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Judgment day at hand for Modesto and Sonora courthouses

Lt. John Walker, right, walks down a hallway as attorney Marcus Mumford, left, consults with his client Thursday morning, Aug. 4, 2016, at the Stanislaus County Courthouse in downtown Modesto, Calif.
Lt. John Walker, right, walks down a hallway as attorney Marcus Mumford, left, consults with his client Thursday morning, Aug. 4, 2016, at the Stanislaus County Courthouse in downtown Modesto, Calif. jlee@modbee.com

Don’t bother pushing a button to the drinking fountain on the main floor of the 56-year-old Stanislaus County Courthouse in downtown Modesto. It’s broken.

If you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t use the restroom a few feet down the hall. The door is too narrow.

The main elevator works – for now, anyway. When it breaks down, parts sometimes have to be fabricated because it’s so old, causing weeks of delay in the aging courthouse, whose long overdue replacement is in limbo.

Court officials in Modesto and Sonora are preparing for a key hearing Thursday in San Francisco that could determine whether plans for new courthouses in those cities may be scrapped. It’s wrong, they say, that one of the most-used, most indispensable public buildings in any city should pose dangers to visitors.

We’re bursting at the seams. There are lots of dangerous conditions.

Ricardo Córdova, assistant presiding judge, Stanislaus Superior Court

Deputies in Modesto regularly halt foot traffic in busy corridors to let chained inmates pass for lack of separate, secure passageways. When they come through, people are directed to wait behind a stripe of yellow caution tape on the floor.

“This is our imaginary wall,” said Brandi Christensen, court facilities manager, of the empty space above the yellow tape. “This is what’s going to protect you when inmates come through.”

Because holding cells are cramped and overcrowded, inmates regularly wait in rooms that are supposed to be reserved for jurors – a few feet from doors to the chambers of judges assigned to try the accused and sentence the guilty. Lawyers often consult with shackled clients in jury rooms as well, for lack of options.

‘This is ridiculous’

“This is ridiculous,” Modesto defense attorney Marcus Mumford said of the conditions, emerging with a client from a jury room.

Inmates in the top-floor exercise yard of the adjacent county jail can peer through nonreflective windows into judges’ chambers – a huge security risk, according to state standards. Judges park in a lot easily viewed from the same yard.

“There is potential for serious danger,” said Judge Ricardo Córdova.

A ceiling tile in the courtroom of Presiding Judge Marie Silveira is cracked and discolored, probably from a water leak. Clerks have set up no less than three floor fans to help deal with substandard air conditioning. A small space heater sits under a clerk’s desk, because it’s freezing in winter, she said.

This is not at all a matter of just wanting new buildings. This is a matter of providing the public and our court employees access to safe and secure facilities. Tens of thousands of California citizens visit our courthouses on a daily basis. They deserve nothing less.

Justice Brad Hill, Court Facilities Advisory Committee chairman, in July 28 letter to court officials

Jurors in wheelchairs can’t sit in the jury box because it has steps, not a ramp. The same goes for the judge’s seat, and the witness box. Discrimination lawsuits brought by the disabled to enforce compliance of equal-access laws might be decided in a building that doesn’t comply with equal-access laws.

Brown water comes out of the sink in Silveira’s private restroom. “I don’t even want to know” the cause, she said, noting that she switched to bottled water years ago.

The men’s room for her jurors has been out of order for several weeks while a part is on order to fix an aging, leaky toilet.

Another toilet in a room reserved for deputies doesn’t flush either. Dark water stands in a sink that won’t drain, next to the deputies’ microwave.

Fire-protection sprinklers don’t exist, except in a basement hallway that was rehabbed long after the building was finished in 1960 on the site of a previous courthouse built in 1874.

A separate entrance on the same city block still serves family law and small claims customers. It was finished in 1939.

‘It’s falling apart’

“It’s falling apart,” said Córdova – never mind the courthouse’s ugly industrial appearance. “The finest example of Eastern Bloc ’60s architecture in the county,” Córdova called it.

We view the failure to fund the Modesto courthouse as a crisis.

Marie Silveira, presiding judge, Stanislaus Superior Court

Officials have waited many years for the vision of a safe, modern courthouse to become reality.

A 2010 study of the Modesto courthouse found “security problems, physical and functional problems, and numerous deficiencies under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prevent the court from operating safe and efficient facilities.” The study predicted that a $267 million replacement – the most expensive public building in county history – would be finished this year; that date was pushed to 2021, before the latest crisis.

Pressure on Sonora’s 1898 courthouse and auxiliary courtrooms in an annex would be relieved with a $65 million consolidation by 2019 near the Lowe’s and Walmart stores where Highway 108 meets Wards Ferry Road, according to a state promise now on hold.

