SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - After seeing nearly $400 million and seven projects slashed from their construction program in September, California courts were once again tested by cuts as the judiciary's court facilities working group axed four additional new courthouses.
The committee's Thursday meeting was also the same day Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye met with Governor Jerry Brown to parley over $200 million in new cuts.
Before bringing down the hammer, the committee said they were acting under duress by the Legislature, which is currently refusing to fund a costly Longbeach courthouse and forcing the judiciary to finance it with money intended for dozens of other court projects.
"We're like the inmates making the bullets to have ourselves shot by the firing squad," said committee member Judge William Highberger of Los Angeles. "It is intolerable that the Legislature is backing away from decisions made by previous legislatures."
A total of 19 projects are currently going forward, including new courthouses in Shasta, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Riverside and the biggest project, a $544 million courthouse in San Diego.
Prior to the unanimous vote to "indefinitely delay" courthouses in Fresno, Los Angeles, Nevada County and Sacramento, a move that will save $558 million, the group debated whether to include in the motion language clarifying that the courts were suffering because the Legislature had forced the committee's hand.
"I'm concerned that what the Legislature has been doing here has been pushing this problem from the state down to the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Judicial Council. I would like any motion we pass to include the provision but for the failure of the actions that were promised on the part of the Legislature and the Governor's office we wouldn't have to make these cuts but its directly as the result of these actions that these cuts are necessary," said committee member Val Toppenberg. "I would be disappointed if we were to pass a motion keeping quiet about why we're doing this."
Others thought such language beyond the purview of the committee and should be left up to the governing Judicial Council. Committee chair Justice Brad Hill volunteered to make the committee's reasoning clear to the council, which is set to vote the committee's decision in January.
Toppenberg replied, "We really have an obligation to offer a suggestion as to why we're doing this. Simply to keep quiet when we're tasked as a group with carrying out some uncomfortable and unappetizing duties, we need to express our feelings. I appreciate your offer to make those comments to the Judicial Council, but we need to go another step further. I really think we need to make that statement."
Presiding Judge Laura Masunaga of Siskiyou County agreed, attributing the committee's predicament to "the Legislature's inaction in finding the General Funds for Longbeach, which was never supposed to be paid by the Judicial Branch."
"I could ratchet up my comments even more when I go the council," Hill offered. "I'm just not sure that we want to wrap commentary into motions. Certainly the sense of the group is, and I can make it inordinately clear when I go to the council, that this was done under duress."
Justice Jeffrey Johnson of Los Angeles added, "The Chief Justice and the Judicial Council interface with other branches of our state government and I am loathe to put in a motion something the Judicial Council would be forced to adopt that makes a policy statement."
The committee ended up siding with Johnson.
Judges and court officials from the affected courts were given several minutes each to plead their cases. El Dorado and Mendocino counties, both on the shortlist for delay, were ultimately spared.
"We remember the corbel that fell off the building that you brought for us," Hill said to El Dorado Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury, referring to a piece of the court she brought for the committee at its meeting in September.
Kingsbury, who's been lobbying for a new facility since 1999, told the committee that the county's crumbling 100 year-old courthouse "is so woefully inadequate I cannot begin to tell you the reasons why it needs to be replaced."
She added, "The property that is being donated for our site is coming to the state at no cost. If this property is not acquired, it will be snapped up. We have spent hours and hours with the AOC driving around the county trying to find another piece of property that would be acceptable for the development of a courthouse. It does not exist.
"We don't have the luxury in dealing with our financial issues, to be able to close a court facility," she added. "If the committee choose to defer it will be forever lost. I'm just really concerned that if this land acquisition doesn't take place, we'll never get a courthouse."
Sacramento was also given a partial reprieve of $10 million to purchase critical land for a new courthouse. Los Angeles had three projects on the chopping block -- a new Southeast Los Angeles Courthouse, the Eastlake Juvenile Courthouse and a Mental Health Courthouse. The committee asked Los Angeles Court Executive Officer John Clarke to prioritize the projects. He chose the latter two, which swayed the committee's decision to put the Southeast project on hold.
Nevada County Court Executive Officer Sean Metroka said he wasn't sure why his court, which proposed to renovate the historic courthouse instead of building a new costly facility, was on the list for delay. "I don't have the vaguest idea how our project came up as one to indefinitely delay. I didn't hear anybody say why our project was put on the list," he said.
"This isn't the first time we've discussed the project," Johnson answered referring to a series of meetings in September on court construction. "We've had 23 hours of discussion."
"I understand and appreciate your concerns, but every project we're looking at is, in so many respects, in desperate straits," Hill said. "The easy choices were made months ago or years ago. The choices we have no are among desperately needed facilities. All of you have very compelling cases. That's why these decisions are so tough. One court may be more desperate than another, but there aren't clear distinctions."