Southern District of California
Introduction to the Southern District of California
Overview and History
The United States District Court for the Southern District of California is one of four federal judicial districts in the state of California. It was established on February 28, 1966 when California was divided into four judicial districts – Northern, Eastern, Central and Southern. The Southern District of California encompasses the southernmost counties in California, including San Diego and Imperial.
The Southern District has a long history dating back to the 1800s when California first became a state. Federal courts convened in San Diego as early as 1850 when California entered statehood. The Southern District was officially authorized in 1966 and handles federal cases from seven counties in the southern part of California.
Geography and Demographics
The Southern District of California covers a geographic area of approximately 45,000 square miles across the southernmost part of California. It includes the counties of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. Some of the major cities within the district include San Diego, El Centro, Riverside, Santa Ana, and Los Angeles.
According to the 2010 census, the population for the Southern District was approximately 22 million people. It is one of the most populous federal court districts in the United States. The district covers a densely populated suburban and urban area, as well as remote desert areas on the U.S.-Mexico border.
There are four federal courthouses located within the Southern District of California. The main courthouse is the James M. Carter and Judith N. Keep United States Courthouse in downtown San Diego. This 23-story building houses courtrooms, judge’s chambers, and the U.S. Marshal’s office.
Other courthouses include the Edward J. Schwartz United States Courthouse in San Diego, the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse in Santa Ana, and a courthouse in El Centro. Judges may hear cases in any of the district courthouses depending on scheduling and case assignments.
Key Personnel and Leadership
The U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of California is Steven C. Stafford. He oversees the Marshal’s office operations within the district including courtroom security, transport of federal prisoners, asset forfeiture program, witness security program and enforcement of federal court orders.
Stafford has over 20 years of experience in federal law enforcement. He began his career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in the Southern District of California in 2000. He has held his current post since 2021.
The United States Attorney represents the United States government in all civil and criminal cases within the district. The current interim U.S. Attorney is Randy Grossman. He was appointed to the position in 2021 after serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District for several years.
The U.S. Attorney leads a staff of over 200 Assistant U.S. Attorneys who handle cases involving federal crimes, civil lawsuits, and collection of debts owed to the government. The office investigates and prosecutes many types of federal offenses including drug trafficking, immigration violations, white-collar crime, and terrorism.
Federal Public Defender
The Federal Public Defender office provides legal defense services to individuals charged with federal crimes who cannot afford an attorney. The Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of California is Reuben Camper Cahn. He was appointed to the position in 2019.
The office has over 100 lawyers and support staff representing indigent defendants across the district. Attorneys from this office are appointed by judges to represent defendants from the initial appearance through trial and appeal.
District Court Judges
There are currently 17 federal district court judges in active service and 12 senior judges with a reduced caseload who assist as needed. District court judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate for lifetime appointments under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.
Some of the current and notable district court judges include:
- Dana Makoto Sabraw, Chief Judge
- Cynthia Ann Bashant
- Jeffrey T. Miller
- Janis Lynn Sammartino
- M. James Lorenz, Senior Judge
- Barry Ted Moskowitz, Senior Judge
Caseload and Operations
Types of Cases
The Southern District of California handles both civil and criminal matters that fall under federal jurisdiction. On the criminal side, some of the most common charges involve immigration violations, drug crimes, white collar offenses, and human trafficking.
Civil cases may involve federal tort claims, civil rights violations, patent and copyright cases, Freedom of Information Act matters, bankruptcy appeals, and cases with the federal government as a party. The court also reviews actions taken by federal agencies.
The Southern District of California is one of the busiest federal court districts in the country by overall caseload. In the 12-month period ending March 2022, a total of 9,611 cases were filed in the district. Of these, 4,056 were civil cases and 5,555 were criminal defendants.
The busiest courthouse for new case filings is San Diego, which received over 7,000 new cases during that time period. El Centro received around 1,000 cases, Santa Ana had 900 cases, and Los Angeles had 600 cases.
The Southern District has presided over many high-profile cases through the years, including:
- U.S. v. John Gardner – Sentenced to life in prison for rape and murder of two teenage girls.
- U.S. v. Randy Kraft – Convicted serial killer sentenced to death.
- U.S. v. María Elena Salinas Rivadeneira – Convicted of leading a human trafficking and illegal gambling operation across Southern California casinos.
- Anderson v. City of San Diego – Awarded over $5 million in settlement to a man wrongfully accused of murder due to police misconduct.
- U.S. v. Samuel Gallardo – Large-scale drug trafficking case that unveiled the inner workings of the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
Court Locations and Contact Information
Main Courthouse in San Diego
James M. Carter and Judith N. Keep United States Courthouse
333 West Broadway, Suite 100 (Plaza)
San Diego, CA 92101-3806
Phone: (619) 557-5610
The main courthouse, known as the James M. Carter U.S. Courthouse, is located in downtown San Diego. It houses the offices and courtrooms for the San Diego-based district judges and senior judges. The Clerk’s office and U.S. Marshal office are also located in this building.
Divisional Courthouse in El Centro
United States Courthouse
325 S. Melrose Drive
El Centro, CA 92243
Phone: (760) 339-4245
The El Centro courthouse is a divisional office of the district which holds court proceedings for Imperial County. Two district court judges are chambered in El Centro to handle cases arising in Imperial County.
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Federal Public Defender
The Southern District of California plays an important role in the federal judicial system. Its large size and extensive caseload makes it one of the busiest federal courts in the nation. The district has a long history of providing justice and interpreting federal law for residents across Southern California. With courthouses located in San Diego, El Centro, Santa Ana and Los Angeles, the court presides over thousands of diverse civil and criminal matters each year. The Southern District will continue serving this important function for the people of Southern California into the foreseeable future.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How many federal courthouses are located in the Southern District of California?
A: There are four federal courthouses in the district located in San Diego, El Centro, Santa Ana, and Los Angeles.
Q: What counties make up the Southern District of California?
A: The district covers the counties of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara.
Q: Who is the current Chief Judge of the Southern District?
A: The Chief Judge is Dana Makoto Sabraw. He maintains his courtroom in San Diego.
Q: What type of cases are heard in the Southern District Court?
A: The court hears both civil and criminal matters falling under federal law. Common cases involve immigration violations, drug crimes, fraud, civil rights, and cases with the federal government as a party.
Q: How many district court judges serve in the Southern District of California?
A: There are currently 17 full-time district judges and 12 senior judges serving on the court.