Help appeared on the way when state legislators in 2008 approved bonds to upgrade courthouses in 32 counties. The money paid for several projects in other counties, including one in 2013 in Long Beach with five-story suspended glass curtains and a Brazilian tropical hardwood ceiling. It cost $490 million, but loan terms tied to public-private financing will have taxpayers forking out an extra $53 million a year for the next 35 years, according to the American Media Institute.

The Alliance of California Judges, a private group formed in 2009 to critique state courts leadership, has called the Long Beach courthouse “extravagant” and an “opulent palace” built at the expense of other places, such as Modesto and Sonora.

$250 million Annual court construction fund revenue in California

$110 million Permanently redirected to other purposes

The construction fund had problems almost from the start. State officers raided $1.8 billion, in part to plug gaps in the California budget, and haven’t replaced that money. Income from fines and fees also plummeted, and the state now says the fund will be bankrupt in five years if projects such as the ones in Modesto and Sonora aren’t halted; 21 others also are on the bubble, although six now in construction are likely to be completed.

The magnitude of these problems only serves to delay justice.

Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres

When that news broke a few weeks ago, Valley lawmakers were incensed, saying the Judicial Council failed to raise red flags during spring budget hearings. The Judicial Council pointed to several dire warnings over recent years and suggested that people seemed not to pay attention, until now.

Key meeting to be streamed live

The outcry has prompted plans for live Internet streaming of Thursday’s meeting of the Judicial Council’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee. People can view the proceedings by clicking on a link to be posted when the meeting starts at 10 a.m.

A local contingent of judges, court administrators and state lawmakers’ representatives will get five to 10 minutes, per courthouse, to make a case for why their projects should proceed. It’s not known whether the committee will recommend that the Judicial Council, at a future meeting, approve some of the 23 projects in limbo, or none.

“It is absolutely essential that our new courthouse get built,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, a former Modesto councilwoman assuming a seat on the county Board of Supervisors at year’s end. “My colleagues and I are pulling out all the stops to seek a funding solution that will get the project built on time, and we are urging community members to make their voices heard as well.”

The Modesto City Council voted Tuesday to support local envoys. City Hall bought a downtown block for the new courthouse, bounded by Ninth, G, H and 10th streets, and sold it to the state at a loss; former businesses are boarded up and fenced off, creating what Silveira calls an eyesore.

Counties individually took care of their courthouses before the state several years ago assumed control and responsibility for daily operations and construction needs.

Modesto: Once again, a have-not

“They said, because of what courthouses mean to all citizens, they should be equally safe so you wouldn’t end up with haves and have-not counties,” Silveira said. “That was the goal: equal access to justice. That’s the promise we’ve been expecting the state to keep, that this not be a county that gets pushed to the bottom, when we’re in critical need.”

We rely on commitments from the state of California to the citizens of Stanislaus County. We’re expecting them to live up to what’s been promised.

Marie Silveira, presiding judge, Stanislaus Superior Court

People visiting state appellate courts and federal courts in places such as Sacramento, Fresno and San Francisco are greeted by gurgling water fountains, tall marble columns and plush carpet. Plans for Modesto’s courthouse show bare-bones amenities such as polished concrete at the lowest per-square-foot spending on the state’s scale.

“We’re not asking for a luxurious courthouse,” Silveira said. “We’re asking for a safe, secure courthouse. We’re upset to be told, ‘You have the lowest budget, you’ve conserved more funds, you have the greatest need – but you won’t get it.’ 

Yes, courthouses must deal with murderers, rapists and child molesters, Silveira said. They’re also necessary for regular people seeking resolution to important problems, such as divorces, adoptions and restraining orders, not to mention those simply doing their civic duty by showing up for jury service. Modesto’s courthouse draws about 1,500 people a day for various reasons.

“We try to keep a peaceful environment,” Silveira said, “but if there is anyplace where people are emotionally charged, it’s this place.”

Córdova, whose two-year turn as presiding judge will start in January, said, “This is one of the busiest buildings in the county. It’s a shame that people have to be in a place like this. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390 .

At a glance

The California Judicial Council’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee will meet at 10 a.m. Thursday in the third-floor Malcolm Lucas Room, 455 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco.

Online viewers can stream proceedings live at a link to be posted 15 minutes before the meeting starts, at www.courts.ca.gov/cfac.htm.

Public call-in number: 877-820-7831; pass code: 7004216

Written comments must be emailed before 5 p.m. Wednesday to cfac@jud.ca.gov.

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