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Today’s challenges require fresh thinking

By Sheldon Sloan
President, State Bar of California

Sheldon Sloan

Last month we looked at the strong bench-bar relationship in California and our joint efforts to identify and tackle many of the problems facing our system of justice. As promised, this month I want to look more closely at some innovative, out-of-the-box thinking that may help us achieve some of our goals.

One fresh idea in particular from the courts and the Judicial Council is the idea of a “multi-use” courthouse, a proposal supported by the Governor that would enable the state to partner with private developers to build new courthouses. (See "New approach to courthouse construction.")

Let’s face it: Many of our courthouses are old and in need of replacement or extensive repair. We all know this will take billions of dollars (10 billion, to be more exact) that aren’t just sitting around within the state budget, ready to be accessed. And, as the able Administrative Officer of the Courts, Bill Vickrey, notes, the longer we wait, the higher the price tag will be for new buildings.

Between the state and the 58 counties in California, there are 451 courthouses.  The land value of these sites is immense, and the way to utilize that value to defray the cost of renovation and replacing the courthouses of California is to create “mixed use” or “multi-use” structures.

The “multi-use” courthouse would allow the state to join with private developers so that the courthouse would share building space with commercial operations. There already are samples of this innovative idea in place around the country. In Boise, Idaho, Ada County officials found themselves facing the same problems we face here in California — a 60-year-old courthouse that had too little space, outdated systems from electrical to heating and cooling, and, as a result, safety issues because nothing was even remotely close to the standards of current building codes.

Today, Ada County boasts a five-story courthouse facility that shares a site with courtrooms, holding areas, hearing rooms, offices, retail stores and underground parking. We can also look just north across our border to Oregon for another sample: In Sa-lem, the Marion County Courthouse is part of a square that is called the Courthouse Square Transit Mall. And the same idea is being considered in Kirksville, Mo., where the town square, anchored by the courthouse, would be the vital center of the city.

This is new thinking and, as such, will require all of us to keep our eye on the future and work out the idea as it moves along. No one wants to see the courthouses turned into shopping malls where retail is pre-eminent. And no one wants to create situations where judges, lawyers and courthouse employees are vying with commercial interests for space and resources to carry out their important function.

But at the same time, with the right mix, the multi-use courthouse can provide a state-of-the-art facility without all of the burden falling on the California taxpayer. Consider that the courthouses can provide parking, a variety of places to secure lunch or a mid-morning snack, or perhaps postal or office supplies, all without having to leave the facility and make your way down the street or across town.

As envisioned, the legislature would ultimately give final approval to any deal reached between the state and private developers. The details of that process remain to be worked out, but with some flexibility in thinking, certainly a viable plan with adequate safeguards can be implemented. And also as envisioned, as time goes by and justice needs grow, the courthouse will expand into the commercial-interest areas of the facility, thereby solving new space problems and avoiding additional construction needs any time in the near future.

The important thing for all of us is to continue looking forward and not fall back on the easy, never-get-things-done adage of: It’s never been done this way before. We are living in tough times, especially in budgeting and trying to handle the legal needs of a state fast approaching 40 million. We have all sat down at the table over these past few years — the Governor, the Legislature, the Chief Justice, the Judicial Council and the State Bar — and we have managed to move our system away from the brink of crisis and at least keep it operating, especially in counties whose population has exploded.

Now we must move a further step. We need to continue to talk to each other, work out problems and fashion a workable plan that can help us deliver to all the people of California.

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