SACRAMENTO — A bill that would enable Los Angeles County to reduce severe overcrowding at the Santa Monica Courthouse by constructing new facilities has passed the Legislature and been sent to the governor.
The measure, as written, would provide only for a new Municipal Court facility, not for new Superior Court rooms, although both are now jammed into the same courthouse at 1725 Main St.
But an aide to Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), the bill's author, said the measure is intended to provide money for new facilities in both Superior and Municipal courts. If the state legislative counsel's office says a change is required to make sure the Superior Court is also expanded, that amendment will be added during the next legislative session in January, said Robbins aide Teri Burns.
The measure, which sailed through the Assembly and the Senate without a dissenting vote, would place the Santa Monica courts on a county list for courthouse construction to be paid for by a $1 tax on parking tickets.
Santa Monica would be added to a so-called "third tier" of courthouse projects for which no specific construction time line has been set or funding amount firmly determined. Projects in the first tier have already been funded, and second-tier projects are being designed.
Burns said the old courthouse might be expanded or a new one constructed within five years, and a Superior Court official estimated that costs for such a project might reach $25 million.
"This bill is extremely important," said Laurence Rubin, presiding judge in Municipal Court. "Not only is this building crowded, it no longer functions for the types of matters and numbers of matters we handle."
Santa Monica court administrators say the courthouse handles about 50% more criminal cases than it did five years ago. In addition, hundreds of Superior Court civil cases have been awaiting trial since 1981, a backlog worse than at any other county courthouse except the one in downtown Los Angeles, they said.
The workload justifies another six Superior Court judges and 1 1/2 more courtrooms in Municipal Court, they said. There are now 13 Superior courtrooms and four Municipal courtrooms.
Courthouse security is also a continuing problem, as demonstrated last year when four guards were injured and a prisoner was killed during an escape attempt, said Raymond Choate, supervising judge of the Superior Court. He described the courthouse as "totally inadequate."
The Robbins bill, backed by the Board of Supervisors, would ultimately solve that problem by roughly doubling the number of courtrooms in Santa Monica, said Frank Zolin, executive officer of the county Superior Court.
Zolin, who works closely with state and county officials in courthouse planning, said the order of construction for the third-tier projects will be set by the Board of Supervisors next spring.
In Santa Monica, where 12 new courtrooms will be needed in Superior Court and six in Municipal Court by 1995, a new courthouse costing at least $25 million is "most likely," he said. It would open in 1991 at earliest and possibly as late as 1997, depending on the order of construction of third-tier projects, he said.
The new facility, at a still-undetermined site, probably would handle all criminal cases in both Superior and Municipal courts, with the old courthouse used only for civil cases, Zolin said.
Under present crowded conditions, prisoners are escorted into some courtrooms through public hallways and public parking lots, which creates security problems, said Choate.
"It's tough for the deputies handling the prisoners to be able to do so without someone being hurt," he said.
Complaints About Security
The Sheriff's Department and county Marshal's Office both complained about security at the Santa Monica Courthouse after the May, 1985, escape attempt. Escape attempts are considerably more frequent in Santa Monica than at other county courthouses of the same size, a Sheriff's Department spokesman said then. There were 10 attempts between 1980 and 1985, according to the Marshal's Office.
Some time-consuming civil cases, such as divorce and child custody, must be transferred to other courthouses because about 3,300 civil cases are pending in Santa Monica, said Choate.
In addition, many minor civil matters, such as small claims, are now heard in tiny conference rooms, said Rubin.
"Small claims cases are frequently very hotly contested. And these people end up sitting next to each other without attorneys (as a buffer)." Lines of people waiting to be heard often trail into the hallways, he said.
While welcoming the Robbins bill, Choate said an interim solution to crowding is desperately needed. No money for the lease of temporary courtrooms is in the county budget for this fiscal year, nor is any in a preliminary budget for next year, he said.
"Five years is a long time to wait," said Choate. "If it's going to take five years, the people of Santa Monica won't be adequately served (in the meantime)."