California’s judicial system uses a fast-track approach to bring cases to trial quickly, but the state’s plans to repair the aging courthouses in which trials are conducted are on a slow track. It is a case of maintenance deferred, leading to decrepit courtrooms and unsafe, seismically unfit buildings.

Under the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002, superior courts around the state are being transferred from county ownership to the state. The transfers should be completed by 2007, with the state taking over all but the most unsafe buildings.

To fix the courthouses and provide for future growth, the state needs $6 billion, a hefty figure at a time of budget deficits. The Judicial Council, the state agency that oversees courts in California, had proposed a $4 billion bond measure for the November 2004 ballot to pay for deferred maintenance. However, the Legislature ignored all bond measures during its recent session as it grappled with the budget, according to Kim Davis, acting director of the Office of Court Construction and manager for the Administrative Office of the Courts, the staff arm of the Judicial Council. Davis said the Legislature could vote on the bond measure in January, providing enough time for it to make the November 2004 ballot.

To help address the need for additional court facilities, filing fees and criminal fines increased at the beginning of this year and are expected to generate about $70 million a year for courthouse construction. Davis said that courts would need about $2 billion to prepare for growth over the next 20 years.

Problems with courthouses include security, earthquake safety, access for persons with disabilities, and lack of space for juries and new courtrooms. The most frequently cited security concern is when in-custody defendants walk through courtroom halls in front of jurors and witnesses, with the potential to threaten those parties. Ideally, the prisoners would enter through a separate entrance. In 2000, a Judicial Council study found that of the 451 court facilities in the state, 41% have no way to bring jailed defendants to courtrooms without using public hallways.

The same study found that 23 of the state’s 451 court facilities were in trailers, 25% percent of courtrooms had no space for a jury, 54% needed earthquake repairs, and 68% had inadequate security.

Davis pointed to lax security at a courthouse in Marin County, where a judge was killed and an assistant district attorney was paralyzed in a 1970 shooting. She said the facility still has inadequate security today.

The state government began taking over the courts in 1997, according to Mike Roddy, regional director of the Administrative Office of the Court in Central California, and former executive officer of the Sacramento County courts. Budgets and employee salaries are now paid by the states, rather than the counties, and taking over the facilities during the next four years is the final part of the process, he explained.

Roddy spoke with CP&DR while he drove to the offices of the San Joaquin County Superior Courts in Stockton, where he was beginning negotiations with that county as part of a program to turn over its facilities. San Joaquin is one of the three counties in the state (the others are Riverside and Solano) to participate in a pilot transfer program. After turning over their court facilities, counties will continue to provide maintenance-of-effort payments to the state. The payments will be capped at current levels, and the state will cover future growth and cost increases.

In addition, each county is preparing a master plan for court growth over the next 20 years. Those plans are due by December.

In San Bernardino County, officials are planning for 22 new judges and support staff by 2020, said Tressa Kentner, executive officer for the county’s courts. That’s in addition to the ongoing seismic retrofitting going on at the county’s courthouse in downtown San Bernardino and construction of a $4 million juvenile dependency court that began in June.

Davis said such building is unusual for counties, with most waiting for the state to pay for upgrades when it eventually takes control of the facilities.

Even with the improvements in San Bernardino, the backlog is tremendous. Kentner said of her county’s 14 court facilities, only 1 doesn’t need significant work.

California Supreme Court Justice Ronald George told the State Bar convention in September that the courts were hit with a total of $104.5 million in budget cuts in this fiscal year, forcing reductions to programs intended to provide greater public access to the judicial system, among other things.

With the state unable to maintain existing judicial services, money for better courthouses is likely to remain in short supply. And even if the bond measure gets on the ballot, there is no guarantee voters who have heard about nothing but state budget deficits for two years will approve it. Davis and others said they are unaware of any opposition to their proposal. Still, will a generation of California voters who were educated in portable classrooms really mind that court is conducted in a trailer?
“I would hope we place some value on the third branch of government,” said Roddy. “Courthouses have historically been community symbols.”

Kentner agrees that courts need to look nice and be safe. “People should have a sense what they’re doing there is valued and important,” she said.
A safe and appealing courthouse adds to the vibrancy of cities’ economies, as lawyers seek offices and frequent nearby restaurants. Roddy said a study in San Diego indicated that having the main courthouse downtown was a major boost to the economy. And Kentner said that when the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and state Court of Appeal moved from San Bernardino to Riverside several years ago, it hurt the downtown San Bernardino economy to the benefit of Riverside.

Kim Davis, acting director, Office of Court Construction and manager, Administrative Office of the Courts, (415) 865-7971.
Mike Roddy, regional director, Central California, Administrative Office of the Courts, (916)263-1900.
Tressa Kentner, court executive officer, San Bernardino County, (909) 387-6500.