In February 1850, seven months before Statehood,
the California Legislature authorized the Clerk
of the California Supreme Court to "rent
a suitable room" in San Francisco to hold
its March 1850 term. Quarters were not to exceed
$1,000 per month, and the clerk was permitted
to expend sums necessary for "furniture,
stationery, and fuel," from the general
The Daily Alta California reported
on February 27, 1850 that "Mr. Thorpe,
Clerk of the Assembly at San Jose, having received
the appointment of Clerk of the Supreme Court
. . . has arrived in town to perform
the duties of his new office." The next day Thorpe purchased
court supplies, including "1 large Journal
full bound," "4 bottles red ink,"
"1 bottle black ink," "3 gross
Gillett's pens," "1 Parallel Ruler,"
"6 Gold pens," "12 sheets blotting
paper," "1 doz. Pencils," "24
sticks red tape," "6 stamps,"
"6 Reams fine blue linen cap" paper,
and "2 Hydrostatic Inkstands." On Saturday, March 2, Thorpe
paid the Graham Gray Co. $1,000 for court accommodations
for the month, and on Monday the 4th of March,
the court "organized" itself in the multi-storied "Graham House"
— formerly a hotel, and soon also to house
San Francisco City Hall — on the northeast
corner of Kearny Street at Pacific Avenue.
(See image 1; please click thumbnail for
full-size image and caption)
next year, the Legislature directed the court
to hold its terms in San Francisco until January
1, 1852, and thereafter "at the seat of
Government." It also specified: "If
a room in which to hold the Court be not provided
by the State, . . . suitable and sufficient
for the transaction of business, the Court may
direct the Sheriff of the County in which it
is held, to provide such room [and necessities],
and the expense thereof shall be paid out of
the State Treasury."
But California's "seat of government"
proved as troublesome to the court as to the
rest of government. San José, Vallejo,
Benicia, Sacramento and San Francisco vied for
the honor of State Capital, and each succeeded
for a time. The Constitution decreed that, until changed
by two-thirds vote, the Pueblo de San Jose was
the "permanent seat of government." The debates at the first Constitutional
Convention in Monterey were robust on the issue
and few were mollified by the outcome.
At one point, the court ordered the sheriff
of Solano County to provide it with rooms at
Vallejo, but this never happened. Instead, "[b]y
a joint resolution the Legislature of 1852 . . .
resolved that the Supreme Court be authorized
to hold its present term in San Francisco and
that the Act of 1851, so far as it conflicted
with the joint resolutions, be repealed." Thereafter, the Legislature
directed the court to hold its sessions in San
one of numerous and frequent citywide fires
had destroyed the first City Hall, the court moved, along with some key parts of
city government, to the "California Exchange"
building on the northeast corner of Kearny at
Clay Street (see image 2), where, according
to the San Francisco Directory for September
1852, it had offices
on the first floor (room No. 4, the "council
Tired of paying high rents for its offices,
the City of San Francisco decided to purchase
its own building. Meanwhile, at the center of
Portsmouth Square on Kearny Street, the Jenny
Lind Theater had fallen on hard times and was
for sale. (The theater had been named for the
famed "Swedish Nightingale" in an
attempt to induce her to visit San Francisco
— but she never did so.) When the City
attempted to purchase the theater in 1852, taxpayers
sued, claiming the purchase was illegal. After
extensive litigation the Supreme Court held
the purchase to be proper.
the theater's saloon, four billiard tables,
and six bowling alleys were removed to make room for offices. Within
months of the court's decision, the court moved
— along with much of city government —
into the refurbished building.
(See image 3.) The basic character
of the neighborhood was little changed, however:
next door remained the infamous El Dorado saloon,
"a free-wheeling den of iniquity that catered
to a not-altogether-reputable clientele."
of Santa Clara County [to] procure in the town
of San José and properly arrange &
furnish a Court room, Clerk's office & consultation
room for the use of this Court.
1854 the Legislature settled on Sacramento as
the "seat of Government," and on March 24, it specified "the sessions
of the Supreme Court shall be held at the Capital
of the State." "But by this time the executive and judicial
branches . . . had become so bewildered
that the latter refused to obey . . .
and sat instead at San Francisco, wither it
had been ordered in 1850 to betake itself." On March 27,
the court in chambers voted 2-1 that San José,
and not Sacramento, was the capital. The court ordered the
It is further ordered, That the Clerk of this
Court forthwith remove the records of the Court
to the town of San José.
