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Disorder in Courthouses Poses a Trial

Aging, cramped buildings with balky elevators and bad plumbing often slow the wheels of justice in Los Angeles.

August 17, 2006|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

As wind whipped through her hair and sirens blared in the background, Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl put on her black robe Wednesday, squinted in the afternoon sun and called her court to order right at Commonwealth and 6th streets.

Ever since an electrical failure shut down the county's Central Civil West Courthouse on Aug. 7, the judges who work at that building have been sharing space in other facilities. But because of legal noticing requirements, Kuhl's hearing, which included a public auction of debts, could not be postponed or moved -- so she held it on the courthouse steps.

The spectacle of a judge solemnly conducting business amid dogs being walked and traffic whizzing by while her court reporter and clerk tried to keep papers in order drew quizzical stares from some.

But court officials -- who invited news reporters to the hearing and snapped photographs of it themselves -- said it underscores the dire shape of the county's court facilities, many of which were built decades ago and are now falling apart even as the county's growing population means there is more demand for them than ever.

"We have the largest trial court in the country," said J. Stephen Czuleger, the assistant presiding judge for Los Angeles Superior Court. "And unfortunately, our courthouses are not adequate now, and the situation will become even more grave in the future."

Court officials have a catalog of building problems.

A juror had a heart attack in the Long Beach courthouse last year, and court officials say that paramedics, slowed by faulty escalators and an elevator that did not go to the 6th floor, where the stricken juror was, took several minutes to reach him even though the fire station was next door to the courthouse. The juror died.

That building also is plagued by rats, cockroaches and asbestos. Seismic experts predict that an earthquake of magnitude 4.5 or greater would be enough to collapse it. County officials recently agreed to spend millions to make the building safer. But Supervisor Don Knabe called it "a Band-Aid."

In Huntington Park, a judge with woodworking skills built his own jury bench after watching jurors sit in the stairwells between floors because there was not enough room for them. (The county has since come up with the money to build a jury assembly room.)

At the Eastlake Juvenile Court in East Los Angeles, rodents are a constant problem. The court is also so cramped that, despite rules that prisoners are supposed to be kept separate from the public, in practice, they are constantly running into victims and their families in the halls.

In Pomona earlier this summer, members of the public in wheelchairs had to ride an elevator usually reserved for prisoners after the building's sole public elevator broke down, and parts to fix it could not be found for weeks. That also meant that all the prisoners had to be on lockdown whenever someone in a wheelchair needed to go up or down -- slowing court procedures in many cases.

Last week, the Malibu Courthouse was without water -- meaning the toilets couldn't flush -- for two days. That problem has also affected the Santa Monica Courthouse.

And just Tuesday, the downtown archives flooded, damaging thousands of court records.

"Deficiencies and problems are simply the routine we deal with every day," said court spokesman Allan Parachini. "It's become part of doing business."

In some respects the problems facing Los Angeles County's facilities are those of any collection of aging public buildings where funding has not kept pace with maintenance needs and new earthquake standards.

But when it comes to trying to fix the problems, officials say the courts face an additional catch: They are caught between county governments, which used to fund and manage them, and the state, which now has jurisdiction over all California's courts.

In 2000, all the people working for the courts stopped being county employees. The state is set to take over all the buildings by 2007. Cash-strapped county governments are disinclined to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade buildings that they will be responsible for only one more year. But the state government says it doesn't have the money for major upgrades either.

Los Angeles County's problems aren't unique. A judge in San Joaquin County told state officials that some courtrooms there are so short of space that jurors are forced to stand outside in the rain while waiting to be picked. Judges statewide have complained of inadequate public bathrooms. In San Diego, elevators break down repeatedly, and conditions are so crowded that prisoners and the public come into contact more than officials would like.

Kim Davis, the director of court construction for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said that a 2001 report found that the majority of the state's court facilities "no longer meet the needs of the public and the modern court system."

There is funding to fix some of the worst problems, she said, but nearly 200 facilities await money.

Eventually, she said, officials hope to float bonds but concede that many voters "under-appreciate the role of the judicial system -- until they need it."

Those who use the courts often have learned to be accommodating.

Cindy Cripe, a secretary to lawyer George Schulman, attended Judge Kuhl's alfresco hearing Wednesday afternoon, at one point helping the court reporter keep the transcript from sailing away in the breeze.

"The show must go on," she said.

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