Mendocino County has been officially due for a new courthouse for more than 20 years — and unofficially, probably even longer. The superior court facility in Ukiah wasn’t even supposed to be a courthouse in the first place; it was first constructed to house the county’s administrative offices. Part of it was built in the 1920s, the other part in the 1940s, and at some point the decision was made to link the two structures across a courtyard. The problem is that their floors didn’t line up, so the building’s elevators only stop on floors 0, 2, and 4.
“It is not a beautiful thing,” said Kim Turner, Mendocino County’s court executive officer.
But starting this year, Turner’s dreams of an updated courthouse for the county could begin to become reality: earlier this month was the kickoff meeting for a project to build a new 7-courtroom facility in Ukiah.
The new Mendocino County courthouse is one of 13 in-progress capital outlay projects currently being managed by the California Judicial Council — and it’s also one of the courthouse construction and renovation projects that would receive funding under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2022-23 state budget.
That proposal not only includes allocations for the judicial branch’s physical infrastructure, but also sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars for the expansion of remote court access — which, almost two years after the pandemic forced many proceedings online, is set to continue scaling up in the Golden State. On Jan. 1, a new California Rule of Court governing remote courtroom appearances took effect, under which courts can make local rules authorizing remote proceedings in civil cases until at least July 1, 2023.
At the federal policymaking level, infrastructure was the name of the game in 2021. But with pandemic-stalled construction projects getting back underway, and courts ensuring they have the technology to support further increases in remote access, it’s shaping up to be just as high a priority in 2022 for California’s courts.
Pandemic physical infrastructure
As the chief of administration at Riverside County Superior Court, David Gutknecht’s job includes responsibility for the renovation and maintenance issues the court faces on a daily basis. And since COVID-19 hit nearly two years ago, almost no aspect of his job has been left untouched.
Throughout the pandemic, Gutknecht has overseen the installation of physical infrastructure to prevent the spread of the virus in the courthouses: Plexiglas barriers, six-feet-apart markings, easily accessible PPE, and all the rest. That job involved not just the simple procurement of those items, but also the research (and measuring) to maximize their public health value.
“It was a huge challenge trying to maintain social distancing,” Gutknecht said, especially when jurors started coming back to the courthouse. “Riverside’s a pretty big county population-wise — thousands are called in for jury service.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, California’s court budgets — like those for many institutions nationwide — were slashed. But then came a massive budget surplus in the 2021 fiscal year, and an allocation for deferred court maintenance projects statewide. To Gutknecht, this was undoubtedly exciting: three of Riverside’s buildings needed elevator renovations, four needed HVAC maintenance, and others required some attention to the roof. But the sudden cash infusion came with its own challenges, he said.
“It takes time to get those rolled out,” he said of those projects. “When you’re going from when you can’t do anything, and then there’s funding, it takes a while to get these things going.”
And now that those projects are back underway, a familiar economic effect of the pandemic has thrown a wrench into their completion: slowdowns in supply chains. Blaine Corren, a spokesperson for the California Judicial Council, said in an email that supply chain issues also affected the ongoing construction projects that the Council oversees, as shipments of materials have been delayed. In addition, Corren said, “labor productivity rates have been slowed due to various factors including COVID protocols for ensuring a safe workplace, quarantining of exposed workers, labor loss due to infected workers, and general scarcity of available labor.”
Those issues also manifest in day-to-day maintenance issues, Gutknecht said. He recalled that when a boiler in the court’s family law courthouse in Riverside was broken, it was a challenge locating replacement parts for it. A few months later, in the middle of summer — a notoriously hot season in Riverside — the air conditioning went down, and facilities staff had to scramble to find a new one.
“Supply chain issues have definitely slowed things down,” Gutknecht said. “For some of these projects on our list, we’ve been waiting for months on the parts. It’s had an impact.”
Scaling up virtual infrastructure
With courts’ widespread adoption of remote services in response to the pandemic, of course, maintaining physical infrastructure is only half the battle — a fact of which Tim Cool, Riverside County Superior Court’s chief of information technology, is all too aware.
The court had already been working on implementing remote technologies before the pandemic, and was able to transition fairly easily once shelter-in-place orders were issued in March 2020. Still, Cool says, not all parties have quite gotten used to the new system, even nearly two years later.
“It has to do with what the judges are comfortable with,” Cool said. “You have the sensitivities of some judges — and attorneys — who don’t want their faces on camera. Attorneys who think, ‘My client can’t get a fair shake unless they’re in person.’ There are push-and-pulls on that.”
But, for the time being, remote appearances are here to stay. Gov. Newsom signed SB 241 into law last September, creating new Code of Civil Procedure section 367.75, which authorizes remote appearances in civil conferences, hearings, and other court proceedings until at least July 1, 2023. A committee of the California Judicial Council then developed new California Rule of Court, rule 3.672 to implement the new statute, which became effective Jan. 1.
