Chief Justice Speech - December 12, 2008


Good morning. It is a great pleasure to be here to celebrate the beginning of a new courthouse facility for Contra Costa County. I want to thank Judge Terence Bruniers for inviting me. His term as Presiding Judge ends this month, so it is a fitting time to acknowledge his hard work and leadership in developing this project during his service. And he, of course, was building on the fine work of his predecessor as Presiding Judge, Thomas Maddock. Both of them have been instrumental in moving this project forward—and I have no doubt that the incoming Presiding Judge, Mary Ann O'Malley, will continue this tradition of excellent service to the community. Their work has been very ably assisted by Court Executive Officer Kiri Torre.

For many reasons, the construction of this new courthouse is an historic event. Not only has it been designed to meet the needs of the community in terms of number of courtrooms, lobby space, security, jury assembly space, and similar important elements of a well-functioning courthouse, it also has been designed to include numerous "green" features in furtherance of the judicial branch's commitment to ensuring that our court facilities do their part in efforts to improve the environment. It is anticipated that this structure will receive silver certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design from the United States Green Building Council, once completed. But keeping up with the latest environmental standards is only one important achievement to consider.

The new facility will replace a courthouse that no longer was capable of meeting the needs of the community. The existing building was not designed as a courthouse and is more than 55 years old. One of its five courtrooms is fashioned from a jury assembly room. It suffers from numerous life and safety, security, physical access and other problems. And there are dozens more like it among the 451 courthouses in communities across California: unsafe and inadequate facilities that put at risk everyone who enters them—those who work there or appear as a litigant, juror, witness, or person seeking a document.

So what makes else this facility unique? A little history is necessary. When I became Chief Justice in 1996, trial courts essentially were funded by their local county. The service provided by courts varied tremendously across the state, and in some counties the fiscal situation was dire—so poor, in fact, that in my first year as Chief Justice I had to appeal to the Legislature for emergency funds to ensure that courts remained open, were able to continue providing core services, and retained essential staff. Starting in 1998, however, following the enactment of legislation the previous year, the state began funding the trial courts.

As Chief Justice, I Chair the Judicial Council, the constitutionally created entity charged with the statewide oversight of the court system. The Administrative Office of the Courts, led by its very able Director William Vickrey, and Chief Deputy Ron Overholt, provides the support and services necessary to implement the Council's policies. The Council was given the responsibility to administer its new resources, and has done so with continuing focus on improving access and fairness for all those who need the services of the courts.

Soon after the adoption of state funding, the people of California overwhelmingly adopted a constitutional amendment allowing the two-tiered trial court system—with municipal and superior courts in each county—to unify into a single level of superior court in each county upon a vote of the local judges. Within a few years, courts in every locale had decided to do so, and more than 220 trial courts became 58 superior courts, one in each county. This allowed more effective and efficient use of all resources, judicial and other. Broad-based planning to meet statewide needs became possible. Best practices and information-sharing became the norm.

Courthouses, however, remained in the hands of the counties. And California's economy remained volatile. Stretched to provide health care, fire and police protection, libraries, and other services, it is not surprising that county boards of supervisors—now that courts themselves had become the responsibility of the state—did not view court facilities as high on the list of their priorities. Some counties continued to repair them and even built new courthouses—but many simply could not.

The Legislature enacted a bill to permit the state to purchase court facilities from the counties, to be managed by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Council's staff arm. The transfer of facilities got off to a slow start as it became apparent that many buildings were in far worse seismic shape than anticipated. But after some additional legislation to allocate potential liability in the event of damage from earthquakes, the transfer process greatly accelerated—and we anticipate that by the end of this year more than 300 court facilities will have been transferred to state ownership and judicial branch management.

This new facility will be the very first trial court project funded entirely by state trial court construction funds. The original funding in the State Budget Act of 2005 provided for a four-room courthouse. As need grew, the original plans were augmented in the Budget Act of 2006 to add another 3 courtrooms, for a total of 7.

