SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego’s crumbling Superior Courthouse is being replaced by the largest, most expensive courthouse in the state – a $555.5 million state-of-the-art building that was dedicated in San Diego Monday.
Not set to open to the public until mid-July, the new San Diego Superior Courthouse boasts 71 courtrooms on 22 stories, and consolidated family, probate, criminal and civil case services in one court complex.
At 704,000 square feet, the new Superior Court cost $655 per square foot to build; the figure includes added security measures and special features atypical for commercial buildings. More than 4,000 people worked to build the courthouse designed by architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, with 90 percent of the jobs filled by residents of San Diego and Orange Counties, according to a Judicial Council spokesman.
A savings estimate for consolidating court services in one building has not yet been released.
At Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye noted the courthouse project was started in the 1990’s but had setbacks until the mid-2000s.
Not until the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 1407 in 2008, funding courthouse work through court fees, including additional filing fees paid by attorneys, was there momentum to get the ambitious project off the ground.
When Cantil-Sakauye became chief justice in 2011 during the Great Recession, she said, she was asked repeatedly if the Judicial Council should continue with the project. Her response was: “You had me at fault line.”
“How could we, as responsible attorneys, judges, engineers, decision-makers and staff, ignore that we were inviting the public to a courthouse on a fault line? Not to mention the asbestos hanging from the ceilings,” Cantil-Sakauye said, referring to the old courthouse, which opened in 1961.
The 1961 courthouse sits on the Rose Canyon Fault, which recently was found to be more active and dangerous than researchers previously believed.
San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Jeffrey Barton joked at the dedication ceremony that the new courthouse is “built for the future,” as many of the judges noticed there are no large bookcases in their courtrooms.
He called the dedication a “historic day” for San Diego.
“This beautiful new building represents a significant investment by our community in our judicial system,” Barton said. “The fact the project survived and came to fruition during the hard times of the Great Recession demonstrates the importance we as a society place on the rule of law and the administration of justice.”
California is the only state in which court fines have financed new courthouses and where judges have a direct impact on how new courthouses are built.
“What made it possible was the funding mechanism which makes California unique. We’re the only judicial branch in the country that pays for its own courthouses,” Cantil-Sakauye said.
“California embarked on a never-before tried event, where judges and engineers came together to build courthouses.”
But not everyone is happy with the way the new courthouse, including some of its employees who enforce the law.
Superior Court Judge Runston “Tony” Maino doesn’t think “judges and justices are properly equipped by their training to be building courthouses.” He said the Judicial Council should have waited until it could fully fund the new courthouse – including a promised tunnel to take inmates from the downtown jail to court – before tackling the project.
The new courthouse offers enhanced security to keep inmates separate from the public, including an internal elevator used only for sheriff’s officers to take inmates from basement holding cells to the courtrooms for criminal hearings.
In the old courthouse, deputies had to use public elevators to transport inmates, who sometimes were escorted through crowded public halls in prison garb and shackles.
Other improvements include electronic court calendar displays in the lobby and a café across from the 500-seat jury lounge, to allow jurors to get a bite to eat without needing to pass through security a second time.
Under the terms of an agreement between the county and the Judicial Council, the county will take over the old courthouse and the land under it. In exchange, the Judicial Council is off the hook for the pricey demolition of the aging building, which has a steep price tag due to asbestos removal.
Courthouse News will have reporters working from the new courthouse.
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