Decisions That Shaped History

When California was first admitted to the Union, pioneers were busy prospecting for new fortunes, building towns and cities―and suing each other. San Francisco became the epicenter of a litigious new world being cobbled together from gold dust and sand dunes. Its federal court, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, set precedents that decided the fate of Mexican land grants and shanghaied sailors and established civil rights for Chinese immigrants. Through the era of Prohibition and the growing labor movement to World War II and on into the tumultuous sixties and seventies, this court’s historic rulings have defined the San Francisco Bay Area’s geography, culture, and commerce.

From the gold rush to the Internet boom, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has played a major role in how business is done and life is lived on the Pacific Coast.


1542 California is first explored by the Spanish
1579 Sir Francis Drake lands north of San Francisco Bay and claims the territory for England, but the land is taken by the Spanish

United States Declaration of Independence

Founding of San Francisco with the establishment of the Presidio and the Mission

1821 Mexico wins its independence from Spain and becomes California’s new ruler
1848 James Marshall discovers gold at Sutter’s sawmill in Coloma on January 24, starting the Gold Rush ; 9 days later California is ceded to the United States by Mexico via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
1850 California becomes the 31st state on September 9; Congress divides it into two federal court districts, Northern and Southern, on September 28 (it was returned to one district in 1866, divided again into Northern and Southern districts in 1886, and Eastern and Central districts were added in 1966)
1851 Ogden Hoffman Jr. is nominated by President Millard Fillmore to be the first judge of the newly created Northern District of California; he serves for four decades
1855 The first courthouse for the Northern District opens on Battery Street; the docket in the court’s first few decades consists primarily of admiralty cases reflecting the region’s maritime economy, complex land disputes arising from land grants dating from before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and cases relating to public order
1860 The Pony Express starts carrying mail from Missouri to California
1880 The court gets new quarters on Sansome Street, which it occupies until 1905
1905 The court moves into new quarters in the United States Courthouse at Seventh and Mission Streets, sharing the space with the Postal Service and the Court of Appeals (the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals still occupies this building)
1906 On April 18 at 5:12 a.m., a 7.8-magnitude earthquake strikes San Francisco, severely damaging the new courthouse (restoration was completed in 1910); resulting fires ravage much of the city
1907 Fifty-seven years after the court’s founding, Congress creates a second judgeship; a third was added in 1923 and a fourth in 1939
1964 The current San Francisco Federal Building and United States Courthouse opens at 450 Golden Gate Avenue; named for Phillip Burton, California assemblyman (1957-1964) and U.S. Representative from California (1964-1983), it is one of San Francisco’s earliest office towers at 20 stories
1976 Cecil Poole is appointed the first African American judge by President Gerald R. Ford; he is subsequently elevated to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980
1980 Marilyn Hall Patel is nominated to the federal bench by President Carter, ending the Northern District Court’s 129 years as an all-male institution; she becomes the first female chief judge in 1997
1985 The Northern District becomes the first district court in the United States to adopt a comprehensive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) program
1990 A new courthouse is built for the San Jose Division of the Northern District (counties of San Benito, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Monterey) and is named for Judge Robert F. Peckham, a judge of the district from 1966 to 1993 and chief judge from 1976 to 1988; prior to the construction of this courthouse, the division’s business was conducted in trailers located on the same premises
1994 A new courthouse is built for the Oakland Division (both San Francisco and Oakland are venues for the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Sonoma); it is later named for local congressman, Ronald V. Dellums
2000 The Northern District is the first district court in the United States to adopt Local Patent Rules, which have become the template for other federal district courts
2010 Lucy Koh, appointed by President Barack Obama, becomes the first Asian American judge on the Northern District bench
2014 A new courthouse is built for the Eureka Division (counties of Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, and Mendocino) in Eureka-McKinleyville
2017 The Northern District has 4 courthouses (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Eureka), 14 district judgeships, and 12 magistrate judgeships; it encompasses 15 of California’s 58 counties