Last week’s sudden decision, based on the financial crunch, to close on Oct. 3 the Tracy courthouse that housed Tracy Municipal Court will end — for the time being, at least — Tracy’s ties to the justice system.
The exact date of the launching of what originally was known as the Tracy Justice Court is still fuzzy, but it wasn’t too long after Tracy was founded in 1878 that a judge and constable were on duty.
It is known that Ernest “Pop” Gieseke served as constable from 1886 to 1933, when he retired. And Dennis Looney was known as local justice of the peace in 1902. We like to think of Dennis as Tracy’s first Renaissance man. At various times, he served as judge, publisher of the Tracy Press and operator of the Barrel Saloon.
Beginning in 1900, the courtroom was located in the Town Hall on West Seventh Street. The building, owned by the county, served as a courtroom and, after Tracy was incorporated in 1910, as meeting place for the city’s Board of Trustees (City Council). Jail cells were in the back of the building, which was restored more than 30 years ago and now is part of the Grand Theatre complex.
The Board of Trustees departed in 1917, when the first City Hall (now the Fire Administration Building) was opened at Ninth Street and Central Avenue. But the court and jail remained on Seventh Street until 1940. That was the year the new police station, called the Tracy Hall of Justice, was opened on West Eighth Street. It had police facilities, cells and an office for the constable.
The court moved to the old Central School, which was mostly vacant after the school moved in 1938 to its present location.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Sam McLain served as judge. He was a former barber elected to the post. He retired in 1940, and Fen L. Jackson, a local laundryman with ties to the Parker family, was appointed and served until 1958. Because Tracy’s court was not a municipal court, the judge needed not be an attorney. None was.
Ben Canale Jr. of Banta succeeded Gieseke as marshal, serving from 1933 to 1968, when he retired.
The 1958 election for what was the Tracy Judicial District Court was a hard-fought one. Alfred Souza, a former Tracy High and Cal football player, was a local attorney and confident he would be the first member of the bar to preside over Tracy’s court.
In the June primary election, Al came within a handful of votes of winning the judicial seat outright, but he just failed to gain the needed 50 percent-plus-one-vote margin in the three-candidate field.
Souza, active in many areas of Tracy civic life, then faced Arthur Affonso in the runoff. Art, who operated a small trucking company, waged a determined door-to-door campaign. It was the little guy (Affonso) who punched doorbells against the attorney and civic leader (Souza), who didn’t campaign.
It was Art’s underdog role and his pledge to be a full-time judge — a promise Al refused to make — that were believed to be the principal reasons he won the election to a six-year term in a major upset.
Three years after Affonso was elected, old Central School had to be abandoned as City Hall and as home to the court and library. The court was relocated to the east end of the original Wainwright Village community center on East Ninth Street. (The City Council chambers occupied the west end of the building.)
The court remained there until the present courthouse was constructed by the county in 1965.
Six years after his first election, Affonso beat back a challenge from retired California Highway Patrol officer Wendell Nicol, who had moved to Tracy specifically to run for judge. But 1970 was a different story.
Affonso was challenged by Jim Bell, who had been a Tracy cop and then deputy constable. A lot of charges — many of a personal nature — were hurled back and forth in a hotly contested race. Bell won.
But his victory was short-lived. A number of Tracyites who were tired of having non-attorneys mix it up for the judgeship every six years pushed for a municipal court, requiring the judge to be an attorney. Supervisor Frank Hoyt succeeded in passing a county resolution asking the state Legislature to create a municipal court in Tracy.
Legislation was approved, and in 1972, Tracy became part of the Manteca-Ripon, Escalon-Tracy Municipal Court, with assurances one of the district’s courts would be located in Tracy.
Tracy attorney Frank Grande was appointed its first judge, and Bell was made clerk of the court.
After a decade, Grande was elevated to the superior court in Stockton, and Jim Cadle, a former Tracy police officer, succeeded him.
In the 1990s, the county’s superior and municipal courts were merged, meaning some minor felonies could be tried in Tracy, although preliminary hearings were moved to Manteca, where more cell space for prisoners was available.
The last real local tie to local court came in 2005, when Tom Harrington, a Tracy attorney originally appointed to the local muni court in 1990, returned to Tracy as a superior court judge. At that time, the local court concentrated on misdemeanor criminal cases, drunken-driving arrests and some civil cases, he reported. Tom served here for four years before retiring in 2009.
And now, two years later, doors of the courthouse will be locked, and no one knows if they will ever be opened again.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at email@example.com.