Judge Lays Down the Law Over New Site : Courts: Jurist fights for new quarters in South County, where facilities haven’t kept up with the population boom.
When Orange County officials put off a decision on plans to expand South Orange Municipal Court, Judge Pam Iles made preliminary arrangements to hold court in the elegant grand ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point and bill the county for the charges.
Officials swiftly offered her new office space in a Laguna Hills commercial complex.
And when a county building inspector delayed approval of renovations to the building, Iles returned to her chambers and dictated a contempt citation against the inspector. The inspector approved the project the same evening.
Known for her sharp wit and untraditional style on and off the bench, Iles, 46, has taken the law into her own hands in lobbying for better court facilities in South County, an area where rapid population growth has caused the caseload to skyrocket and outstrip existing facilities.
Many people say that after several years of threatening, prodding and negotiating, she is closer than ever to achieving her goal of having a new regional civic center built in the area. The proposed $190-million facility would house at least 19 courtrooms, a prisoner-detention facility, a Sheriff’s Department substation and several other county agencies. The proposed site is a 100-acre plot just south of Rancho Santa Margarita.
“Pam is a progressive judge who has good ideas of where she would like to see the courts grow,” said Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez. “She has incredible amounts of energy and a great deal of determination. I have a great sense of optimism that she’ll succeed.”
Iles’ quest for improvements to court facilities in South County began shortly after she was appointed in 1982 to South Orange Municipal Court, which covers an area from south of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to Riverside County, and from south of Crystal Cove to San Diego County.
Almost immediately, she earned a reputation as an aggressive jurist who was not afraid to shake up the court’s rigid tradition. But Iles, who served as head of the court’s building fund, soon discovered that the burgeoning caseload and inadequate courtrooms were creating problems for judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court staff and defendants alike.
The main courthouse, which consists of four courtrooms, is in the South County Regional Civic Center on Crown Valley Parkway in Laguna Niguel. An annex on Moulton Parkway in Laguna Hills houses three traffic and small claims courts.
Iles, a former public defender and deputy district attorney, has lived in South County since 1962 and has seen the region’s once rolling farmland and verdant foothills converted into a series of freeway off-ramps leading to residential communities, business parks and regional shopping centers.
And as the area grew, so did the litigation cycle and the need for more courts.
“Back then there were more cows than people,” she recalled. “But now we have more than 400,000 people (in South County). After they get into their new houses, they sue their builders, their landscapers and their neighbors over the barking dog. Then they get arrested for beating the neighbor over his barking dog and for drunk driving. Cows almost never get arrested for drunk driving.”
South County is now the fastest-growing judicial district in the state and perhaps the country, Iles said. During the last decade the caseload in South County has almost doubled--from 65,204 in 1981 to an estimated 125,831 in 1990--while increases in office space for courts and staff have been minimal.
Despite the mounting caseload, the latest report by the Judicial Council--the policy-making arm of the state court system--stated that South Orange Municipal Court disposed of more cases in 1988-89 than any other court of its size in the state. The handful of South County judges--four judges and three commissioners--disposed of more cases per judge than all but three of the 88 municipal courts in California. They handled an average of 19,505 criminal, traffic, civil and small-claims matters--or more than 75 cases per day.
“We clearly have the best pit crews in the business,” presiding Municipal Judge Arthur Koelle said in a memorandum to court staff. “And we certainly do need them, since sometimes it’s really the pits. . . . For doing such an outstanding job, we can assure you that you will all get your reward . . . but not necessarily in this lifetime.”
County officials also predict that court filings in South County will continue to soar as population continues to increase. The region is where most of the major new planned communities will be built in the 1990s and will increase by 10,000 new residents a year--representing an annual growth of 2.6%, a county study on the proposed South County facility noted.
During the last decade, South County added an average of 16,000 residents a year, a growth rate of 6.4% a year, contrasted with the 2.1% rate countywide.
Employees of some public agencies in South County, who would benefit from a new regional center, believe the public is oblivious to their poor working conditions. For example, a dilapidated trailer housing the public defender’s office was destroyed a couple years ago when the stench of dead rats in the building became overbearing.
The department’s six lawyers, who represent criminal defendants who cannot afford private attorneys, now share a narrow, closet-size trailer with their secretarial staff. Public defenders interview clients outside the trailer and use a meeting room at the neighboring county library and a separate trailer to store their court files and books.
“Our lawyers’ offices are their briefcases and back pockets,” said Chief Deputy Public Defender Carl Holmes. “We’ve threatened several times to close our office, but the county has repeatedly assured us that a new building is right around the corner. . . . They’ve said so a dozen times and we’re still waiting.”
The sentiment is shared by many other agencies who face similar, if not graver, problems. At the sheriff’s substation down the road from the court, the office is even more claustrophobic.
The Sheriff’s Department serves four cities in the South County in addition to its unincorporated territory--the largest such area left in the county. It moved into its modular trailer--complete with wheels and license plates--in 1979. The staff, including civilians and sheriff’s deputies, totaled 95 people. Now, 226 people occupy the same space.
Male and female deputies change into their uniforms in the parking lot, and employees have to step around holes in the floor, said Assistant Sheriff Dennis LaDucer.
There are no interview rooms, he said, so rape victims are interrogated in full view of other staff.
“The conditions have reach almost crisis proportions,” LaDucer said. “There has been a cavalier approach to our concern. It doesn’t seem that anybody is moving or showing care at all for those men and women who go out to protect the community. All we’re asking for is a few of basic amenities like lockers and showers.”
Two years ago, after spending more than $350,000 to study an expansion for the Laguna Niguel site, the county reported that it was putting the project off because of a lack of funds.
“They were buying time,” Iles said. “We had no jury assembly room. The jury, attorneys, and all the witnesses were milling around the hall. The lines for traffic court wrapped around the building.”
Iles decided to take the matter in her own hands. She approached the Santa Margarita Co. and said she needed 100 acres of the 44,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo land managed by the company. After meeting with company officials, she said she was “gratified” with their response and turned over the negotiations to the county’s chief administrative office.
Diane Gaynor, a spokeswoman for the company, said the company has made no commitments to Iles and that there are no serious discussions taking place.
“Right now it is not a top discussion item for us due to various business reasons,” Gaynor said. “We probably wouldn’t be able to discuss this land-use until later next year.”
Supervisor Vasquez, however, said the county board’s recent approval of the company’s Las Flores project included an agreement that the company would consider participating in such a project.
With the county facing a severe budget crunch, county officials said, financing a regional civic center will be a problem. But Iles foresaw that problem and has suggested public-private partnerships to build the project.
“The old way was to raise a bond and have the county pay through its nose,” Iles said. “This is not a little private kingdom. It’s a cooperative community project.”
An interim county report on the South County facility urged the county to determine which cities might be interested in helping to finance the facilities.
“I have held some discussions with the mayors, and they are very receptive to the idea,” Vasquez said. “We have to look at financing alternatives, and the major cost is the land cost. We may be able to work for an arrangement (for the land) and identify financing for construction.”
Vasquez acknowledged that he has had informal discussions with Santa Margarita Co. officials, adding that the prospects for an arrangement appeared “promising.”
Iles said she is heartened by the progress made in pursuing a new regional center. “I think I’ve been justified in being critical of the county in the past,” she said. “But I’m not fighting anymore. It’s a new can-do philosophy in the CAO’s office. They are truthful in their negotiations, and I can take their word to the bank.”
She added, however, that she hoped that there are no further delays, because “justice is being denied.”