The site for the project was selected after substantial involvement by representatives from a variety of constituencies in the community. They considered several locations in the eastern part of the county, but concluded that remaining in Pittsburg was the best course of action. This facility will remain as part of an existing government center, and will help anchor future redevelopment. It is convenient to our justice system partners, and within walking distance of a future light-rail station. In short, it has strong ties to the past—but is firmly grounded in the future of Contra Costa County.

This could not, of course, be accomplished without the cooperation of many individuals in the community and at the state level. For example, the site is the product of a no-cost property exchange agreement between the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Pittsburg and the State. Pittsburg also will be providing additional parking nearby. The process, as well as the result, are excellent examples of how collaboration can make an enormous difference in the success of a project. And with us here today are Pittsburg's Mayor, Nancy Parent, and Federal Glover, Chair of the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors.

I also want to commend the efforts of the Administrative Office of the Courts' Office of Court Construction and Management, or OCCM. Led initially by Kim Davis, and then by Lee Willoughby, who has been serving as Interim Director, the OCCM—including Pearl Freeman, who performed much of the hands-on oversight of the project—provided crucial guidance in bringing about this project.

They and their colleagues have their work cut out for them for many years to come. At the end of the last legislative session, the Governor approved SB 1407, authored by departing President pro Tem of the California Senate, Don Perata, which provides for $5 billion in revenue-bonds to fund 41 of the 68 most urgent courthouse construction projects in our state. This measure will not take any money from the state's beleaguered general fund but instead will be paid for by court users through a variety of new fees and fines. At the same time, it will create thousands of jobs by pumping $5 billion into California's economy to build infrastructure.

Beyond the green certification, the historic funding, and the wonderful example of collaboration that has been set, there is yet another significant factor worth mentioning. This courthouse will be named for Judge Richard Arnason, retired Superior Court Judge of Contra Costa County, who is with us today. He received his law degree from U.C. Berkeley Boalt School of Law in 1945, was appointed to the bench in 1963 by Governor Edmund (Pat) Brown. After 31 years of service, he retired from the bench in December 1994. As Chief Justice, I have the authority to appoint retired judges to sit on assignment to meet local needs caused by vacancies, illnesses, insufficient judicial resources, and other reasons. Judge Arnason did not truly retire—he immediately began accepting assignments to sit in the Contra Costa County Superior Court.

I have known Judge Arnason for many years—and am well aware that he has long been highly respected and considered one of California's most knowledgeable judges in the area of criminal law, and as one of the most hard-working. Many lawyers and judges have gone to him for guidance and advice, and he has given freely of his expertise.

His career on the bench has included many cases of substantial public interest, and he consistently has conducted himself and his courtroom with care and composure, as well as the highest ethical standards. Among his high-profile cases, he presided over the murder-kidnapping trial of Angela Davis in 1971. As an assigned judge, he ruled in People v. Marlborough that Proposition 184 left intact a judge's discretion to strike prior felony convictions and to reduce felonies to misdemeanors in sentencing—a view later adopted by the California Supreme Court.

In fiscal year 2007-2008, Judge Arnason sat as an assigned judge for 246 days—more days than almost any other judge in the pool of approximately 380 retired judges who serve on assignment.

The naming of this court facility honors an individual who, during his career as a leading jurist and distinguished public servant, has provided enduring benefits to the people of Contra Costa—and to the people of the entire State of California. He is a person truly dedicated and committed to the rule of law and to the fair administration of justice. Naming this facility for Judge Arnason is most fitting, because it sets an exemplary standard for all those who enter the courthouse in pursuit of justice.

I am very pleased to be part of this historic celebration. I congratulate Judge Arnason on this recognition of his exceptional career on the bench—and express the appreciation of California's entire judicial system to all those who worked so hard and successfully on this project. I look forward to visiting it again upon its completion.

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