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Supreme Court of California

Supreme Court of California
Seal of the Supreme Court of California
Established 1849
Country California , United States
Location San Francisco, California
Authorized by California Constitution
Decisions are appealed to Supreme Court of the United States
Judge term length 12 years
Number of positions 7
Website Supreme Court of California
Chief Justice
Currently Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Since January 3, 2011
Lead position ends January 2, 2023

The Supreme Court of California is the court of last resort in the courts of the State of California. It is headquartered in San Francisco and regularly holds sessions in Los Angeles and Sacramento. Its decisions are binding on all other California state courts.[1]


  • Composition 1
    • Current membership 1.1
    • Structure 1.2
  • Operation 2
    • Jurisdiction 2.1
    • Operation 2.2
  • Ancillary responsibilities 3
  • Reputation 4
  • Important cases 5
  • Notable former justices 6
  • List of chief justices 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


Under the original 1849 California Constitution, the Court started with a chief justice and two associate justices. The court was expanded to five justices in 1862. Under the current 1879 constitution, the Court expanded to six associate justices and one chief justice, for the current total of seven. The justices are appointed by the Governor of California and are subject to retention elections.

According to the California Constitution, to be considered for appointment, a person must be an attorney admitted to practice in California or have served as a judge of a California court for 10 years immediately preceding the appointment.

To fill a vacant position, the Governor must first submit a candidate's name to the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation of the State Bar of California, which prepares and returns a thorough confidential evaluation of the candidate. Next, the Governor officially nominates the candidate, who must then be evaluated by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, which consists of the Chief Justice of California, the Attorney General of California, and a senior presiding justice of the California Courts of Appeal. The Commission holds a public hearing and if satisfied with the nominee's qualifications, confirms the nomination. The nominee can then immediately fill an existing vacancy, or replace a departing justice at the beginning of the next judicial term.

If a nominee is confirmed to fill a vacancy that arose partway through a judicial term, the justice must stand for retention during the next gubernatorial election. Voters then determine whether to retain the justice for the remainder of the judicial term. At the term's conclusion, justices must again undergo a statewide retention election for a full 12-year term.[2] If a majority votes "no," the seat becomes vacant and may be filled by the Governor.

The electorate has occasionally exercised the power not to retain justices. Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas to Chief Justice and appoint three new associate justices (one to replace Lucas in his old post and two to replace Reynoso and Grodin).

Current membership

Justices of the California Supreme Court: Standing, from left: Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Justice Carol A. Corrigan, Justice Goodwin H. Liu, and Justice Leondra R. Kruger. Seated, from left: Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, and Justice Ming W. Chin
Position Name Born Appt. by Took office / Length of service Term expires Education, prior positions
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye
Cantil-Sakauye, TaniTani Cantil-Sakauye
October 19, 1959
(age 56)
Schwarzenegger, ArnoldArnold Schwarzenegger
January 3, 2011
5 years, 5 months
January 1, 2023
UC Davis, UC Davis; California Court of Appeal (Sacramento, 2005–2011); Sacramento County Superior Court (1997–2005); Sacramento Municipal Court (1990–1997); Deputy Legislative Secretary (1989–1990); Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary (1988–1989); Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney (1984–1988).
Associate Justice Werdegar
Werdegar, KathrynKathryn Werdegar
April 5, 1936
(age 80)
Wilson, PetePete Wilson
June 3, 1994
22 years
January 3, 2027
GW Law School; United States Department of Justice; Director, Criminal Law Division, California Bar Continuing Education; Senior Staff Attorney, Supreme Court of California.
Associate Justice Chin
Chin, MingMing Chin
August 31, 1942
(age 73)
Wilson, PetePete Wilson
March 1, 1996
20 years, 3 months
January 1, 2023
USF, USF; California Court of Appeal (San Francisco, 1990–1996); Alameda County Superior Court (1990).
Associate Justice Corrigan
Corrigan, CarolCarol Corrigan
August 16, 1948
(age 67)
Schwarzenegger, ArnoldArnold Schwarzenegger
January 4, 2006
10 years, 5 months
January 6, 2019
Holy Names, UC Hastings; California Court of Appeal (San Francisco, 1994–2006); Alameda County Superior Court (1990–1994).
Associate Justice Liu
Liu, GoodwinGoodwin Liu
October 19, 1970
(age 45)
Brown, JerryJerry Brown
September 1, 2011[3]
4 years, 9 months
January 1, 2023
Stanford, Oxford, Yale; Associate Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law (2008–2011); Professor of Law, UC Berkeley School of Law (2003–2011).
Associate Justice Cuéllar
Cuéllar, Mariano-FlorentinoMariano-Florentino Cuéllar
July 27, 1972
(age 43)
Jerry Brown
January 5, 2015
1 year, 5 months
January 3, 2027
Harvard, Yale, Stanford; Special Assistant to the President, Justice and Regulatory Policy, White House Domestic Policy Council (2009-2010); Professor, Stanford Law School (2001-2014); Institute Director, Center Co-Director, and Program Director, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University (2004-2015).
Associate Justice Kruger
Kruger, LeondraLeondra Kruger
July 28, 1976
(age 39)
Jerry Brown
January 5, 2015
1 year, 5 months
January 6, 2019
Harvard, Yale; Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, United States Department of Justice (2013-2014); Assistant to the Solicitor General and Acting Principal Deputy Solicitor General, Office of the Solicitor General, United States Department of Justice (2007-2013); Private practice (2004-2006).