Newsom’s proposed budget also includes $33.2 million annually for two years, and $1.6 million annually afterward, to implement and support remote access to court proceedings, including the provision of a publicly accessible audio stream for every courthouse in the state.
Improving audio is one of Cool’s top priorities for Riverside County Superior Court in 2022. The court’s IT department is currently upgrading all courtrooms so that the audio integrates with Zoom — the platform the court uses for remote proceedings — as well as in the physical courtroom.
“That’s more complicated than it sounds,” Cool said.
The facilities services and information technology offices at the Judicial Council are also collaborating on expanding California courts’ remote access infrastructure, Corren said, and have been “exceptionally busy” doing so throughout the pandemic. Some of the new technologies those offices are exploring for possible future implementation include holographic video calls and improved audiovisual systems “that simulate the in-person aspect of communication.”
“The Judicial Council has several ongoing efforts to incorporate the lessons learned from the pandemic,” Corren said. “As these processes become more refined the standards will be revised and adjusted.”
Such technology could bring about Cool’s ultimate vision for remote court services in Riverside. “In a perfect world, you’d feel like you’re sitting in the courtroom,” he said. “We’re not there, I don’t know if we’ll ever be there. That is the ultimate goal for me from a technology standpoint.”
But in the meantime, Cool said, courts should take advantage of this moment to build on the virtual infrastructure that the pandemic necessitated.
“I feel like this has been the fork in the road,” he said.
‘The jewel in the crown’
Despite the expansion of California courts’ remote services, physical courthouses aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. That’s evidenced by the 13 in-progress projects that the California Judicial Council is currently managing across the state to renovate old courthouses or build new ones.
Corren, the Judicial Council spokesperson, said that the size and scope of a courthouse is determined by a variety of factors, including case load, jury assembly, and in-custody holding. It’s possible that expanding remote services could alter how much of those needs should be met by physical infrastructure, which Corren said the Judicial Council will continue to monitor.
“The Judicial Council has several ongoing efforts to incorporate the lessons learned from the pandemic into future processes, which effect courthouse function and ultimately the size and scope of the needed facility,” he said.
The list of the Judicial Council’s ongoing capital outlay projects includes a $6 billion “master plan” for Los Angeles County that’s expected to add 195 new courtrooms. Two of the ongoing projects are in Riverside County: one is to build a new 85,000-square-foot courthouse in Menifee that will replace a 52-year-old facility in Hemet, which the Judicial Council says is “overcrowded, substandard in size, and physically deficient.” The other is to build a new juvenile and family courthouse in Indio, whose five courtrooms will provide for one new judgeship. Both of those projects broke ground earlier this month.
And several of the projects are located in California’s less densely populated rural areas — such as the plans to build the long-awaited new Mendocino County courthouse in Ukiah.
Turner, the Mendocino court executive officer, notes that the expansion of remote services during the pandemic greatly increased the opportunity for public court access in the county, especially because it has “virtually no public transportation.”
There’s one bus that goes from the north end of the county to the south end, which is 100 miles end to end. Most of the business in the county is concentrated in the bottom twenty miles — including the courthouse in Ukiah. For folks that live north of the town of Willits, Turner said, “it’s really challenging if you don’t have a car to get to the courthouse.”
There were occasional broadband and connectivity issues for court users in the rural county, and the court had to develop workarounds. But for the most part, Turner said, remote access has increased the court’s ability to hold hearings with litigants and witnesses who wouldn’t have been able to make it to the courthouse in the past.
Still, these strides in remote access have not in any way diminished Turner’s eagerness for the new physical facility in Ukiah.
Mendocino County was originally slated for a new courthouse in the early 2000s, to be paid for with a trust fund created by the Legislature for trial court funding. But when the 2008 recession hit, the Legislature needed that money for more pressing funding concerns, and the project was delayed. It wasn’t until California trial courts’ facilities program came under the management of the Judicial Council that the plans for the new courthouse got back on track.
“This has been twenty years coming,” Turner said. The current building has lead and asbestos, and “all the wrong building materials.” The fact that the elevators don’t go to every floor presents an ADA problem, and for a county of Mendocino’s size, there’s no need for a courthouse that’s five stories high anyway. “We can have a much shorter building, two floors, where it’s much easier to navigate and move people around,” Turner said.
There’s a lot more on Turner’s wish list for the new courthouse: a more open floor plan that isn’t the current “rabbit warren,” ergonomic furniture, LEED certification, an “inviting, calm space” for the public to enter. She’d like to rearrange the clerks’ offices so that clerks for all case types — criminal, civil, family, and probate — are all working near each other, and can better share resources.
The new courthouse has been a long time coming, and it could be years before it finally comes to fruition. But Turner has spent 45 years working in the California court system. She’s not going anywhere until she sees a courthouse in Ukiah whose floors align.
“I want to stick around and see this courthouse get built,” Turner said. “This would be the jewel in the crown for me.”