No one said the cost of justice is cheap

Sacramento Superior Court judges are eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.
Sacramento Superior Court judges are eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe. aseng@sacbee.com

The Sacramento County Courthouse, built in 1965 when barely 600,000 people lived in the county, had a good run.

As The Bee’s Darrell Smith reported last week, Sacramento Superior Court judges are focused on building a new courthouse, and are seeking the California Judicial Council’s help. The council must decide whether to authorize a stand-alone 53-courtroom courthouse, or build a smaller courthouse and remodel the existing one.

In the Sacramento judges’ view and in ours, there is no question that it’s past time to say goodbye to the Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse in downtown Sacramento, in favor of a new building to be constructed directly north of the existing federal courthouse in the railyard.

Once the Judicial Council renders its decision, as early as Wednesday, architects can draw final plans. With the plans in hand, the Sacramento judges can set about seeking funding, no small hurdle.

The price tag for the 538,000-square-foot building envisioned by the judges is considerable, $500 million. The state presumably would pay for it out of the general fund or a bond. The cost would be only slightly less than a new 71-courtroom San Diego County courthouse approved by the Legislature in 2013.

An alternative would be to construct a somewhat smaller building and refurbish the existing courthouse. Although the construction costs are similar, the cost of operating two courthouses would be far higher, requiring duplication of utility costs, janitorial services, security and maintenance. Over the 25-year life of a new project, having two courthouses could add $233 million in costs.

The current courthouse was intended to house 22 courtrooms. Over the years, another 22 were added. Additional courtrooms are located in various parts of the county. In a new courthouse, traffic, juvenile dependency and juvenile delinquency, and other functions could be consolidated, providing added efficiency. Among the problems with the existing structure: There is no fire suppression equipment above the first floor, and defendants must walk down public hallways in shackles, past jurors, witnesses and victims.

If the new courthouse proceeds, and clearly there is a need, the state and city must find an appropriate use for the existing courthouse. Sacramento doesn’t need another hole in the ground or boarded-up building.

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the area and supports a single courthouse, envisions turning the existing courthouse building into a college campus. That’d be a fitting reuse for the outdated and cramped courthouse that was named for one of Sacramento’s most renowned educators, the late dean of McGeorge School of Law.