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San Diego Superior Court holds session in haunted courthouse

San Diego County paid $65 monthly to lease a portion of the Whaley House to use as a courthouse between 1868 and 1871. Court was held again Tuesday in the historic building for the first time in 150 years.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — The judge’s bench inside the historic — and haunted — Whaley House in Old Town San Diego was dusted off Tuesday, as court was again in session in the city’s second courthouse for the first time in more than 150 years.

Superior Court Judge Richard Whitney presided over the historic court session where four cases were heard Tuesday including an employment arbitration dispute, a demurrer hearing to strike a request to inspect corporate records, a petition for a gun violence restraining order and a case management conference for a legal malpractice dispute.

“It really is the beginning of government for San Diego, and it should be recognized and appreciated for that,” Whitney said in an interview with Courthouse News. “This is where it all started. It’s neat to be back here and recognize the Whaleys and the judges that helped form this town.”

The Whaley courthouse was designated as an “active California courtroom,” with all local and state rules and Sheriff’s Department rules applying for the day.

“It’s a Herculean effort to designate this as a Superior Court of the state of California for just one day,” Whitney said. He joked about the building’s haunted reputation, noting that while his chambers were in Mrs. Whaley’s dining room, “I don’t want to disturb anyone who might be in there.”

The property was built in 1857 by New England transplant Thomas Whaley, who sailed around Cape Horn to land in California during the Gold Rush. He resettled in San Diego after losing a business in San Francisco, Whitney said during his opening remarks.

Whitney said the idea to hold court in the historic courthouse came when he went on a “fact-finding” mission to obtain something from the Whaley House for inclusion in the time capsule embedded in the new criminal courthouse, which opened in downtown in 2017.  

The Whaley House provided two bricks Thomas Whaley made for the property.

San Diego’s first courthouse, in what was originally designated as the first judicial district, sat a few blocks away from the Whaley House in Old Town.

When the county outgrew the first one-room courthouse, it rented a portion of the Whaley House property for $65 a month. The courthouse was originally built as a rat-proof granary. Court was only held there from 1868 to 1871.

Cowboy judges traveled by horseback between Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego to preside over cases in Southern California.

Their dockets typically consisted of theft cases, but some capital punishment cases and executions were conducted on the Whaley House property, which is recognized as the most haunted house in America.

Most court hearings and judgments were less grim, Whitney said. He passed around a handwritten San Diego Superior Court judgment dated September 2, 1889 seeking to recover unpaid property taxes on a downtown building appraised at $150.

The total amount owed? Four dollars and 50 cents, including $1.50 in state taxes and $3 in county taxes.

Court was only held in the Whaley House for three years; as the population in the region grew, so did a dispute between those who wanted to keep the seat of government in Old Town and those who wanted to move things south to New Town, now known as downtown San Diego.

The county that wanted to collect unpaid property taxes from its residents apparently didn’t follow its own laws, as it owed Whaley back rent before moving to New Town, Whitney said.

“There was a fight in this courthouse — the supervisors and sheriffs came at about 2 a.m. and took all the court property and all the court files, which Mr. Whaley was holding hostage in exchange for the rent,” Whitney said.

“He spent 10 years trying to collect it,” Whitney noted.

But perhaps Whaley had another reason, beyond the unpaid rent, to be angry with the court’s move: Whaley had a successful saloon right next to the courthouse.

“He said the best business he ever did was when court was in session. I think that’s why he was sad to see the court leave more than anything,” Whitney said.

The court session was attended by Presiding Judge Michael Smyth, Court Executive Officer Michael Roddy and District Attorney Summer Stephan.

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