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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Nightmare’ Courthouse Needs Renovation

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Inside a narrow hallway of the Sacramento County Superior Courthouse, a line of jurors rub shoulders with defense attorneys, judges and elected officials. While navigating through "dilapidated" corridors and courtrooms that are ripe with building code and Americans With Disabilities Act violations, the court's executives agree that the 51-year-old courthouse is a ticking public-safety time bomb.

Backed up against a wall to avoid an early morning court traffic jam, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly pleads the county's case for a badly needed new courthouse.

"We're in the dark ages," Connelly said after giving reporters a tour of the Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse. "We in Sacramento are used to this system, but other judges think we are nuts."

Flanked by Connelly and various court officials, former California Senate President Pro Tem and Sacramento mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg said scratching up money for a new courthouse will be one of his top priorities when he replaces current Mayor Kevin Johnson in December.

"This doesn't cut it anymore," Steinberg said, motioning to a packed hallway where defendants are often ushered directly in front of witnesses and jurors.

Built in 1965, the courthouse is one of dozens of outdated California state buildings in downtown Sacramento. Improvements to deteriorating state buildings have largely been put on hold because of the recession and Gov. Jerry Brown's continued calls for fiscal constraint.

Connelly says Sacramento County has the largest "need factor" of any county seeking a new facility, citing logistical nightmares that routinely result in delays in courtrooms designed over a half-century ago. He detailed the scenario of judges and jurors waiting up to an hour just for inmates to be transferred by officers through the court's lone inmate elevator.

While the California Judicial Council has approved preliminary plans for a new courthouse, in August it froze construction on the project in Sacramento and 16 other courthouses due to a lack of funding. Projects in Los Angeles, Riverside and Santa Barbara counties have also been put on hold.

Pointing out a sixth floor window toward the proposed 2.3-acre new courtroom site, state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, said freeing up funding for the proposed $400 million project is critical for the capital city's downtown renaissance.

"The courthouse will help revitalize our railyard and be a big shot in the arm for Sacramento," McCarty said.

The planned 17-story courthouse will be next door to the Robert T. Matsui Federal Courthouse and just blocks from the newly opened $550 million Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings basketball team. The courthouse, along with several other major development proposals, will anchor the long-awaited revitalization of Sacramento's old railyard site.

Named after the longtime dean of McGeorge School of Law, the current courthouse has a host of problems including a lack of fire sprinklers and just one circulation route for defendants.

The lone route funnels inmates directly past the clerk and judges' quarters. Connelly says court employees aren't allowed to leave scissors or utensils unattended near their desks as a safety precaution, and that inmates routinely scream obscenities at clerks and judges if their office doors are open.

The maze continues as inmates are then escorted into the courtroom through public hallways, where jurors, reporters and the public often congregate.

The courthouse's upper floors lack fire sprinklers and the 44 courtrooms are far from ADA compliant, Connelly notes. An estimated 3,000 people use the court's crumbling facilities each day.

"It's fundamentally unsafe," Connelly, former state Assemblyman, said.

As for the courtrooms, they are also small. The average courtroom is 29 feet wide, below the 32-foot standard. Small courtrooms create problems for court staff that are forced to move furniture around in order to accommodate litigants and juries, says Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White.

"It's a logistical challenge," White told reporters from the bench.

White said assembling the jurors can take up to 10 minutes and that courtroom temperatures quickly rise, creating an uncomfortable and crammed atmosphere.

The inmates also suffer because of the court's faults. Despite being designed to hold 70 people in custody, there are often more than 175 inmates waiting their turn in court.

The process can take all day, and on crowded days inmates are sometimes chained to benches because the holding cells are full. The courtroom has 12 holding cells; it needs 27 to meet state standards.

The judges and elected officials warn that the courthouse is a growing safety risk to court employees, inmates and the public itself.

"[A new courthouse] is a necessity for the county and our community," Steinberg said.

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