Although gigantic state budget deficits are threatening to stall thousands of public works projects in California, one major effort appears to remain on track: Courthouse construction. The $5 billion program for replacing, rehabilitating or expanding 41 courthouses has its own funding source in the form of civil filing fees and criminal penalties.

Four projects – new courthouses in Los Angeles County, Chico, Red Bluff and Woodland – have been approved and authorized, and eight others have been approved by the state Judicial Council and await final Department of Finance authorization.

"California's courthouses are in a spiraling state of crisis," the state Judicial Council reported last year. "Many buildings which house California courts are in a critical state of disrepair and antiquated design. Inadequate security has created dangerous conditions that place children, jurors, witnesses, litigants, visitors and court employees at risk."

Legislation approved last year (SB 1407, Perata) authorized the issuance of $5 billion in lease-revenue bonds to be retired by new civil and criminal fees. The legislation increased numerous civil filing fees by $20 to $25, raised fees for motor vehicle license, registration or mechanical violations by $15, boosted traffic violator school fees $25, and imposed an assessment of $30 on each felony or misdemeanor conviction, and $35 on each infraction, including traffic offenses.

The construction program is a follow-up to the ongoing transfer of court facilities from counties to the state government. State lawmakers authorized the transfer in 2002, and court officials have been inspecting, reviewing and ranking the facilities for repair or replacement ever since, said Philip Carrizosa, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

"The counties are more than glad to get this off their budgets. As the counties had gotten more strapped financially, they had pretty much stopped taking care of the courthouses," Carrizosa said.

Although the state has taken possession of many of the 451 court facilities, it continues to negotiate with counties over some seismically questionable buildings. Essentially, the state is requiring the counties to accept liability should a future earthquake damage these facilities, Carrizosa explained. The state's negotiating position has eased, as several years ago it insisted counties bring facilities up to seismic safety standards before the state would accept the properties.

The Judicial Council estimates 90% of courthouse facilities need some level of improvement. The council and the Administrative Office of the Courts chose the 41 projects for the SB 1407 program based on security needs, the level of overcrowding, physical hazards and public access needs. After deciding on the projects, court officials prioritized them according to security needs, economic opportunity (such as low-cost land, contributions from local government and operational cost savings) and the need to replace or consolidate inefficient, disparate or small spaces.

In Red Bluff, for example, a new courthouse will replace five courtrooms that are spread out in four different buildings, a layout that is both inefficient and unsafe. In 1985, a judge was shot at, but not hit, while walking through an unsecured parking lot.

Red Bluff's five-courtroom, $78 million project is scheduled for completion by 2013, about the time the largest of the SB 1407 projects might get started – a $1.19 billion, 71-courtroom high rise in downtown San Diego. The new Central San Diego Courthouse will replace the existing courthouse and two other downtown facilities, said Ming Yim, director of court facilities for the San Diego County Superior Court.

Even though the existing downtown courthouse, which spans three blocks, is only 48 years old, it poses numerous security problems and is extremely expensive to maintain, Yim said. Because of asbestos in the ceiling, for example, jobs as minor as changing a light bulb require workers to don protective asbestos suits and block off areas with warning signs, he said. Plus, a fault runs right under the north tower of the existing building, which is likely to crumble in a large earthquake.

The new courthouse is proposed to fill a 200-foot-by-300-foot city block bordered by B and C streets to the north and south, and Front and Union streets to the east and west. The 17-story, 370-foot tall courthouse envisioned by Skidmore Owings & Merrill would replace a county building now located on the site. The Superior Court and the county continue to negotiate the transfer of the site, Yim said. The site is ideal because of its close proximity to the central jail, said Yim, who added, "The idea is that eventually we will tunnel [from the new courthouse] back to the central jail."

The Superior Court facility would connect via a new pedestrian plaza to a federal courthouse that is proposed only one block away (see CP&DR Public Development, December 2005). The $400 million federal courthouse project has been delayed several years, partly because contractors said the structure could not be built within the original $220 million budget. The new courthouses would be important parts of a downtown government district. Right across the street from the proposed state courthouse site, the City of San Diego is in the early planning stages for replacing its 1960's-era civic center.

Once the San Diego Superior Court gets the green light, construction of the new courthouse should take about seven years, Yim estimated.

Administrative Office of the Courts, Office of Court Construction and Management:
Ming Yim, San Diego County Superior Court, (619) 450-5700.