Old Hotel Houses a Slim Majority of a Divided Court

Times Staff Writer

After nearly seven years of controversy, a renovated Spanish colonial-style hotel in a quiet, affluent neighborhood in Pasadena has become the new home of the Southern California headquarters of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The headquarters--complete with law books, furniture and about 40 court staff and security guards, but without four judges who still oppose the change--moved late last month from the Federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles to the stately Hotel Vista del Arroyo. The $10-million rehabilitation project at the hotel has restored much of yesteryear’s elegance to the once-dilapidated building, built in 1881.

Court clerks, accustomed to the cramped quarters and bustling pace of the Civic Center, revel in offices that were known in the hotel’s heyday as the “Lounge of Perpetual Sunshine.”

The law library is situated in what once was the hotel’s grand ballroom.


Office workers also enjoy the serene pace of the area. Clerk Lucy Uribes said many of her co-workers scurry over to large windows facing Grand Avenue when a playful squirrel is sighted.

“It’s an appropriate atmosphere for an appellate court,” said James R. Browning, chief judge for the 9th Circuit, who works in San Francisco. “It’s more conducive to the kind of work we do. The judges there are all very content with it.”

One of the four circuit judges already in the new headquarters, Alfred T. Goodwin of Pasadena, is looking forward to the spring so he can ride his bicycle to work. “It’s good exercise,” he said.

A fifth judge, Dorothy W. Nelson, will move to the Pasadena office early next year.


Although Browning and Goodwin speak glowingly of the new headquarters, the controversy that has dogged it still simmers beneath the surface.

Faced with competing with U.S. district judges for ever-dwindling space in the aging Federal Courthouse, the appellate court judges voted in 1979 to move the Southern California headquarters to Pasadena.

The 9th Circuit, which covers eight Western states and U.S. territories in the Pacific, has three other offices--San Francisco, its home base; Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

The driving force behind the move to Pasadena was the former chief judge of 9th Circuit, Richard Chambers of Tucson, who delighted in saving old buildings and furnishings for the court.

Persistently lobbied by Chambers, the federal General Service Administration initially opposed the move as a “boondoggle,” saying it was going to sell the old hotel. Once an Army hospital, the facility was declared surplus federal property in 1974, after its run-down condition reached such a point that it was no longer usable.

The GSA eventually approved the move, but only on the condition that the eight-story hotel’s upper floors be set aside for other federal agencies. The court occupies only the lowest three floors, while the remainder undergo renovation.

Some 9th Circuit judges continued to oppose the move after it won GSA approval, saying the refurbished hotel would be too ornate and costly for them.

As a result, four of the nine circuit judges living in the Los Angeles area--Arthur L. Alarcon, William A. Norris, Harry Pregerson and Stephen R. Reinhardt--have refused to move their offices to Pasadena.


Norris’ view, that the Civic Center is a more logical place for federal appellate judges, seems to be shared by the other three holdouts. One said privately:

“It (the new headquarters) just isn’t convenient.”

Another reason Norris gives for refusing to move is that his 17th-floor offices in the Federal Courthouse have just been remodeled.

For Pregerson, a U.S. district judge who was appointed to the appellate bench in 1979 by then-President Jimmy Carter, part of the motive for staying is personal.

“I was 13 years old when the Federal Courthouse opened (in 1940),” he said. “My father worked here as a postman. And from my window (on the 16th floor), I can see where I grew up.”

The judge was reared in the Eastside of Los Angeles, graduating from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.

Whatever their view of the move, the 9th Circuit judges take great pains to speak of it cautiously, hoping to avoid any public rancor that might preclude a possible move to Pasadena by the judges who remain downtown.

“We’re not forcing them to move in,” Goodwin said. “It’s a very nice building that can service the needs of this court.”


For the time being, the four judges’ refusal to move adds to the isolation the 40 or so federal court employees occasionally feel in the hotel, situated on 15 acres of land overlooking Arroyo Seco.

Other federal agencies, including the staff of the area’s congressman, Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale), have explored the possibility of moving into the building. No firm plans have been made.

Parking Controversy

Another dispute about the hotel remains unresolved, and Chambers is also at the center of that.

The Tucson judge has advocated the destruction or removal of the bungalows surrounding the hotel in order to make way for a new parking lot. A 200-car parking lot across the street from the hotel is barely used, and the four judges in the building use a small lot next to it.

Chambers, who could not be reached for comment, has reasoned in the past that the eventual move of other federal agencies into the building will require more parking spaces than now exist.

The bungalows, long ago boarded up, have occasionally attracted transients, and federal court security guards suggest that the buildings’ removal would alleviate the problem of unwanted strangers on federal land.

Pasadena city officials, however, have been cautious about destroying the bungalows, noting that they have a long history.

Goodwin said discussions with Pasadena officials about the bungalows are continuing. He said he is confident that whatever is decided will be accepted to the city and “will not hurt the work of the court.”

Meanwhile, plans are under way for an opening ceremony on Feb. 3, 1986, for the building.

Court officials said Warren E. Burger, chief justice of the United States, has tentatively agreed to speak at the event.

“Now, he’s a speaker befitting this grand building,” one judge said.