Thursday, June 6, 2019
Jurists in Van Nuys Allege Neglect on the Part of Judicial Council; Defender Counters That Money Can’t Be Spent That Hasn’t Been Allocated, Blames Legislature
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
There are courthouses in Los Angeles County and elsewhere in the state in critical need of repair but, as some judges see it, the Judicial Council is dawdling in causing the fix-up work.
One judge in Van Nuys, who doesn’t want to be identified, tells of asbestos problems, chambers being quarantined, and ceilings collapsing, commenting that the Judicial Council “is simply not keeping up its courthouses” and asserting that there is “an ongoing pattern that doesn’t seem to be addressed.”
The judge insists: “It’s not OK.”
Another bench officer, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Dohi, who sits in the Van Nuys West Courthouse, relates:
“We have been told repeatedly that help is on the way.”
But, he laments, it hasn’t arrived.
He says with reference to the Judicial Council, and to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who heads it:
“Ultimately, the outfit she runs has some explaining to do. I would hope that she addresses it.”
Cantil-Sakauye declines to comment.
However, a defender of the Judicial Council staff (formerly known as the Administrative Office of the Courts) provides an assurance that all is being done that can be done to keep courthouses in repair, given the inadequate funding of the Judicial Branch, and points to the shoddy state many of the buildings were in when the state assumed ownership of them in recent years.
That defender is Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger, vice chair of the Judicial Council’s Trial Court Facility Modification Advisory Committee. He told the MetNews yesterday that the Judicial Council staff recently approved two related heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (“HVAC”) rehabilitation projects for Van Nuys East and West courthouses, and the authorizations were ratified May 17 by the Superior Court’s Trial Court Facility Modification Advisory Committee.
On Jan. 29 of last year, it was found that a water pipe had burst over the weekend at the Van Nuys East Courthouse, 6230 Sylmar Ave., with the facility being flooded from the fourth floor down to the basement. The courthouse was closed, with its operations being temporarily shifted to the Van Nuys West Courthouse, across the plaza, at 14400 Erwin Street.
That much has been publicly reported. The judge who prefers not to be named discloses what has not been publicized: that the gushing of water from the fourth floor jury room persisted for hours, with the weight causing “the ceiling to collapse, releasing asbestos.”
Photographs show signs that were posted by authorities, one warning of asbestos and another of “bacterial hazard” contamination.
Above is a warning posted at the Van Nuys East Courthouse following a flood there last year.
Also posted was a warning of biohazards.
The jurist contends that the “Judicial Council has taken a position that its buildings will ‘run to failure,’ ” with necessary repairs not being made.
“In the meantime,” the judge remarks, “we are dealing with filth and biohazards.”
Normality Not Restored
Despite a Feb. 20, 2018 reopening of the Van Nuys East Courthouse, there has not been a return to normalcy.
There are judicial officers who were displaced from their courtrooms who have yet not been able to return to them. Some of the warning signs posted after the shutdown of the Van Nuys East facility are still up and the second floor remains quarantined.
Deputy district attorneys who were routed from the east facility to the west last year are—more than 14 months later—crammed in a former courtroom. The anonymous judge says that the deputy DAs “have nowhere to interview witnesses” and discloses that one resigned in light of the conditions.
Deputy district attorneys are crowded in a single office in the Van Nuys West Courthouse 14 months after flooding in the Van Nuys East Courthouse destroyed their office there, with judges questioning why it is taking so long for the Judicial Council, which oversees the courthouses, to effect needed repairs.
One day last month, the unnamed judge advises, “all the elevators failed in the East building” and judges assigned there “were planning on calling cases in the West building and doubling up in courtrooms.”
Before that could happen, however, a pipe burst in the West Courthouse and, the judge says, “five floors are partially quarantined.”
The Judicial Council has “given preventative maintenance short shrift,” Dohi charges, saying that many of the problems that have arisen “could have been avoided” through such measures as “checking out pipes” and “examining pneumatic controls.”
Dohi, a director of the watchdog Alliance of California Judges, declares that his group is “very concerned that there are problems with courthouses up and down the state.” He recounts that when the state assumed ownership of county court facilities, “it assumed responsibility for these buildings.”
Pursuant to the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002, 532 local court facilities were transferred to the state. That occurred gradually, between October 2004 and December 2009.
Dohi contends that acute structural problems exist not only in Van Nuys but also at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center (Criminal Courts Building) in downtown Los Angeles and in the courthouse in Compton.
As for the situation in Van Nuys, he reports that just this week, the sixth floor, where he’s stationed, has had an elevator out of order at one end and machines drying the floor at the other end.
Dohi says that temperatures in the two courthouses alternately climb above 80 degrees and drop below 55 degrees, both in areas that are public and private. While it’s “freezing” in his chambers, it will be “boiling” in the chambers next door, he reports.
Hot, Cold Problem
A third judge in Van Nuys also alludes to the bouncing from severe heat to harsh cold, pointing out:
“There are no thermostats in the individual courtrooms or offices, so nothing is adjustable. We just have to live with whatever temperature extremes are thrust upon us. We are constantly being told that repairs are on the way, the next part or parts are on order, but it is all stopgap and inadequate. The problem is systemic.”
The judge adds:
“And the elevators, including the judges’, staff, freight, and custody elevators are on the fritz several times per week, causing dislocation and, as to the custody elevators, security issues. They need to be removed and replaced once and for all. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.
“The building is a mess.”
The judge says the supervising judge in Van Nuys, Huey Cotton, “is doing everything he can to address the issues in a smart and reasonable way, but he is up against bureaucratic forces that prioritize fixing the immediate, short term issues rather than the bigger picture systemic ones, for obvious short term financial reasons.”
