California Judicial Council Lays Out Courthouse Construction Priorities

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, flanked by Judicial Staff Director Martin Hoshino (L) and Justice Ming Chin (R) at the Judicial Council meeting on Aug. 9, 2019. (Judicial Council of California)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – At its business meeting Thursday, the Judicial Council of California gave its stamp of approval to a list of 80 courthouse construction and renovation projects it hopes the Legislature will fund in the coming years.

The roughly $13.2 billion worth of projects marks what has been described as a sea change for the council’s beleaguered courthouse construction program, promising general fund dollars in exchange for more oversight from the Legislature.

But lawmakers have made future funding for the program contingent on the council submitting a new list of construction priorities and updating its ranking method.

The council released the list of 56 new buildings and 24 renovation projects on Aug. 29. Thursday’s unanimous vote to submit it to the governor’s Department of Finance follows months of public meetings and a public comment period.

Under the new criteria, the courts are ranked in order of “Immediate” to “Low” need, with the categories “Critical,” “High,” and “Medium” falling in between. The council identified 18 courthouses that fall into the immediate group at a cost of $2.2 billion.

The most expensive group are the 29 courthouses that fall into the critical need category, as they include projects in Los Angeles County, Alameda County and San Francisco that run from $500 million to $1 billion.

Working with council staff, the Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee updated the old 2008 criteria to include a seismic risk factor and a “facility condition index” calculated by dividing the cost of repair to the building by its replacement cost.

While the 2008 method contained no cost-based analysis, the Legislature now requires the council to evaluate the projects on whether it makes more fiscal sense to build or renovate a courthouse, or maintain the old one.

The council will be required to submit a revised list every year.

Prior to the vote, council member Justice Harry Hull said he had some concerns that courthouse construction priorities could become politicized as lawmakers wrangle over the budget.

“I’m thinking about some of the political fallout because some of these courthouse projects represent a lot of money,” he said, adding that he could see “why there would be certain amount of competition in the Legislature as to priority.”

Justice Brad Hill, who chairs the Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee, said he thinks lawmakers will trust the council’s judgment on the rankings.

“The Legislature has been deferential up until this point because they’ve been working with us,” he said. “We would hope that what they have done in the past in terms of looking to us for the ranking would continue in the future.”

Judge Steven Jahr said the list isn’t static. “We could have changes in buildings, changes in circumstances that occurred since the last time this whole exercise was conducted, significant material changes that could either vault a project or reduce its necessity.”

He gave the example of two projects, one prioritized right over the other, but stymied by a fight over land acquisition. If the second, lower-ranked project has the land ready to go, Jahr said it would jump ahead of the first.

“Naturally you’re not going to slow the train down,” he said. “You’re going to move that other project up so you can build it.”

%d bloggers like this: