A new judicial system in California

Early in 1850 California’s new legislature made sweeping changes to the judicial system in the new state. The old Mexican office of Alcalde was done away with and provision was made for justices of the peace with definite and limited powers. But old habits die hard and in many of the remote mining camps, for several years after California obtained statehood, some of the new justices continued to assume broad powers and were as arbitrary in their judgments as the Alcaldes had been.

Nevada City 1851

One noted example of this is Ezekiel Dougherty, elected justice of the peace in Nevada City in 1851 and commonly called Uncle Zeke. Once, when a man was brought before Zeke and charged with horse stealing, witness were sworn in and testified to what appeared to be a strong circumstantial case. The attorney for the accused then rose and, after addressing the court on the dangers of such testimony, proposed to introduce a few of his own witnesses to attest to the good character of his client. But the good lawyer was stopped right there by Uncle Zeke who exclaimed, ‘What the heck is the use of trying to prove his good character when he’s already been proved a horse thief?’

Later on in a criminal case before the same justice, after the evidence had been presented and the prosecutor had spoken, leaving Uncle Zeke not only convinced of the poor man’s guilt but also tired and thirsty as well, when the same attorney as in the previous case rose to give his argument in behalf of his client. ‘Your honor,’ he said in a manner that must have suggested a long-winded oratory was coming, ‘it is the presumption of the law that a man is innocent until proven guilty.’ Whereupon Zeke jumped from his seat and yelled, ‘Yes, but there is another presumption in the law and that is that a justice of the peace is not bottomed with cast iron. You may go on with your speech but I am going after my bitters, and I am going right now.’ And so the judge strode out of his courtroom and into the saloon for a drink. Some things in gold rush California were more important than others.


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