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Discussions set for long awaited new Sacramento courthouse

Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.
Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly compares his courthouse to the ramshackle ride of his youth, a hand-painted bright orange 1952 Chevrolet sedan with a sofa subbing in for a back seat, that had long seen better days.

“This is the worst car I’ve ever owned,” Connelly said of downtown Sacramento’s aging Gordon Schaber Courthouse. “I had a ’52 Chevy. It caught on fire. That car was still better than this courthouse.”

Connelly – flanked by other court judges – got laughs all around. But there is frustration behind the laughter, with concerns ranging from overflow jury accommodations and overtaxed elevators to tight-squeeze courtrooms designed a half-century ago. Those concerns combine with others including fire safety – no sprinklers exist above the courthouse’s second floor – and physical safety for the estimated 2,500 to 4,500 people who use the courthouse each day. All are oft-lamented issues stemming from the courthouse’s crowded confines and advancing age.


“Empirically, the need is there,” Connelly said. “It’s past time. It’s two decades past time.”

Now, Sacramento Superior Court leaders eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe will sit down Wednesday with the state Judicial Council’s court facilities advisory committee in San Francisco to hash out options for a new building in downtown Sacramento.

Things have changed, technology has changed. The way we do business now is totally different than how we did business in the 1960s (when Schaber was built). The biggest thing we lack is space.

Debbie Moynier, facilities manager, Sacramento Superior Court’s courthouse

Three ideas will be on the table. Two combine major renovations to the 50-year-old Gordon Schaber Courthouse at 720 Ninth St., with the construction of either a 44- or 33-courtroom criminal courthouse on H Street between Fifth and Sixth streets on the southeastern fringe of the old Southern Pacific railyard.

Sacramento is most interested in one, however: a “unified” 538,000-square-foot, 53-courtroom courthouse on H Street between Fifth and Sixth streets that would house its busy criminal and civil calendars under one roof – a project that Superior Court officials have roughed out at about $493 million.

“This landmark project … has been stalled long enough,” Sacramento Superior Court officials said in a letter dated Jan. 21 that laid out the three project options while making a pitch for a solitary courthouse. “It’s time to address the longstanding unsafe conditions and build a single, new courthouse that makes the most fiscal and operational sense.”

Judge Robert Hight, Sacramento Superior Court’s retiring presiding judge, said the committee may be able to approve an option on its own, though it may go to the larger Judicial Council. Plans have been on the board for years, most recently stalled by budget cuts and recession; however, the land for a new site has been purchased and the state approved project design funding in its 2014-15 fiscal year budget.

Either way, Hight says Wednesday’s meeting is an important step in the future of project.

“Without this, we’re not going anywhere,” Hight said.

The Schaber courthouse, named for the late longtime dean of McGeorge School of Law and Sacramento Superior Court judge, was envisioned as a courthouse built for the future when it opened its doors in 1965. The new building’s 22 courtrooms shared a roof with the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, as well as probation and court reporters’ offices. But growing population and caseload required the offices to move out of 720 Ninth St. in the 1970s and 1980s to make way for 22 more courtrooms.

Court officials say the 44-courtroom downtown courthouse has been marked by growing pains ever since.

A planned downtown justice complex went by the boards as far back as the mid-1980s, undone by an inability to secure construction funding. By October 2008, Sacramento Superior Court was listed in a Judicial Council of California report naming high-priority trial court construction projects.

Four years later, in 2012, the Sacramento court again made its case in a lengthy report to a court facilities working group citing the issues echoed by judges and other court officials in interviews this week: security deficiencies, overcrowding, the building’s physical condition and access to court services.

Pick a spot, it seems, and issues are easy to see.

Courtrooms? The average size trial courtroom is 1,100 square feet and less than 30 feet wide, say court officials, much smaller than the modern standard of 1,600 to 2,400 square feet. More multiple-defendant cases means facilities staff has to haul furniture in and out of court to accommodate the extra parties.

Jury assembly? The courthouse’s second-floor assembly room seats 145 people. Another 200 seats are on the floor’s mezzanine. But with 400 first-day jurors at the courthouse daily, Meredith Bostian, Sacramento Superior Court director of civil operations, said, “Lines back up, people get frustrated. That space is insufficient for the numbers of jurors we support. There is no place else for us to expand into. We are full up and then some.”

Holding cells? The courthouse’s 12 cells hold 70 in-custody defendants – the daily average is nearly twice that, say court officials – and many more cells are needed to separate in-custodys by classifications that range from gender to gang affiliation, and to allow them time and space to meet with their legal counsel, said Dave Torgerson, Sacramento County sheriff’s chief deputy for support services, which handles security at the county’s courthouses.

“We have been struggling,” said the courthouse’s facilities manager, Debbie Moynier. “There’s a whole bunch of issues with the building. We’ve struggled with overcrowding for some time. The congestion is tough to work around.”

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith

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