In an unusual solution to a growing space shortage, county supervisors Tuesday decided to build five temporary courtrooms in a downtown hotel.
By a 4-1 vote, the supervisors approved an $18,900-a-month lease under which five Superior Court chambers will be built on four floors of the 77-year-old Hotel San Diego, one block from the downtown courthouse on West Broadway.
“Maybe those judges will get room service from the bench,” quipped Assistant Presiding Judge Judith McConnell, typifying the mixture of relief and humor with which court officials and others greeted the board’s action.
With Superior Court already facing a serious backlog of criminal cases, the temporary space is needed, county officials said, to house new judges expected to be appointed soon by Gov. George Deukmejian to fill some of the 18 vacancies on the local bench.
Because of the logjam of criminal cases, Presiding Superior Court Judge Michael Greer last month indefinitely postponed new civil trials.
“The governor’s office told the Superior Court that, without additional court space, they’d not make the appointments,” explained David Janssen, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer.
Besides the five new temporary courts, there are seven vacant Superior Court courtrooms in the main courthouse because of recent retirements and illnesses, McConnell said. County officials are also searching for space for the new judges.
“The governor’s office says that the cavalry is on the way,” McConnell said, adding that some judicial nominations are expected from Sacramento within a week.
Under the plan approved Tuesday, about 8,300 square feet on the hotel’s mezzanine level and first, fourth and fifth floors will be converted into four courtrooms and a general hearing room. Five judges’ private chambers, two jury deliberation rooms and work space for court clerks and other personnel will also be built, said Jane Huston, director of the county’s General Services Department.
The first two courtrooms are expected to be ready by mid-March and the other three by April.
Not the First Time
This will mark the second time the county has leased space in the hotel for courtrooms. From 1959 to 1961, the county converted two floors of the hotel into 10 courtrooms while the existing courthouse was being built.
The county will pay Western Sun Hotels, the partnership that operates the Hotel San Diego, about $100,000 for cosmetic improvements such as painting and carpeting in the areas to be used for the courts. Another $80,000 will be spent to construct raised platforms, judges’ benches, witness stands, jury boxes and other physical amenities needed to give the rooms at least the appearance of a conventional courtroom.
Even so, McConnell conceded that the temporary courtrooms, expected to be needed for no more than 18 months while a search for more permanent facilities continues, will probably leave something to be desired aesthetically.
“We’d like to have courtrooms that reflect the dignity of the court,” she said. “Lacking that, we’d like to have any room.”
Because of security considerations, judges hope to use the temporary courtrooms primarily for civil cases, but, if necessary, will hold criminal trials there. Uniformed security guards will be stationed on each of the four court floors.
Humor in the Situation
Tuesday’s action spawned a variety of jokes about the unorthodox arrangement.
A sampling: Closing arguments may be interrupted by maids asking whether they should turn down the sheets. . . . Juries won’t have to go far to be sequestered. . . . Check-out time is 12 to 15 years. . . . Look for chocolate mints on attorneys’ tables.
One person not laughing, however, was Supervisor Brian Bilbray, who cast the lone dissenting vote. Noting that Chula Vista has offered the county about $2 million to help finance construction of more South Bay courtrooms, Bilbray objected to building more courtrooms--even temporary ones--downtown, considering that similar financial aid has not been forthcoming from the city of San Diego.
“We’re making downtown a sacred cow . . . and leaving Chula Vista standing in the aisle,” Bilbray said.
The major reason for the delay in adding South Bay courtrooms, Janssen explained, is that it will cost about $500,000 to relocate other offices in the county-owned building to be used for the extra courts. By a unanimous vote, the board instructed county administrators to develop funding alternatives to expedite that plan.