Chief Justice Speech - October 21, 2004

OCTOBER 21, 2004

Good afternoon. I want to thank Douglas Miller, Presiding Judge of the Riverside County Superior Court, for his invitation to participate in this historic transfer of the Larsen Justice Center from county to state stewardship.

Judge Miller recently became a member of the Judicial Council, the constitutionally created entity charged with setting statewide policy for the courts, which, as Chief Justice, I chair. In that capacity, as well as in his previous service on various Judicial Council committees and task forces, Judge Miller has made great contributions to the administration of justice in our state - as have many other judges, lawyers, and court administrators from Riverside County.

The county administration of Riverside also has been a strong supporter of the courts and the administration of justice. It is thus fitting that this first transfer of a court facility from county responsibility to a state responsibility under the governance of the Judicial Council is taking place in this county.

Soon after I became Chief Justice in May 1996, I embarked on a journey that took me to the courts of every county in California within a 12-month period. My goal was to hear first-hand from judges, court staff, lawyers, and community leaders their concerns, interests, and aspirations concerning the administration of justice in our state. During my visits, I learned an enormous amount from the individuals I encountered - but I also learned a great deal from observing the physical settings in which those meetings were held.

Many courthouses in California were - and are - in deplorable condition. Some were unsafe in the event of a moderate earthquake. Others had no jury rooms - in fact, in 2 courthouses that I visited, the only place for jurors to wait - and recall that at the time they were required to be present for up to 2 weeks at a time - was on concrete steps in a stairwell. In many places, prisoners were transported through clerk's offices or through public hallways on the way to court.

In one courthouse, the judge had erected piles of books around his bench. It turned out this was not a testament to his love of research, but a response to a hostage crisis in his courtroom a few years before. Because there were no funds for a bullet-proof shield to protect him on the bench, he used the books at hand for that purpose. I have to confess that I was relieved to find out they were case reports from the federal courts rather than the reported decisions of the California Supreme Court.

In other courthouses, inadequate security puts everyone - judges, lawyers, staff and litigants - at risk. In many facilities, wiring is unsuitable for today's internet-based information systems. Mold in some courthouses has rendered them unusable, and exterminator services are an all-too-frequent necessity in others.

These problems persist. Jury rooms and safe transport for in-custody defendants still are lacking in a large number of courthouse facilities. 68 percent of courthouse have inadequate security. 78 percent do not have adequate access for individuals with disabilities. More than 23 court facilities remain housed in trailers.

Some changes have been made. For example, just a few weeks ago I attended the dedication of a new juvenile court facility in San Bernardino. When I first visited that county's courts in 1997, I described the existing juvenile facility as the worst one I had seen in California. The county and the court cooperated to produce an excellent home for the juvenile court and related services. Some progress has been made in parts of California - but far from enough.

During the past 8 years, California's court system has undergone unprecedented change. Trial courts formerly were financed in large part by the counties, with a portion of the needed resources supplied by the state. Because of disparities in resources among the counties - and often dependent upon the local court's relationship with the board of supervisors - court services and access to justice varied greatly within California. With state financing, we have made great advances in ensuring financial stability for the courts, as well as in providing equal access for all, in every part of the state.

The next great step in court reform was the unification of the trial courts, reducing 220 courts to 58, one in each county. This permitted more efficient use of resources, and courts have been able both to better weather fiscal shortfalls and to plan and implement improved services for the public.

After court funding became a state responsibility, it made sense to consider where in the state governance-equation the responsibility for courthouses should lie. Now that counties no longer are fiscally responsible for court services, their interest in maintaining and improving court facilities lost much of its urgency - and understandably so.

The competing demands for county resources, particularly in a time of statewide financial difficulties, often places courthouse needs far down on the list of projects. As a result, courts have encountered problems ranging from deferred maintenance to the clearly documented need for new structures.

After state funding and unification became a reality, our system turned its attention to court facilities as the next logical step for permitting courts to effectively manage their resources across the board. The Judicial Council formed a Task Force on Court Facilities, with members drawn from the courts, county supervisors, sheriffs, state administrators, and the state bar. They studied the 451 courthouse facilities in our state, and fully documented the condition of each. In 2001, the task force recommended that the state assume full ownership and maintenance responsibility for all court facilities.

