SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The building of more than a dozen new California courthouses is in limbo after a Judicial Council committee on construction — acknowledging a funding crisis — voted to put 17 projects on hold Thursday.
“I think there’s not a clearer, more intelligent way to proceed at this juncture in my view. It’s really our only option,” said Justice Jeffrey Johnson, a member of the council’s Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee.
The decision came after five hours of impassioned testimony from judges and court clerks representing 16 counties desperate to replace their aging and in some cases dangerous facilities.
Siskiyou County’s planned Yreka courthouse is the most shovel-ready of the group, having already signed a contract with McCarthy Construction. The project was scheduled to break ground in June when the court learned of the shortfall in the judiciary’s Immediate and Critical Needs Account, which funds courthouse construction through fines and fees. McCarthy’s bid expires on Aug. 19.
“Everything about this project cries out for completion and that’s what’s so tragic about this funding problem,” committee chair Justice Brad Hill said. “We’re going to fight with every breath we have to make sure this courthouse is built.”
But his words were cold comfort for the court.
“We’re terribly disappointed,” Siskiyou County Presiding Judge William B. Davis said after the meeting. “We thought we had the best chance.”
He added, “The tragedy is that the funds that were swept by the governor and legislature have not been returned. We’re concerned that costs will be higher when we try to renew this project.”
Grace Bennett, chair of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, had tears in her eyes. “It’s just not right,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s a kick in the stomach to hear this happen.”
At the starting of the meeting, Hill told the judges he planned to meet with lawmakers in Sacramento to ask for help.
“It’s a tough message to have to give, but obviously what we want to do is keep everything on life support because this program has to survive. My theme for today is this is day one of our effort to get the money to make this program successful.”
He said the governor and Legislature swept $1.4 billion from the judiciary’s construction coffers during the state’s recession, resulting in today’s funding shortage. The fund recently helped pay for a $490 million courthouse in Long Beach.
And while the fine and fee revenue on which the construction fund relies was stable when it was established in 2008, projections have fallen drastically in recent years.
“Then amnesty came along and the revenues started going off a cliff,” Hill said, referring to Gov. Jerry Brown’s temporary program that reduces fines for unpaid traffic tickets.
“Now that the state is back on firm footing and essentially back on track, we’d like our money back. We don’t think it’s a difficult thing to ask for, because it’s our money. It was generated through fines and fees. It was designated to rebuild courthouses and 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,” he said.
The committee decided to recommend to the Judicial Council at its meeting later this month that the courts be allowed to finish their current phases, but go no further.
This will mean holding projects in El Dorado, Inyo, Los Angeles and Mendocino counties after completing site acquisition.
Projects in Riverside, Sacramento, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Lake, Santa Barbara and the Los Angeles mental health court will hold after completing preliminary design. Courthouses in Siskiyou, Imperial, Riverside, Shasta, Tuolumne and Glenn counties were scheduled to start construction this year, but will also be delayed.
Prior to the vote, judges from the affected counties relayed grim stories of crumbling buildings, scant security, mold, floods, broken toilets and asbestos.
The judges spoke of inaccessible restrooms for the disabled, no jury rooms and inadequate holding cells for in-custody defendants. They pointed to disabled litigants crawling up stairs to get to hearings or suffering the indignity of being carried by bailiffs, and judges’ chambers that opened into public hallways where shackled inmates shuffled past waiting jurors, witnesses, and victims.
“We’ve had a particular uptick in instances of security concerns lately. There have been assaults that are starting to be pretty regular,” Presiding Judge Christopher Plourd of Imperial County said, noting that judges have to walk right past holding cells, and that recently a deputy public defender was assaulted in a crowded hallway.
“The holding cells essentially open up right into common hallways. We walk out of our chambers and the inmates are right there. I’m surprised no judicial officer has been harmed at this particular point,” he said.
Judge Andrew Blum of Lake County described his courthouse as an overcrowded deathtrap.
“We have approximately 15,000 square feet for four courtrooms,” he said. “Even with the loss of 30 percent of our staff due to budget cuts, we still have clerks sitting in desks that are shoved into hallways and closets.”
He continued, “Our jurors just stand out in the hallway, sometimes for hours, and they are standing out there with defendants, witnesses, attorneys, you name it. They are also out there with inmates because we have to parade them through the public hallways. The jailers will come and ask them to please step back but we’re in an eight-foot hallway. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
“I just finished a special-circumstance first-degree murder gang-related case. Last Friday, while my jury was assembling out in the hallway, they were being lobbied,” he added, noting that he spent the rest of the morning interviewing each individual juror and it came close to being a mistrial.
The building itself is also on the verge of collapse, Blum said.
“It’s like a role model of how to build an unsafe building,” he said. “It’s incredibly poorly built. I’m no structural engineer but I don’t know how that thing is still standing. There’s no first floor. The second, third and fourth floors are cantilevered over the parking lot. They had to go back and retrofit it with a couple of very large pillars. One of them goes right through my chambers. We had an earthquake on Tuesday, a 5.1. If it had been a little bigger I’d be here telling you we don’t have a courthouse.”
The criminal courthouse in Sacramento also suffers from structural problems and overcrowding, according to Presiding Judge Kevin Culhane.
“Visualize a shoebox-shaped building with one long end facing San Francisco and one end facing east toward the Sierra. For all the courtrooms facing the west, there is no entrance to the courtroom for in-custody defendants except through the judges’ chambers. For the east, all in-custody defendants must be transported through the public hallways,” Culhane said. “We’ve had any number of dangerous events in those public hallways. Just last year an attorney was seriously injured and hospitalized when he was attacked by a defendant. Just last Friday somebody tried to bring a loaded .357 through those hallways.”
Culhane also noted the lack of fire sprinklers on any floor above the second level.
“If a fire breaks out on the second floor or down below, you’re not getting out,” he said.
Judge James Bianco of Los Angeles, who hears cases in the only mental health court in the county, said, “The worst thing about our courthouse is the lockup. Our caseload has skyrocketed; it’s gone up 500 percent in the last five years. We’re under tremendous pressure to cram as many people in the lockup as we can.”
Bianco said he dreams of a new mental health facility where defendants can be held in humane holding cells. Currently, inmates awaiting hearings are stuffed into tiny mesh cages.
“You’re putting people who are seriously mentally ill in cages without plumbing or toilets. It’s really inhumane. I think of our obligations under the canons of ethics to treat people with dignity and respect, and we’re ordering people to be brought to court and housed in cages like animals,” he said.
The current mental health courthouse, located in an old mustard factory from the 1930s, sees people charged with murder, sex crimes or other violent felonies, along with hospital patients and people on psychiatric holds.
“You pack all these people into this lobby, and you’ve got a very violent person sitting next to someone who is potentially very vulnerable,” Bianco said. “I think the chief justice when she visited our courthouse in 2013 perhaps described it best when she said, ‘This is a real powder keg.'”
The faces around the committee table displayed various states of shock and disgust as testimony wore on. At the end of the day, Justice Hill assured the judges that his committee would fight for their courthouses.
“It’s all hands on deck. Things are looking dire and we need to get to work. I don’t think anyone can look at this and say we don’t need that money.”
Though the committee hasn’t scheduled any trips to speak with legislators yet, Hill said, “We’re starting talks with all of the courts next week about getting to Sacramento.”
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