It is further ordered that the Court will meet
to deliver opinions at San José on the
first Monday in April, & on that day will
appoint some future day of the term for the argument
The March 31, 1854, Daily Alta of California contained this notice: "Departure of the
Supreme Court — The archives, and a portion
of the furniture of the Supreme Court, accompanied
by the Clerk, took their departure yesterday
for San José, in accordance with the
decision recently rendered by the majority of
the court. The court went off in a style in
keeping with its supremacy. A handsome Express
wagon of Messrs. Adams & Co., to which were
harnessed the private horses of the proprietors,
drew up before the door of the City Hall, and
received the legal lore, handsomely bound, which
has been accumulating in the Court since its
organization. The Court went off in dashing
style, and we fancied that we saw the shades
of Blackstone and Coke looking out of one of
the windows of the City Hall. . . ."
San Jose Telegraph reported that
"Sheriff McCutchan . . . has
provided the large and very handsome hall, in
the second story of the new and substantial
brick building, at the corner of Pacheco and
Santa Clara Streets, for the use of the Supreme
Court. [(See image 4.)] A very neat
room, suitable for the Clerk's office opens
into the hall. The Supreme Court will be quite
elegantly and conveniently provided for here,
as at any place in the State. The rooms, and
the location, fit exactly." A week later
the Telegraph noted that "[a]
full bench convened on Monday last in the tastefully
furnished rooms provided by the sheriff to the
Supreme Court. . . ." Thereafter, the Telegraph reported the Supreme Court "will hold its
sessions in this city — the attempt to
remove it by the Legislature having failed.
The Legislature and officers of the State will
remain at Sacramento next winter and then where
— who knows? We are satisfied and gratified
to have the Supreme Court with us. . . ."
settle these vexed questions [concerning the
seat of government] a special term of the supreme
court was ordered to be held at Benicia, in
January 1855, at which time the Legislature
would be in session." But before that could occur, the court heard
another case presenting a renewed challenge
to its earlier determination concerning the
site of the state capital. While that case was
making its way to through the court, Justice
Alexander Wells — who lived in San José
and who had earlier been in the majority that
held San José to be the state capital
— died and was replaced by Justice Charles
H. Bryan, who promptly voted with Chief Justice
Hugh C. Murray and authored an opinion holding
Sacramento to be the lawful capital. The court immediately moved
to Sacramento, where it took up residence on
the second floor of the B.F. Hastings Building
(Second and J Streets) in what is now Old Sacramento. (See image 5.) In
1863, when the number of justices was increased
from three to five, the clerk of the court was
forced to move his offices to the first floor. The building still stands,
and in February 2000 the court held therein
a special oral argument session commemorating
the court's sesquicentennial.
1857, the court moved a few blocks to the Jansen
Building at 4th & J Streets, which it shared
with the State Library
where it had offices on the second floor. (See image 6.) The
court returned to the Hastings Building in late
1859, until it was apparently evicted in January
1862 by the great flood.
(See image 7.) Thereafter the court
again returned to the Hastings site. It remained
there until moving to the east wing apse of
the capitol building in late 1869,
(see image 8) where it again shared
space with the State Library. The Sacramento Union of December 4, 1869, reported: "The new
Supreme Court room at the Capitol was used yesterday
afternoon for the first time, Judge Sanderson
hearing the habeas corpus case of Nellie Smith
and Anna Keating" in a case challenging
the validity of a city ordinance barring women
from being in a drinking saloon after midnight.
the adoption of the codes in 1872, the Legislature
decreed the justices and court personnel must
"reside at and keep their offices in the
City of Sacramento." In early 1874, however, the
court began keeping offices and holding many
of its regular sessions in San Francisco, at
640 Clay Street.
(See image 9.) That same year the Legislature
validated the practice, permitting the court
to sit in San Francisco for its January and
July terms, provided that the San Francisco
Board of Supervisors procured and paid for sufficient
In 1878 the Legislature further expanded the
court's oral argument schedule, providing that
the court should hold sessions in Sacramento,
San Francisco, and Los Angeles — a practice that continues to this day.
The court conducted its first session in Los
Angeles on October 14, 1878, in the "Hellman-Mascrel Block."
The impetus for the movement of the court's
headquarters from Sacramento is unclear, but
it appears that weather, water and whisky had
a lot to do with it. When the delegates to the
1879 Constitutional Convention considered proposals
to require the court to hear all sessions "at
the Capital of the State," the relative
positions of the Sacramento, Los Angeles, and
San Francisco sites were strongly contested.
In favor of Sacramento it was argued that the
court should sit at the seat of government.
Opponents claimed that Sacramento had the highest
death rate of any city of its size in the world,
and its climate and whisky was bad.
It is unknown which of these points doomed the
Other delegates asserted that the court should
at least regularly hold sessions at Los Angeles,
because that city — a "great community
composed of agriculturalists" — was bound to grow in
size and stature and was "about
the only place in the State where you can get
wine that is not adulterated." But it also was said that "the
climate down there is very hot, and a man soon
gets lazy who lives in it. . . .
