Addressing what the state court system says is a “state of crisis,” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that authorizes $5 billion worth of construction and renovation of facilities throughout the state.
The governor signed Senate Bill 1407, authored by Senate President pro Tem Don Perata on Friday. The bill will address what court officials call an urgent need for more space in Yolo County’s court system.
“Building California’s infrastructure is one of my highest priorities,” said Schwarzenegger in a written statement. “Improving our state’s aging court facilities has been an integral part of my promise to Californians to rebuild our infrastructure and increase public safety.“
The state court system is comprised of 451 trial court facilities, eight appellate court facilities and one Supreme Court facility.
The state senate originally passed SB 1407 last May, but Assembly Republicans balked at the bill, which included $61.5 million earmarked for property acquisition and new courthouses in Yolo, Los Angeles, Butte, and Tehama Counties.
In a majority vote, the Assembly sent an amended bill, sans the $61.5 earmark, to the Senate. The legislation passed in a majority vote Aug. 31 and was among a stack of bills that accumulated on the governor’s desk during the budget stalemate.
Yolo County Superior Judge David Rosenberg said there is a shortage of space and judges throughout the state. The Yolo County Superior Court is in particularly dire straits, he said.
“The workload is such that Yolo Superior Court should have three more judges than we have. In terms of space, we’re still operating in a courthouse that was built 90 years ago. Our facilities are old and we’ve outgrown them,” he said.
Rosenberg said he hopes the legislature will eventually re-appropriate the $61.5 million taken out of the original bill.
The new Yolo facility will have 16 courtrooms and cost in the neighborhood of $100 million, Rosenberg said.
Though the bill has been signed, the public will not start to see significant changes for approximately four years.
To compensate for the limited space in the Yolo County Courthouse, Rosenberg said the Court holds session out of seven different locations in Woodland – including from trailers. In addition to being inefficient and expensive, the current setup could be dangerous, he said.
“We have prisoners in custody being transported through hallways where we have witnesses, children, defendants and police officers. It’s like the middle ages,” Rosenberg said.
In fact, 41 percent of the facilities are forced to use public hallways to bring in-custody defendants into courtrooms, according to the governor’s press release.
Increasing crime has compounded the shortage problem. According to the county Superior Court, there were 18,497 new cases filed from January to June in 2007. During the same period this year, there were 23,279 cases – a 26 percent increase.
Rosenberg said it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of the increase, but he said it could possibly be attributed to a rising population and a wave of drug crimes. In addition, there’s “certainly an increase in gang-related crimes for Yolo County and California,” he said.
Despite the strained conditions, the court has managed to “move cases through very rapidly,” Rosenberg said.
Not everyone agrees that the problem is as bad as the courts claim, or that it warrants a $5 billion bill.
The bill will be funded by lease-revenue bonds, which include an increase in filing and infraction fees. In other words, the cost of filing court cases and the fines for traffic infractions will go up.
Representative Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) had been outspoken in his opposition to the bill, along with most other Assembly Republicans. He said the increased filing fees and higher traffic fines required to finance the bill will put the cost burden on those who can least afford it, and the courts aren’t efficiently utilizing the resources they already have.
Mike Spence, Anderson’s chief of staff, said courts could open on nights and weekends. He said the representative doesn’t agree that the security costs of holding court in multiple satellite locations are too costly.
“They’re not open on weekends. There are facilities that are sitting idle,” Spence said. In addition, holding traffic court on nights and weekends would save people the trouble of having to leave work in the middle of the day, he said.
And even if there is a need for new court facilities, the costs should be placed on people who “tie up courts for weeks or months of civil litigation,” Spence said.
“If someone has a multimillion judgment that has taken the court’s time, that person should be paying more than someone who doesn’t have their left blinker working,” he said. “The burden of [paying for] the courts shouldn’t fall on those that use them the least.“
Still, court officials say such alternatives are infeasible.
Representative Lois Wolk (D-Davis) said the state of the courts has been an “ongoing concern” because they present security risks and delay justice.
Even though the state is in need of an array of infrastructure improvements, SB 1407 is a step in the right direction, she said.
“The problem is the financial state of California is not good; there are a lot of demands and very dwindling resources,” Wolk said. Improving the courts is “not the most important priority, but it is a critical priority. There has to be a balance and that’s what the governor is doing.“
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at email@example.com
The state’s court system, made up of 451 trial court facilities, eight appellate court facilities and one Supreme Court facility, is in critical need of new construction, renovation and repair. A significant number of these facilities do not meet current guidelines for efficient and safe court environments and, overall, the facilities are overcrowded with no capacity to handle growth in judicial workload. Because of the lack of courtroom space, 23 court facilities are in trailers, one-quarter of courtrooms have no room for a jury, 41 percent have no way to bring in-custody defendants into courtrooms without using public hallways and 78 percent do not have adequate access for people with disabilities.
Source: Governor’s Press Office