Four current justices were appointed by Republicans (Cantil-Sakauye, Werdegar, Chin, and Corrigan) and three by a Democrat (Liu, Cuéllar, Kruger). There is one Filipino-American justice (Cantil-Sakauye), one Hispanic (Cuéllar), one African-American (Kruger), two East Asian-American justices (Chin and Liu), and two European-American justices (Corrigan and Werdegar). The justices do not publicly discuss their religious views or affiliations.

Two justices earned undergraduate degrees from a University of California school, three from private universities in California, and two from out-of-state private universities. Two justices earned their law degrees from a University of California law school, one from a law school at a California private university, and four from law schools at out-of-state private universities.


Between 1879 and 1966, the court was divided into two three-justice panels, Department One and Department Two.[4] The chief justice divided cases evenly between the panels and also decided which cases would be heard en banc by the Court sitting as a whole.

The Court's headquarters in San Francisco at the Earl Warren Building and Courthouse, which it shares with the Court of Appeal for the First District

After a constitutional amendment in 1966, the Court currently sits as a whole (all seven together) when hearing all appeals. When there is an open seat on the court, or if a justice recuses himself or herself on a given case, justices from the California Courts of Appeal are assigned by the chief justice to join the court for individual cases on a rotational basis.

The procedure for when all justices recuse themselves from a case has varied over time. For a 1992 case, the chief justice requested the presiding justice of a Court of Appeal district (different from the one where the case originated) to select six other Court of Appeal justices from his district, and they formed an acting Supreme Court for the purpose of deciding that one case.[5] However, in a more recent case where all members of the Court recused themselves when Governor Schwarzenegger sought a writ of mandate (Schwarzenegger v. Court of Appeal (Epstein)), seven justices of the Courts of Appeal were selected based on the regular rotational basis, not from the same district, with the most senior one serving as the acting chief justice, and that acting supreme court eventually denied the writ petition.[6]


The Ronald Reagan State Building, the Supreme Court's branch office in Los Angeles, which it shares with the Court of Appeal for the Second District


The Court has exclusive and direct appellate jurisdiction in all California state death penalty cases, although it has sponsored a state constitutional amendment to allow it to assign death penalty appeals to the California Courts of Appeal.[7] It has discretionary appellate jurisdiction over all cases reviewed by the Courts of Appeal; the latter were created by a 1904 constitutional amendment to relieve the Supreme Court of most of its workload so the Court could then focus on dealing with non-frivolous appeals that involved important issues of law.[8]


The Court is open for business year-round (as opposed to operating only during scheduled "terms" as is commonplace in jurisdictions that observe the legal year). The Court hears oral argument at least one week per month, ten months each year (except July and August). Since 1878, it has regularly heard oral argument each year at San Francisco (four months), Los Angeles (four months), and Sacramento (two months).

Throughout the year (including July and August), the justices have a conference every Wednesday the Court is not hearing oral argument, with the exception of the last week, respectively, of November and December (Thanksgiving and New Year's). New opinions are published online on Monday and Thursday mornings at 10 a.m. Paper copies also become available through the clerk's office at that time.

The Court is one of the few U.S. courts apart from the U.S. Supreme Court that enjoys the privilege of having its opinions routinely published in three hardcover reporters. The Court's Reporter of Decisions contracts with a private publisher (currently LexisNexis) to publish the official reporter, California Reports, now in its fourth series; note that the series number changes whenever the publisher changes. West publishes California decisions in both the California Reporter (in its second series) and the Pacific Reporter (in its third series). (The New York Court of Appeals opinions are similarly published in three reporters.)

Since the late 1980s, the Court has turned away from the traditional use of law clerks, and has switched to permanent staff attorneys.[9] The Court has about 85 staff attorneys, some of whom are attached to particular justices; the rest are shared as a central staff. The advantage to this system is that the reduced turnover of staff attorneys (versus the traditional system of rotating through new law clerks every year) has improved the efficiency of the court in dealing with complex cases, particularly death penalty cases.

During its first half-century of operation, the Court struggled to keep up with its soaring caseload and very frequently fell behind, until the California Courts of Appeal were created in 1904. This resulted in provisions in the 1879 Constitution forcing the Court to decide all cases in writing with reasons given[10] (to get rid of minor cases, it had often given summary dispositions with no reasons given) and requiring California judges to certify in writing every month that no matter submitted for consideration had been outstanding for more than 90 days, or else they will not be paid.[11] To comply with the latter provision, the Court does not schedule oral argument until the justices have already studied the briefs, formulated their respective positions, and circulated draft opinions. Then, after the matter is formally "argued and submitted", the justices can polish and release their opinions well before reaching the 90-day deadline. This differs sharply from the practice in all other federal and state appellate courts, where judges can schedule oral argument not long after written briefing is finished, but then may take up to a year after oral argument to release opinions.

Ancillary responsibilities

The Court supervises the lower courts (including the trial-level California superior courts) through the Judicial Council of California, and also supervises California's legal profession through the State Bar of California. All lawyer admissions and disbarments are done through recommendations of the State Bar, which then must be ratified by the Supreme Court. California's bar is the largest in the U.S. with 210,000 members, of whom 160,000 are practicing.


The Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building, the Supreme Court's branch office in Sacramento, which it shares with the Court of Appeal for the Third District

As the Wall Street Journal said in 1972:

The state's high court over the past 20 years has won a reputation as perhaps the most innovative of the state judiciaries, setting precedents in areas of criminal justice, civil liberties, racial integration, and consumer protection that heavily influence other states and the federal bench.[12]

Statistical analyses conducted by LexisNexis personnel at the Court's request indicate that the decisions of the Supreme Court of California are by far the most followed of any state supreme court in the United States.[13] Between 1940 and 2005, 1,260 decisions of the Court were expressly followed by out-of-state courts (meaning that those courts expressly found the Court's reasoning persuasive and applied it to the cases before them).

Many important legal concepts have been pioneered or developed by the Court, including strict liability for defective products, fair procedure, negligent infliction of emotional distress, palimony, insurance bad faith, wrongful life, and market-share liability.

The major film studios in and around Hollywood and the high-tech firms of Silicon Valley both fall under the Court's jurisdiction. Thus, the Court has decided a number of cases by, between, and against such companies, as well as several cases involving Hollywood celebrities and high-tech executives.

The California Supreme Court and all lower California state courts use a different writing style and citation system from the federal courts and many other state courts. California citations have the year between the names of the parties and the reference to the case reporter, as opposed to the national standard (the Bluebook) of putting the year at the end. For example, the famous case Marvin v. Marvin, which established the standard for non-marital partners' ability to sue for their contributions to the partnership, is rendered Marvin v. Marvin (1976) 18 Cal.3d 660 [134 Cal.Rptr. 815, 557 P.2d 106] in California style, while it would be Marvin v. Marvin, 18 Cal. 3d 660, 557 P.2d 106, 134 Cal. Rptr. 815 (1976), in Bluebook style. The California citation style, however, has always been the norm of common law jurisdictions outside the United States, including England, Canada and Australia.

While the U.S. Supreme Court justices indicate the author of an opinion and who has "joined" the opinion at the start of the opinion, California justices always sign a majority opinion at the end, followed by "WE CONCUR," and then the names of the joining justices. California judges are traditionally not supposed to use certain ungrammatical terms in their opinions, which has led to embarrassing fights between judges and the editor of the state's official reporters. California has traditionally avoided the use of certain French and Latin phrases like en banc, certiorari, and mandamus, so California judges and attorneys use "in bank," "review," and "mandate" instead (though "in bank" has become quite rare after 1974).

Finally, the Court has the power to "depublish" opinions by the Courts of Appeal (as opposed to the federal practice of not publishing certain "unpublished" opinions at all in the federal case reporters).[14] This means that even though the opinion has already been published in the official state reporters, it will be binding only upon the parties.[15] Stare decisis does not apply, and any new rules articulated will not be applied in future cases. Similarly, the California Supreme Court has the power to "publish" opinions by the California Courts of Appeal which were initially not published.[14]

Important cases

The Court has handed down many important and influential decisions, of which some are listed below (ordered by date descending). Most of the decisions listed below were landmark decisions that were the first such decisions in the U.S. or the world.

