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October 9, 2012 > History: Justices of the Peace and their Courts

History: Justices of the Peace and their Courts

Alameda County was created in 1853 and divided into six townships that included "the Township of Washington." Justices of the Peace were elected or assigned limited legal responsibilities in a township. Arunah Marshall who lived in Mission San Jose is generally recognized as the first Justice for Washington Township. Historian M. W. Wood lists Marshall for the year 1853 but does not specify the township. Marshall and John Travis are listed for Washington Township the next year.

Justices of the Peace presided over misdemeanor cases in local county courts called justice courts. The first Alameda County Courtroom was the upstairs room of Henry Smith's store, but it is not clear where the other early courtrooms were. They were probably located in private buildings that were rented by the county as needed. In some cases the Justice may have provided the room.

A 1908 article states that Judge Wamsley lived in Irvington. The Washington Press noted in 1913 that the Justice Court moved from Decoto to Irvington and reference was made to two men tried before a jury in Wamsley's court that year. Another reference in the same year states that Judge Wamsley had heard 100 cases since July.

A report noted that a man charged with a crime was taken to Justice Thomas Powers Court in Irvington. Another article reported that his sign had disappeared from the front of his office.

The court building we know the most about was in Niles. It was constructed by E. B. Eberly on his property at the corner of Second and J Streets; the contractor was Charles Fournier. The building of a courtroom, jury box and offices, was 25 by 50 feet with a gable roof and a rustic front finish. The Washington Press reported in March 1915 that the building was nearing completion and the editor commented, "As soon as it is finished it will take the rush of auto speeding tickets from the Centerville Court."

The Niles Justice Court was held in that building until 1951 when the Centerville Office Building on Peralta was opened by the county. When the court moved to a new location, the building housed a succession of private business enterprises.

Judge Ralph Richmond was elected Justice of the Peace in 1914 and served until 1925. He was kept busy fining speeders - yes, even in those days. Judge Joseph Silva served at the Niles Court from 1925 to 1946. He performed many marriages and fined scores of law violators over the years. The usual fee for a traffic fine was $25, but thieves, vagrants and liquor violators faced jail time or banishment from the township. The courthouse was heated by a one-legged coal stove that the Judge stoked with his left handed while he dumped in coal with his right hand. The coal stove was replaced with two modern gas heaters in 1937.

A man was arrested in April 1915 for speeding on the Warm Springs Road, a popular road for breaking the speed limit. Judge John G. Mattos of Centerville heard the case in the Niles Court. The offender blurted out that he wanted his case moved to Oakland where he could get a square deal. This upset Judge Mattos so much that he "started up" and delivered a scorching lecture. The subdued offender meekly pleaded not guilty and was assigned a date for a jury trial.

Centerville also got a new court building in 1916. It was one story with a concrete front and tiled roof, designed by Justice of the Peace, John G. Mattos. We have no description of the old court building, but it was probably a very simple structure. A local paper reported in March 1915 that a second modern courtroom would be built "on the site of the present courtroom." The old building had to be torn down to make way for the new one.

Judge Mattos was appointed in 1914 and apparently tried his cases at Niles while the new Centerville Court, that he helped plan, was being built. Allen G. Norris became a justice in 1926 and served for many years. He moved into the former Mattos office when Judge Mattos retired.

The Centerville courtroom was gutted by fire in August 1931. Its contents, including benches, desks, old dockets, justice stationary, fixtures and a set of law books placed there the day before, were completely destroyed. Records kept separately in the office of Judge Norris were unharmed.

The Township Register reported, "The Centerville Justice Court, presided over by Judge Allen G. Norris, will be held for the next few days in Norris' new office building. It will take approximately a month to repair the court room damaged by fire last Friday. Court will again be held there when the repairs are finished." Headquarters for the Justice Court was still next to the old brick bank building where Judge Norris had his office in 1947.

Niles and Centerville campaigned to secure a new County Office Building which was finally built on Fremont Avenue (now Peralta) and opened in 1951. County agencies and even civic groups were located there. The Justice Courts of Allen Norris and Edward Quaresma were put there and later combined into one. Eventually the Justice Courts were replaced by Municipal Courts and then Superior Courts. That was the end of our Justice Courts and Justices of the Peace.

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