As that judge sizes it up:
“It’s a short sighted approach being taken by the powers that be up north, as continuing to kick the can down the road inevitably leads to much larger costs to be borne by the court in the future.”
Problems at CCB
A judge at the Foltz Courthouse complains:
“We have had terrible problems with our heating and air conditioning systems in the past. There were days when the courtroom was 45 degrees and other days when the courtroom was 90 degrees. Recently, there has been some improvement as I understand some changes have been made.
“Nevertheless, we should not expect jurors or staff to suffer because heating and air conditioning systems do not work. Moreover, when a complaint was made it would usually take 24 hours before they fixed the problem. I remember a period when the Judges’ lunch room was like the North Pole for at least two weeks.
“The other quandary of the heating and air conditioning was the fact that if you cooled one courtroom because it was too hot you might cause all of the courtrooms to become freezing. There was an unholy alliance between several courtrooms. Thus, a change in one courtroom might impact the temperatures in three other courtrooms. I have not experienced these heating and air conditioning problems in last five months.”
At the San Diego Superior Court on Tuesday, Presiding Judge Peter C. Deddeh and Executive Officer Michael M. Roddy dispatched an email to staff advising:
“Earlier this morning, we had reports of brown water coming out of bathrooms, pantries and breakrooms in various locations throughout the Central Courthouse. Our building maintenance team…indicates that the brown water problem was caused by a malfunctioning domestic water pump and the initial assessment from the environmental consultant is that the brown water is due to sediments in the pipes.”
While it was expected that water lines would be flushed by noon, the email advises that no one should drink the courthouse water until a consultant from the Judicial Council completes testing it.
Highberger—noting that he is not speaking on behalf of his court—remarks:
“I don’t think the Judicial Council has been dragging its heels, at all.”
The judiciary has simply not been allocated sufficient funds for maintenance and repairs, he asserts, contending:
“Our problem has been in the Legislature, not the Judicial Council.”
“We are comforted that the FY2019/20 budget does include a bit of new money for the maintenance/utilities/leases/insurance budget (Fund 3066) but this is not enough given how many new buildings have come on line in San Diego, Stockton, East Alameda County, etc.”
The allocation for facilities encompasses payments for such items as utility costs, he says, which constantly rise.
It’s difficult to secure repairs to elevators, Highberger brings out, because the companies that perform such overhauls actually want to sell new elevators and the amount they charge to fix old ones, he says, “is nauseating.”
Even before enactment of the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002, he recounts, then-Chief Justice Ronald M. George was pushing for state acquisition of county courthouses and, with the writing on the wall, counties stopped putting money into major repairs of buildings which they would not be able to retain.
Aside from inadequate “Band-Aid” repairs by counties, Highberger says, many courthouse were old at the time ownership shifted to the state and some, such as the courthouse in Lake County, were shoddily constructed. He terms that facility “atrocious.”
Van Nuys Courthouses
The judge acknowledges that the east courthouse in Van Nuys is in severe disrepair. He describes the condition of that facility as being “one of the worst in the state.”
The lobby, Highberger brings up, is “slowly sinking in the ground.”
An “old mechanical system” supplies heat and air conditioning to both Van Nuys courthouses, he explains, with the heating coming from one building and the cooling from the other. That system, he says, is “worn out.”
He announces that $478,000 has been allocated for HVAC work at the east courthouse and $223,000 for the west facility. The county, he says, still owns 10 percent of the space in the building and will pay that proportion of the cost.
Highberger expresses disagreement with the view that damage from the flood at the east courthouse should have been repaired by now.
“I’m advised that the one unfinished project is LA County’s remediation of Los Angeles County-exclusive office space occupied by the District Attorney,” he says, adding:
“To my understanding all needed remediation in common areas (managed by the Judicial Council) and court-exclusive space (managed by the Judicial Council) has been completed.”
As to why it took so long, he explains that when pipes in old courthouses burst, there will be a “percolating” of asbestos, commonly used in buildings before the 1960s, and the ensuing problem is “very hard” to remediate.
“Once a building gets chronically sick, you cannot fix it in a weekend or a month,” he remarks.
The Pasadena Courthouse also is desperately in need of repairs, he indicates.
What is now called the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in the Los Angeles Civic Center was completed in 1958 and opened in January 1959. Highberger says it was designed in 1952.
While assessing that it has stood up well over the past 60 years, he notes that it still has the original elevator system and the original cafeteria equipment.
Uncertainty is expressed by one judge as to whether the east courthouse has been repaired, except for the District Attorney’s Office quarters, noting that Judge Valerie Salkin and assigned Judge Frank Johnson were “temporarily” relocated from the east to west courthouses and have not been moved back.
Dohi has this to say concerning the announced near-completion of work at the east facility:
“It’s one thing to check off the boxes on a checklist and declare a facilities problem solved. It’s quite another thing to fix that problem, and still another to fix it for good. We’ve been having heating and ventilation issues since last July, and plumbing issues for years.
“We need more than just repairs and remediation: we need preventive maintenance. Because of a ‘run-to-failure’ approach to building maintenance, court records have been damaged by burst pipes, and jurors and litigants have had to wear parkas indoors because of faulty pneumatic HVAC controls.”
Lack of Funding
Lack of funding, Highberger says, “inevitably limits our ability to do robust preventative maintenance.”
He underscores that deterioration of courthouses stems from inadequate appropriations to the courts and attests to the Judicial Council’s continuing efforts to “work with the Department of Finance and the Legislature” to secure adequate funding.
Meanwhile at courthouses, pipes burst, elevators stall, occupants swelter one day and shiver on another, and brown water spurts from facets.
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company