And it would not be very long, if you have the
Supreme Court down there, before you would see
the Chief Justice, and . . . General
Howard [a proponent of Los Angeles], walking
arm in arm under huge Panama hats, hunting a
cool place. It will not do."
Champions of San Francisco asserted that it
was the center of commerce, and its weather
was superior to that of Sacramento, which was
prone to flooding and excessive heat: "The
Judges will be seen some of these days coming
out of the Court-room in a boat. . . .
I have had some little experience with this
climate myself. It is the hottest place outside
of — the one down below that we read of. . . .
If you put it in the Constitution that the Court
shall sit . . . here in regular session
all Summer, they will have to be regular salamanders." On the other hand, it was observed
"earthquakes have shaken San Francisco
from center to circumference . . . .
Suppose an earthquake were to destroy that city
. . . ?"
Ultimately, the drafters of the new Constitution
left the question open, and the court continued
to use 640 Clay Street in San Francisco as its
headquarters, and continued to hear oral argument
at that site as well as in Sacramento and Los
the court is reported to have been located for
a short time in 1878 on the "Montgomery
Block," (see image 10) the
court apparently returned to 640 Clay until
at least 1881, when it moved to the Wakelee
Building at 105 Stockton Street, near O'Farrell
(see image 11), where it stayed until
1883. In 1884 the court moved to 121 Post Street
(see image 12), where it kept offices
until 1890. From there the court moved to 305
Larkin Street at McAllister — site of
the present court building — to a handsome
structure called the "Supreme Court Building"
(also known as the "Hale Building")
(see image 13), where it stayed until
1896, when it moved to the "Parrott Building,"
at 825 Market Street (also known as the "Emporium")
(see image 14). The court was located
here during the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed
its offices, many records, and most of the court's
library. (See image 15.)
after the quake and fire the court moved to
the "Century Club Building" at 1355
Franklin Street (see image 16), a then-new
structure that had survived the post-quake fires,
which were generally stopped at Van Ness (see
image 17). The Club (a private women's
social organization) negotiated a rent of $625
per month — an increase of $25 over the
court's initial proposal. In August 1907, the court moved to the "Central
Building," 1214 Polk Street at Sutter.
(See image 18.) By the beginning of
1908, the court moved to the eighth floor of
the "Wells Fargo Building" (later
the "Pacific Telephone Building"),
85 Second Street at Mission (see image 19),
where it remained until 1923 — a then
record 15 years in one location.
court moved that year for the first time into
its present quarters — the State Building,
located at 350 McAllister Street. (See image
20.) The building was the product of a
design competition in which the plans of eight
finalists were reviewed and judged by a committee
of architects and laypersons.
The court remained at this site despite efforts
in the 1920s to induce its return to Sacramento,
to take up residence in the then-newly constructed
Library and Courts Building.
In the early 1950s the original courtroom on
the fourth floor of the McAllister Street building
was revised and modeled in part on the United
Nations Security Council chamber. The court
remained at the McAllister site for 66 years,
until October 1989, when the building —
already scheduled for seismic retrofitting —
suffered substantial damage in the Loma Prieta
earthquake. Stairwell walls buckled, bookcases
"pitched out their heavy contents,"
and an enormous bronze ceiling light fixture
crashed down on the floor near Chief Justice
Lucas's desk. The court moved immediately
into the drab 1950s era quarters of the Administrative
Office of the Courts on the fourth and fifth
floors of 455 Golden Gate Avenue (see image
21), a building adjacent to and connected
with 350 McAllister Street. The court stayed there until
early 1991, and during this time held oral argument
sessions in the hearing room of the Public Utilities
Commission, located at 505 Van Ness Avenue at
early 1991 the court moved to the eighth and
ninth floors of 303 Second Street.
(See image 22.) The courtroom, a dramatic,
high-ceilinged and dark-wood paneled chamber,
was located on the fourth floor.
Finally, in early 1999 renovation of 350 McAllister
Street was completed and the court returned
— moving for at least the 22nd time in
its 150 year history — to the Earl Warren
Building. (See images 23 & 24.)
The courtroom, which was dedicated on January
8, 1999, was remodeled in a fashion more in
keeping with its original design. The court
occupies the fourth through sixth floors, and
has clerk's offices and related personnel on
the first floor.
The well-traveled California Supreme Court is
now firmly rooted and continues serving the
People from its "historic" home.
Article originally published in Jake Dear
and Levin, Historic Sites of the California
Supreme Court, 4 Cal. Sup. Ct. Hist. Soc’y
Y.B. 63 (1998-99)