Schaber was a gay man who, in that era, remained closeted. But he was a mentor to future United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who later authored several of the court’s most important decisions upholding the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, including the landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that established the right of same-sex couples to legally marry.

That courthouse, still in use today almost six decades after it opened, now bears Schaber’s name. The Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse (720 Ninth St., Sacramento) is the main site in the county for civil trials, and both felony and misdemeanor criminal cases. 

The courthouse has seen a series of spectacular trials for some of Sacramento’s most notorious criminals. Among them, the four-month-long 1979 trial of serial killer Richard Trenton Chase, aka “The Vampire of Sacramento,” and the 1995 trial of “Thrill Killer” Eric Royce Leonard.

Schaber stepped down as presiding judge in 1970 and passed away in 1997 at age 69. In 2021, the presiding judge is Russell L. Hom, who has served on the bench since 2002, when he was appointed by Gov. Gray Davis, and as presiding judge since Jan. 1, 2020, when he became the first Asian-American judge to hold the Sacramento court’s top post. 

How Judges Earn Seats on the Bench

Hom presides over a roster of 51 judges—and about 650 employees—in the Sacramento system, the longest-serving of which is Patrick Marlette, who has sat on the Sacramento bench since 1998, an appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson. In fact, Marlette has served for so long that when he was appointed in 1997, he served as a municipal court judge—until the county’s municipal courts merged with the superior court in June of the following year.

Though all but two of the current group of Sacramento judges initially took their seats by gubernatorial appointment, judges in Sacramento and throughout California must win elections. Superior Court judges run in nonpartisan races, and are elected to six-year terms. Appointed judges must run in the next election after their appointments. Judicial elections in California take place in every even-numbered year.

But judges who run unopposed are automatically reelected. They don’t have to appear on the ballot or stage campaigns.

Six Sacramento Courthouses and What They Do

The Sacramento system has five other courthouses in operation as well, each serving one or more specific purposes. The Lorenzo Patiño Hall of Justice (651 I St., Sacramento) handles criminal matters. Which is convenient, because the 16-story building constructed in 1989 is also home to the Main County Jail. The modern structure is where felony pre-trial motions are heard, and it also houses the county’s Domestic Violence Court and Drug Court.

William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse (3341 Power Inn Road) is the site of cases in, as its name would imply, family law, probate court and juvenile dependency. Small Claims and Traffic Courts are located in Carol Miller Justice Center (301 Bicentennial Circle); juvenile cases are heard at the Juvenile Courthouse (9605 Kiefer Blvd.). 

Finally, since 2016, the first three floors of the Hall of Justice building (813 Sixth St.) has been the location for motion filings and settlement hearings in civil cases.

Schaber Courthouse Has Seen Better Days

Like all California courts, the Sacramento court system shut down in March of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic brought large sections of government and business activity to a halt. The court managed to open again in June, albeit with strict health and safety guidelines in place. The requirement that people inside the court stand six feet apart to mitigate spread of the coronavirus put a strain on the Schaber Courthouse, which remains in dire need of an infrastructure upgrade.

A 2016 report by Courthouse News called the “dilapidated” building a “ticking public safety time bomb.” Judge Lloyd Connelly at the time told the news service that though many California courthouses are out of date and in need of repairs, Sacramento’s courthouse had the most pronounced “need factor” of any facility in the state court system.

A new courthouse facility had been in the planning stages since 2013. Finally, in November of 2020, work got under way on what is slated to be a 17-story, $480 million building that will include 53 courtrooms as well as all of the court’s administrative functions and departments. The glossy new courthouse is planned to go up next door to the Robert T. Matsui Federal Courthouse in downtown Sacramento, and will replace the Schaber courthouse.

How to Help Yourself in Superior Court

In the meantime—and in a service that will certainly continue even after the new courthouse’s projected opening in 2023—members of the public dealing with certain legal matters can start their court proceedings online. The court allows e-filing of new cases in Small Claims Court—that is, civil cases involving sums of $10,000 or less—as well as landlord-tenant disputes.

The court also offers self-help services for various civil matters, but those require individuals to show up in person, with masks required due to the pandemic, at the Hall of Justice on Sixth Street, or for family cases, the Ridgeway Courthouse.

The self-help services that do not require a lawyer’s assistance include restraining orders, name and gender changes, and initial filings in civil lawsuits, as well as expungement of previous cases, such as arrests that did not result in convictions, or cases in which a defendant was “factually innocent.” In other words, arrested without any cause, though as the court points out, factual innocence can be tricky to prove.

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
Sacramento County D.A. Anne Marie Schubert addresses the media.
Sacramento County’s D.A. and P.D. Offices, Explained
The D.A. and public defender are at the heart of the Sacramento County justice system.
Join Us Today!