California’s Legal System: The Three Branches

The California legal system is modeled upon the Federal legal system and is comprised of three branches of government: the Legislative Branch, the Judicial Branch, and the Executive Branch. Each section of the government has a specific purpose, and no section can be successful without the other branches’ input or assistance.

Legislative Branch

The legislature is responsible for making and enacting laws. California has two legislative bodies: the State Senate and the State Assembly. There are forty state senators and eighty state assembly members. The Senate and the Assembly work together to pass laws.

Once laws are passed, they are written into our codes to be enforced. These are called “statutes.” Statutes become the “law of the land” in California. Although most common criminal statutes are found in the Penal Code, statutes concerning criminal conduct are also found in the Health & Safety Code (e.g., illegal drugs), the Vehicle Code (e.g., driving under the influence, hit and run), and Business & Professions Code (e.g., governing illegal activity by professionals, such as security officers under the “Private Security Services Act”). There are many other codes in California, but most do not apply to your everyday activities.

Judicial Branch

The judicial branch is our court system. We have three levels of courts: the trial courts (known as the Superior Court), the intermediate appellate courts (known as the Court of Appeal), and the court with the final say, our Supreme Court of California. [Note that our State court system is identical to the Federal Court System, which also has a trial court level, an intermediate appellate court level and the U.S. Supreme Court. Federal courts usually deal only with federal statutes passed by our Senators and Congress in Washington D.C.]

Our California courts interpret the laws passed by the state legislature. The judiciary also imposes sentences for particular offenses. In both civil and criminal matters, cases begin in Superior Court in the geographical area where the crime or action arose.