(CN) – Santa Clara County’s Family Justice Center, a gleaming, eight-story building in downtown San Jose, is an impressive architectural specimen. It boasts a sunlit glass atrium, a bright and airy cafe, and high-definition displays outside each of its 20 courtrooms. It also came with the hefty price tag of $225 million and 26 years of debt for the court.
“There are couches in that building that cost $5,000,” Ingrid Stewart, the local leader of the Superior Court Professional Employees Association, told Courthouse News when the building opened last August. She added that most courtrooms and judicial chambers were well appointed with luxury furniture.
The building’s unveiling in August 2016 triggered a strike, as the court cut public hours and slashed staff. Workers picketed outside the building for seven days in protest, toting signs intended to shame former head clerk David Yamasaki, who has since moved to Orange County.
Some judges say Santa Clara’s new family courthouse is just the most recent example of the judiciary’s tendency toward flashy buildings at the expense of service to the public. Others include a $556 million courthouse in San Diego set to open mid-July, and an even pricier one in Long Beach.
“It seems as if the Judicial Council prefers these fancy courthouses over people,” San Diego County Superior Court Judge Tony Maino said. Maino has been a longtime critic of the San Diego project, which started out with a $1.2 billion price tag, and of the judiciary’s construction program in general. He said the 22-story, 71-courtroom building doesn’t lack for glitz with its stunning views of downtown San Diego, but at a half-billion dollars, it should be more functional for the public.
“It has bling, that’s for sure. It’s like a pair of alligator shoes that’s falling apart at the soles,” Maino said. “I think it will serve the public about as well as the current courthouse does.
“It isn’t as secure as the present courthouse and it isn’t as comfortable for jurors,” he added, comparing the wooden benches in the courtrooms to rigid church pews. “It’s like going to church in Massachusetts in the 1600s.”
The Long Beach courthouse has also been contentious, as it’s entirely funded by the judiciary’s construction budget. In 2010, the Judicial Council’s staff agreed to pay developers a $61 million annual service fee to maintain the building for 35 years. The Legislative Analyst’s Office said the total cost for the building over time would add up to $2.3 billion, and the strain of this financial burden eventually led to a difficult vote by the Judicial Council to cut back on dozens of other projects, nearly all in rural counties.
Excoriated by legislators, the Long Beach courthouse debacle led to a demand by the Alliance of California Judges for an audit of the judiciary’s construction program. The group representing 500 active and retired judges recently renewed that call.
“We have a duty to ensure that the money we extract in fines and fees goes to the best possible use,” they said in a statement last week.
Pointing to the travertine stone cladding at the center of many local news stories about the new Santa Clara Family Justice Center, the group added, “All the fancy stone cladding in California can’t cover an ugly truth: The judicial branch has financed the construction of a handful of highly ornate courthouses with money collected disproportionately from those who can least afford to pay.”
While the Judicial Council’s construction program staff declined to comment on the Alliance’s audit request, a spokesman assured Courthouse News that the travertine stone is not ornamental.
“The stone is travertine and is not ornamental—it’s for use in heavily used areas. The stone was provided by the lowest bidder,” the spokesman said.
San Jose residents seem mixed on the issue.
Standing under the Grecian colonnades at the courthouse entrance on Friday, Verona Nunez said, “I don’t know why anyone thought this was necessary. These architectural choices are a little outlandish.”
The new courthouse may seem extravagant, but for some, it’s certainly better than what was there before: a conglomeration of six dilapidated buildings the Judicial Council was leasing for $570,000 a year.
Now juvenile, drug dependency, mental health and family law services are consolidated at one convenient location. Court documents also show it was constructed using recycled and sustainably sourced materials, and its use of direct sunlight and high-efficiency fixtures will save on water and electricity costs.
“Compared to the previous court, this is much, much better,” resident Sahra Osman said.
And while the court is saddled with a quarter-century of debt that will swallow 4 percent of its yearly budget, it will own the building outright after 26 years – on its face, a fair long-term investment. The public will just have to endure longer lines and less access.
With a growing need for bigger, safer, more accessible courthouses across the state and judges agitating for change, an audit of the judiciary’s construction program could be on the horizon.
Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer Sr. said he would seriously consider an investigation. “I would be very interested to know how we’re spending the money and are we getting the most bang for our buck,” he told Courthouse News by phone on Friday. “There is much speculation and we just need some facts.”
Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat, hails from Los Angeles, where he served as assistant deputy mayor and director of asset management. Coming from this background, he said he learned quite a bit about how to get public buildings constructed under budget.
“You never have the clients become the project managers,” he said. “When you have police or fire departments building their own stations, you have a lot of cost overruns.”
Judge Maino in San Diego said an audit will also bring the true cost of the construction program to light. “The public has the right to know how their money is being spent,” he said. “An audit will show if the Judicial Council has been prudent in how they have spent money, and will make it more difficult for the Judicial Council to spend money in the future on lavish and non-functional courthouses.”
For its construction-money woes, the Judicial Council has long pointed to a raid on its construction fund by the Legislature during the state’s recession. Established by Senate Bill 1407, the fund authorized $5 billion in 2008 to build or renovate courthouses in 32 counties across California. That money mostly comes from fines and fees for misdemeanors and traffic tickets.
But since 2009, the Legislature has swiped at least $1.4 billion from the fund and hasn’t paid it back.
“We’re out of money, and there’s nothing we can do short of getting that money back,” Justice Brad Hill, the council’s construction committee chair, said at a meeting last year where 17 planned courthouse projects were axed. “We feel it’s perfectly appropriate, since we helped out during the state’s time of need, to remind the other branches of government that because of that redirection of our funds, that we need our money back.”
Maino said Thursday he doesn’t think returning the money will do any good.
“It’s counterproductive, like giving an alcoholic a drink,” he said. “SB 1407 is a silly excuse. If they return that money the [Judicial Council] will continue to follow present practices and will build courthouses that either aren’t needed or are too lavish.”
Jones-Sawyer was careful to point out that the intent of an audit would not be to punish the courts, but to ensure that future funds are wisely spent so projects currently in limbo aren’t indefinitely delayed.
“We need to find what is the best way going forward because we need to get as many courthouses built as possible,” he said.