  • Houston v. Williams,[16] a leading case on the separation of powers[17] under the California Constitution.
  • Summers v. Tice,[20] the Court shifted the burden to the defense to disprove causation when it was clear that one of two defendants must have caused the plaintiff's injury, but it was not clear which one.
  • People v. Anderson,[23] the Court relied upon the state constitutional clause prohibiting "cruel or unusual punishment" (note the difference from the federal Constitution's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause) to abolish capital punishment in California. The state electorate promptly overruled Anderson that same year with a popular initiative, Proposition 17, that kept the "cruel or unusual" clause but declared the death penalty to be neither cruel nor unusual.
  • Pitchess v. Superior Court,[24] the Court held that criminal defendants have a right to access the arresting officer's personnel file when the defendant alleges in an affidavit that the officer used excessive force or lied about the circumstances of the arrest.
  • Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California,[26] the Court held that mental health professionals have a duty to protect individuals who are being threatened with bodily harm by a patient. The original 1974 decision mandated warning the threatened individual, but a 1976 rehearing resulted in a decision calling for a "duty to protect" the intended victim, which did not necessarily require that a potential victim be informed of the threat.
  • Marvin v. Marvin,[27] the Court ruled in favor of the enforceability of non-marital relationship contracts, express or implied, to the extent that they are not founded purely upon meretricious sexual services. In other words, even though California does not recognize common law marriage, persons who cohabit for long periods of time and commingle their assets are allowed to plead and prove marriage-like contracts for support and division of property.
  • Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center,[28] the Court found that the broad right to freedom of speech in the state constitution included an implied right to freedom of speech in private shopping centers. The U.S. Supreme Court in turn held that the state supreme court's decision did not amount to a "taking" of the shopping center under federal constitutional law.
  • Thing v. La Chusa,[30] the Court withdrew from the expansive form of NIED set forth in Dillon and imposed a rigid bright-line test for recovery in bystander NIED cases. The Thing decision included extensive dicta hostile to plaintiffs which more generally limited the scope of recovery for both the tort of negligence and emotional distress damages in California.
  • Wendland v. Wendland,[32] the Court held that in the absence of a legally recognized method of determining who should make medical decisions on the behalf of an incompetent patient, the constitutional right to life and right to privacy granted special protection to the incompetent person.
  • In re Marriage Cases,[34] the Court held that sexual orientation is a protected class which requires strict scrutiny and under such scrutiny, laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional under the state constitution. The state electorate overturned the marriage portion of the decision that same year by enacting a popular initiative, Proposition 8, but left in place the discrimination protections.
  • People v. Diaz,[35] the Court held that the warrantless search of information in a cell phone was valid when incident to a lawful arrest. (The holding in Diaz was eventually repudiated by the United States Supreme Court in Riley v. California.)

Notable former justices

List of chief justices

# Name Term
1 Serranus Clinton Hastings (1850–1852)
2 Henry A. Lyons (1852)
3 Hugh C. Murray (1852–1857)
4 David S. Terry (1857–1859)
5 Stephen J. Field (1859–1863)
6 W.W. Cope (1863–1864)
7 Silas W. Sanderson (1864–1866)
8 John Currey (1866–1868)
9 Lorenzo Sawyer (1868–1870)
10 Augustus L. Rhodes (1870–1872)
11 Royal T. Sprague (1872)
12 William T. Wallace (1872–1879)
13 Robert F. Morrison (1879–1887)
14 Niles Searls (1887–1889)
15 William H. Beatty (1889–1914)
16 Matt I. Sullivan (1914–1915)
17 Frank M. Angellotti (1915–1921)
18 Lucien Shaw (1921–1923)
19 Curtis D. Wilbur (1923–1924)
20 Louis W. Myers (1924–1926)
21 William H. Waste (1926–1940)
22 Phil S. Gibson (1940–1964)
23 Roger J. Traynor (1964–1970)
24 Donald R. Wright (1970–1977)
25 Rose Elizabeth Bird (1977–1987)
26 Malcolm M. Lucas (1987–1996)
27 Ronald M. George (1996–2011)
28 Tani Cantil-Sakauye (2011–present)

