In June 1998 California voters approved a ballot measure to unify the court structure, eliminating municipal courts. Now there is one trial court in each of the state's 58 counties. California's court system serves its nearly 40 million residents.
There were about 8,000,000 civil and criminal cases filed in California's superior courts in a recent year because the term "'superior court" encompasses many levels of courts that are separate and distinct in other states, including probate, family, juvenile, and small claims. In California, all of these issues are filed in superior court. More than 1,700 elected judges serve six-year terms on these courts. Over 400 of those judges serve in the Los Angeles district alone, where over 2.5 million cases are originated each year. Los Angeles' superior court is divided into specialized divisions to speed up the process, and about 4,000 jury trials are heard each year.
As is the case with populous states, California's superior court has its own appellate division that reviews cases decided within the superior courts, using superior court judges. There is also an effort to condense cases through Civil Case Coordination, a process that allows cases pending in different counties but concerning the same issue to be decided as one.
There were about 679,000 civil cases categorized as "'unlimited" and concerning matters under $25,000 in a recent year, along with over 155,000 small claims cases. In criminal filings the superior court saw about 273,000 felony cases filed, over 900,000 misdemeanor issues, and another 4.9 million actions on other minor infractions in a recent year. There were over 90,000 juvenile cases before the courts as well as almost 400,000 family-related issues from divorce to child support.
Above superior courts are the state's six appellate districts and 105 judges. Each appellate court is responsible for reviewing decisions of superior courts within its geographical jurisdiction. In a recent year the appellate courts received over 22,000 requests for hearings. The courts also receive appeals from several labor boards with state jurisdiction including workers compensation and public employment issues.
With jurisdiction over decisions made by the state appeals courts, the Supreme Court is the final authority on matters of state law in California. Seven justices preside over cases at this level in San Francisco and alternative locations in major cities. It also sets standards for judicial conduct and advises legislators on interpretation of state law. In fiscal year 2015 there were 19 death sentence appeals which contributed to the court's 85 written decisions for the year. In total, the court received about 7,900 filings and disposed of 7,700 cases.
In early 2016 a couple seeking to adopt a Native American child was dealt a blow when the California Supreme Court refused their request for a hearing and a stay of an order to turn the child over to state family services officials. The non-Native couple had fostered the young girl, called Lexi, and sought to adopt her for several years despite the presence of family members who were seeking to care for the girl. A 1978 law, called the Indian Child Welfare Act, was cited in the Appellate Court decision to send the girl to live with her Native relatives. The law was enacted to keep Native families intact by discouraging non-Native adoptions whenever possible. The California couple ultimately had to relinquish custody when the Supreme Court decided not to hear their appeal.
A case filed against DirecTV in 2008 will go back to California Superior Court to determine if the company charged unlawful fees—extending contracts and sometimes taking money out of customer's bank accounts without notice. During the course of proceedings, DirecTV has both called its "'fine print" arbitration clause that denies the formation of class action lawsuits unenforceable and sought to delay the case to have it enforced. The state superior court had certified the case as class action in 2011 and allowed it to proceed. The use of arbitration clauses in contracts like DirecTV's has also been a contentious point, with the U.S. Supreme Court weighing in on the side of corporations at the same time that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau decided they infringe on consumer's rights.