This vision was codified in the Trial Courts Facilities Act of 2002, sponsored by Senator Martha Escutia, which provided the structure for moving stewardship of California's courts from the counties to the state. This new approach to facilities is integral to our goal of establishing a strong, independent, and effective judicial branch - because it will permit the judicial branch to manage these vital physical resources in the most effective way to meet public needs.

The process already has begun. The 2002 enactment confers ultimate responsibility and policy-making over trial court facilities to the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council's staff arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts, lead by its energetic and effective Director Bill Vickrey - who is here today with Ron Overholt, the Chief Deputy Director, Sheila Gonzalez, Southern Regional Director, Kim Davis, Director of the Office of Court Construction and Management, and other staff - has developed the last-mentioned office to administer the transfers and building programs necessary to realize the changes in responsibility, and to effectively discharge our obligations in this major endeavor.

The 2002 Trial Courts Facilities Act specifically charged the AOC with carrying out the Judicial Council's policies regarding trial court facilities, developing plans to be submitted for Council review concerning renovations, restoration, and new construction, overseeing construction of new facilities, and, ultimately, appropriately delegating responsibility and authority to each local court for its facilities.

What will it take to make this transfer happen? Two funding mechanisms, neither of which rely upon the state's general fund, are key. The first is the Trial Court Facilities Fund, created from dedicated filing fees. The next will be a bond measure, which we expect to be on the ballot in 2006, and for which we urge your support.

Today, we are here to mark the first transfer of a court facility from a county to the Judicial Council's oversight. The Larson Justice Center, which I have visited before, is an excellent candidate for this historic occasion. It has not escaped the Council's notice, of course, that it is one of California's nicest courthouses - and we are happy to begin on such a high note.

The Larson Justice Center contains a sophisticated electronic system, including security and alarm systems; has the capacity to manage video arraignments; offers computer presentation systems; and houses fully functional courtrooms and jury assembly areas. The tunnel connecting the courthouse to the Riverside County Jail allows in-custody defendants to be transported directly between the jail and the courthouse, where there is secure circulation to individual courtrooms.

This facility also contains another feature that is symbolic of the judicial branch's efforts to benefit the public. One of our major goals has been improving access to justice for all persons. These efforts have taken many forms. One pressing need has been providing guidance to self-represented litigants who cannot afford or otherwise obtain counsel to assist them.

The judicial branch has worked on statewide and local levels with bar associations, community groups, service providers, and others to make access to the courts meaningful to thousands of individuals who otherwise could not vindicate their rights because of barriers caused by language, education, disability, or economic circumstance.

The Larson Justice Center is the home to a Legal Self-Help Center, launched in May of this year. Through touch-screen technology, litigants can review case information, obtain and complete legal forms on-line, and utilize on-site bilingual assistance. A task force considering the needs of self-represented litigants is developing a statewide action plan intended to better serve this constituency. And the AOC has created an award-winning on-line Self-Help Center, available in both English and Spanish, and in part in other selected languages, that now receives more than 3 million website hits each month.

Other counties, including Fresno and Nevada, have centers similar to Riverside's, and other courts are experimenting with a range of tools to provide meaningful assistance and to meet the public's needs.

As responsibility for court facilities is transferred to the judicial branch, we will be better able to use the information gleaned from the experiences of courts across the state to help local courts fashion programs responsive to the needs of their communities.

The courts of our state are the ultimate guardians of the rule of law. They help protect the rights of all, and offer to all an impartial forum in which their disputes can be fairly and justly determined, free of improper influence or pressure.

Buildings are more than mere physical settings. They signal how we value what is transacted inside. Courts do not need or want ornamentation or ostentation in their quarters. But courts - and the public - do deserve buildings in which the business of administering justice can be transacted effectively, efficiently, and with appropriate dignity.

This first transfer fittingly is of a courthouse that shows how that can be achieved. Whether it is in its facilities for jurors, the services for the unrepresented, or the means provided for transporting in-custody defendants, this courthouse shows us how it can be done and how it should be done.

The transfer that we celebrate today is an auspicious first step of the many to follow that will allow us to reach the goal of housing courts in facilities that respect and enhance the administration of justice and the public whom we all serve.

It has been a great pleasure to participate in this occasion. Once again, thank you for inviting me to be a part of this historic and important event.

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