$50-Million Courthouse to End Era of Roughing It

Times Staff Writer

Deputy Public Defender William M. Thornbury calls his bungalow office in the Van Nuys court complex "a hovel."

"My clients in jail have more room than I do," he said. On the unsheltered walkway outside his office, Thornbury has to ford large puddles whenever it rains. He sometimes has to borrow a hammer to pound loosened nails outside his doorway and on the steps leading to his office.

Van Nuys Municipal Judge Robert Wallerstein's chambers are far more comfortable, despite being in a trailer. But he spends more time working there than he would like. Wallerstein would rather be hearing cases.

The problem for judges like Wallerstein is inadequate holding space for defendants.

Daily courtroom activity is frequently stalled while attorneys wait to talk to their clients.

But Municipal Court officials say Thornbury's office problems and Wallerstein's scheduling woes are among many inconveniences that will be alleviated by the new 10-story Van Nuys Municipal Courthouse expected to open in June or July.

The $50-million building will house 23 courtrooms.

Trailers and Bungalows

Van Nuys Municipal Court now is housed in seven trailers, six wooden bungalows, and two floors of the Superior Court building, which is next to the site of the new building on Sylmar Avenue.

Since 1985, the sprawl has been seen as a temporary arrangement to keep the courts running until the new building is completed, said Richard A. Paez, presiding judge of the Municipal Court's Los Angeles judicial district.

"The trailer facilities are barely adequate," Paez said. Courtrooms, the clerk's office and the offices of prosecutors and public defenders are spread around the complex. "The new building will integrate all of those agencies into one building," Paez said.

The new building also will create space for six dependency courts, where child-abuse and neglect cases are heard.

Those courts will stay in Van Nuys until a facility is built in the early 1990s in Monterey Park, court officials said. The six courts will be in the temporary buildings, which will be vacated when the Municipal Court building opens. Court officials have not decided what to do with the other trailers and bungalows.

Dependency cases now are heard in 15 courtrooms in the downtown Criminal Courts Building, where scores of criminal defendants also appear each day.

Officials decided to move some of the dependency courtrooms to Van Nuys because having the child victims in the same hallways and elevators used by criminal defendants "sends the wrong message," said John A. Creamer, director of Juvenile Court services for Los Angeles Superior Court.

Having the dependency courts in Van Nuys also will mean a much shorter distance to court for San Fernando Valley residents involved in such cases.

Municipal Court officials also plan to relocate three misdemeanor courts from San Fernando to the new Van Nuys building.

Under the current setup in Van Nuys, taking care of even the simplest court business can be confusing and time-consuming.

Lines of blue, red, black, green and yellow tape lead from the lobby into the Municipal Court clerk's office on the first floor of the Superior Court building.

Each of the different colored lines leads to service windows that handle different legal matters.

People sometimes stand in the wrong line.

Confusing Layout

Frequently, participants in a case will take the crowded elevators to the busy municipal courts on the fourth floor, only to learn that their court appearance is in a trailer or bungalow outside. To make matters more confusing, there are two sets of temporary buildings, one on each side of the Superior Court facility.

For those not familiar with the complex, making it from one end to another can take time.

When the Oct. 1 earthquake knocked out one of the Superior Court building's four elevators for three months, the wait for an elevator at peak hours sometimes lasted five minutes or more.

Even now, waiting for an elevator can take three minutes. The building's stairs are not accessible except in an emergency.

To ensure that those problems are not repeated, the new building will have four elevators, as well as two banks of escalators from the first floor to the third floor, court spokeswoman Eileen Berger said.

The clerk's office will also have 16 service windows, six more than the existing number, Berger said.

The signs "will be simple and clear, making it easier for people to know where to go," she said.

There will be modern holding tanks and courtroom "custody boxes" to keep defendants separated from court personnel in courtrooms such as Wallerstein's.

To make it easier to hear high-security cases, one of the courtrooms will have floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass separating the public from the defendants.

More space will be set aside for prisoners to talk to their attorneys, reducing delays.

"The wheels of justice will move more swiftly," Wallerstein said.

Thornbury, meanwhile, has not seen his new office, but he already is looking forward to moving to the new building.

The entire public defender's office in Van Nuys will be situated on the top floor.

"We get the view," Thornbury said.

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