See also


  1. ^ Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court, 57 Cal. 2d 450 (1962). In Auto Equity Sales, the Court explained: "Under the doctrine of stare decisis, all tribunals exercising inferior jurisdiction are required to follow decisions of courts exercising superior jurisdiction. Otherwise, the doctrine of stare decisis makes no sense. The decisions of this court are binding upon and must be followed by all the state courts of California. Decisions of every division of the District Courts of Appeal are binding upon all the justice and municipal courts and upon all the superior courts of this state, and this is so whether or not the superior court is acting as a trial or appellate court. Courts exercising inferior jurisdiction must accept the law declared by courts of superior jurisdiction. It is not their function to attempt to overrule decisions of a higher court."
  2. ^ Article VI of the Constitution of California Section 16, Constitution of California (1879). Retrieved on 2014-12-25.
  3. ^ Thompson, Don (September 1, 2011). "Brown swears in new Calif. Supreme Court justice". The Sacramento Bee. Associated Press. Retrieved September 1, 2011. 
  4. ^ See People v. Kelly, 40 Cal. 4th 106, 113 (2006), which explains the 1879 constitutional convention's decision to create a seven-justice court with two three-justice departments.
  5. ^ Carma Developers (Cal.), Inc. v. Marathon Development California, Inc., 2 Cal. 4th 342 (1992). All members of the Supreme Court recused themselves from the appeal of the First District's decision, so the Third District sat as an "acting" Supreme Court and gave the final opinion in the case.
  6. ^ "California Courts - Appellate Court Case Information". Judicial Council of California. Retrieved January 3, 2011. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ See Snukal v. Flightways Manufacturing, Inc., 23 Cal. 4th 754, 767-768 (2000).
  9. ^ Itir Yakar, "Unseen Staff Attorneys Anchor State's Top Court: Institution's System of Permanent Employees Means Workers Can Outlast the Justices," San Francisco Daily Journal, 30 May 2006, 1.
  10. ^ California Constitution, Article 6, Section 14.
  11. ^ California Constitution, Article 6, Section 19.
  12. ^ Joann Lublin, "Trailblazing Bench: California High Court Often Points the Way for Judges Elsewhere," Wall Street Journal, 20 July 1972, 1.
  13. ^ Jake Dear and Edward W. Jessen, " Followed Rates" and Leading State Cases, 1940-2005, 41 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 683, 694(2007).
  14. ^ a b Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.1105 (2007)
  15. ^ Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.1115 (2007)
  16. ^ 13 Cal. 24 (1859)
  17. ^ Lee, Blewett (1899). "The Constitutional Power of the Courts Over Admission to the Bar". Harv. L. Rev 8 (234): 250.   in which the Supreme Court said the legislature cannot require the court to issue opinions in writing.
  18. ^ 24 Cal. 2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944).
  19. ^ 32 Cal.2d 711, 198 P.2d 17 (1948).
  20. ^ 33 Cal. 2d 80, 199 P.2d 1 (1948).
  21. ^ 68 Cal. 2d 728, 441 P.2d 912, 69 Cal. Rptr. 72 (1968).
  22. ^ 69 Cal. 2d 108, 70 Cal. Rptr. 97, 443 P. 2d 561 (1968).
  23. ^ 6 Cal. 3d 628, 100 Cal. Rptr. 152, 493 P.2d 880 (1972).
  24. ^ 11 Cal. 3d 531, 113 Cal. Rptr. 897, 522 P.2d 305 (1974).
  25. ^ 13 Cal. 3d 804, 119 Cal. Rptr. 858, 532 P.2d 1226 (1975).
  26. ^ 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14 (1976).
  27. ^ 18 Cal. 3d 660, 134 Cal. Rptr. 815, 557 P.2d 106 (1976).
  28. ^ 23 Cal.3d 899, 592 P.2d 341 (1979), aff'd sub nomine Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74, 100 S. Ct. 2035, 64 L. Ed. 2d 741 (1980).
  29. ^ 26 Cal. 3d 588, 607 P.2d 934, 163 Cal. Rptr. 132 (1980).
  30. ^ 48 Cal.3d 644, 257 Cal.Rptr. 865, 771 P.2d 814 (1989).
  31. ^ 51 Cal. 3d 120, 271 Cal. Rptr. 146, 793 P.2d 479 (1990).
  32. ^ 26 Cal. 4th 519, 110 Cal. Rptr. 2d 4112, 28 P.3d 151 (2001).
  33. ^ 43 Cal.4th 885 183 P.3d 471 (2008).
  34. ^ 43 Cal. 4th 757, 183 P.3d 384, 76 Cal. Rptr. 3d 683 (2008).
  35. ^ 51 Cal. 4th 84, 244 P.3d 501, 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d 105 (2011).

External links

Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

  • Supreme Court of California
  • California Supreme Court Historical Society
  • At the Lectern - California Supreme Court Practice Blog

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