For the first time in nearly a century, it was a moving day Thursday at Yolo Superior Court, with judges, clerks and other court personnel leaving its stately marble-and-frescoed address on – where else – Court Street for the sleek, new Yolo County Courthouse at 1000 Main St., in Woodland’s downtown.
The move to the five-story, $161 million, 163,000-square-foot facility was one the Yolo bench has envisioned for years, long before state lawmakers approved billions of dollars in bonds at the end of the last decade to build and renovate California’s courthouses. Historic and architecturally imposing, the long-standing courthouse also showed its age in its cramped corridors, its lack of accommodations for the physically challenged, and the daily procession of shackled inmates shepherded down its crowded hallways.
“For the first time in 50 years, we function like a courthouse is supposed to function,” said Presiding Yolo Superior Court Judge Kathleen M. White, who oversaw the courthouse project. “There are restrooms. There are places to sit. Security is the primary benefit, but so is convenience for customers. This is a space that respects the dignity of the court and it’s going to be here for the next 150 years.”
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Yolo Superior Court will continue its move to Main Street through Aug. 28, but public service windows and the Family Law Facilitator/Self-Help Center will be open at the new courthouse from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. starting Monday. A drop box is also available at the ADA entrance of the historic courthouse, 725 Court St.
The court will be fully operational at the new location Aug. 31, White said. But the improvements are already visible.
The family law center and banks of public service windows are among them, along with a first-floor jury assembly room that seats as many as 200 prospective jurors and larger deliberation rooms for trial jurors. Outside, nearby parking lots replace the jockeying for street parking that marked a day at the old courthouse. Yolo Superior Court’s 14 departments, for years in seven facilities scattered across town, are under one roof. And, perhaps most significant, a basement holding facility secures as many as 140 inmates. Gone are the chain gangs. Secure elevators transport the in-custody to hearings and trial.
This is a gift to our children and for many generations, that they know how much we value justice. This isn’t about having nice offices for judges or for clerks, this is about having a courthouse that reflects the dignity of the law and the importance of justice in our society.
Yolo Superior Court Judge Kathleen M. White
Open, airy and spacious, with its naturally lit, atrium-like entryway, the new building’s main entrance was bathed in light even on a hazy late Thursday morning. Downstairs at the new Main Street address, court clerks were resuming their work among the boxes, files and plywood sheets covering the tile walkways. Court staffers have been moving their desks on their own since Monday.
Upstairs, White unpacked her new office, dodging movers and even more boxes in the hallways.
A self-described “corporate brat” – her father’s career in radio equipment moved their family more than 50 times by her count – for White, a big move is nothing new, but she doesn’t underestimate the effort needed to move dozens of staffers, tons of case files, and Superior Court departments scattered across town along with coordinating with a handful of other agencies that do business with the court – all to prepare for the hundreds who visit Yolo Superior Court each day.
“Imagine moving 14 departments, over 100 people. There are others who work in the courthouse but aren’t court employees – security, police, probation,” White said. “It’s the sequencing, the logistics. You need a consultant.”
State lawmakers in 2008 approved $5 billion in bonds to build and renovate courthouses across California, but by 2012, hundreds of millions of dollars in court construction funds were being moved to fund trial court operations, state Judicial Council officials estimated, indefinitely stalling a number of projects. Yolo’s courts project escaped the funding shuffle, however. The state approved $134 million in construction bonds for a new Yolo courthouse that year and Woodland officials expedited project design and sale of the land to the state.
The historic courthouse on Court Street, White said, was “a beautiful, charming courthouse that was built for two courtrooms ... We have 14 now.”
It’s a bittersweet acknowledgment for the people who practiced law on Court Street, including Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig, who said time and the needs of a growing county ultimately demanded a new site.
“In reality, as beautiful as the old courthouse was, it was just not big enough to accommodate a growing county. It’s not safe – we had chain gangs going up and down the hallways,” Reisig said. The new downtown courthouse, he said, is “modern, consolidated, high-tech. Hopefully, it will take us another 100 years. It’s time to write some new chapters in criminal justice.”