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Justice Is Served With a View, but for How Long?

Times Staff Writer

The view from most buildings in the Los Angeles County court system consists of little more than concrete and smog.

But judges, jurors, lawyers, clerks and bailiffs at the Superior Court in Redondo Beach enjoy the vista of a blue ocean, rocky cliffs and sea gulls.

The three courtrooms and clerk’s offices sit on the pier, in the middle of an area that looks more like a fishing village than a traditional courthouse.

“We don’t have to spend money for a great view, and we don’t have to buy art,” said Judge Lois A. Smaltz. “For jurors, it’s a pretty pleasant way to do a service people usually don’t look forward to.”

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Soon, the privilege may no longer be an option. As a cost-cutting measure, judges are considering closing the courthouse and consolidating its courtrooms at a nearby facility in Torrance. Courtroom personnel, not surprisingly, oppose the move.

Redondo Beach has one of four courthouses that could be affected by cost-saving changes. The others -- in Chatsworth, Culver City and Monrovia -- are seen as possible avenues to save $2 million in the Superior Court system.

“What we’re considering doing with Redondo Beach is more related to real estate economics than it is a statement about whether that courthouse is needed,” said court spokesman Allan Parachini.

“There clearly is a caseload in South Bay. The question is, how do we accommodate that caseload best in budgetary times that are now going downhill?”

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Judges are considering lightening the caseload in Chatsworth and converting the courthouses in Culver City, Monrovia and Redondo Beach to customer service centers or overflow courts. A decision on those facilities is expected by Sept. 1 but could come earlier.

Los Angeles County has the largest court system in California, with 600 courtrooms, 613 judicial officers and 5,800 employees.

The Superior Court has an annual budget of about $600 million -- 98% from the state and 2% from fees and grants. The county maintains the court facilities but does not fund operations.

The belt-tightening review is a response to a $57-million deficit in the court’s $604-million operating budget for the year. Last fall, court officials announced plans to cut hundreds of jobs and close dozens of courtrooms throughout the county.

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Smaltz said the small, coastal courthouse is being unfairly lumped in with more costly operations.

“I don’t know what the motivation is,” she said. “We’ve got a good facility. It’s functional, it’s being used, the people enjoy it. Why are we giving it up? Is it too nice?”

According to court system officials, having a bench on the beach is nice but also expensive. Los Angeles County leases space for the courtrooms for $225,000 a year.

“It’s a big piece of money in today’s budget situation,” said Parachini of the site, which is one of two facilities the county leases for Superior Court.

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To cut corners, he said, county officials could leave leased facilities and consolidate court operations in county-owned facilities. The Superior Court does not own any of the properties in which it operates.

The Torrance complex, which is county-owned, operates two courtrooms for traffic and small-claims cases, and houses office space occupied by the county Probation Department.

One option the court is considering is relocating the probation offices and converting space exclusively to courtroom use.

Moving the Redondo Beach courtrooms a few miles down the road to the Torrance facility could be done for the cost of one year’s rent, Parachini estimated.

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But local court officials in the Southwest District, home to the Torrance and Redondo Beach courthouses, question that estimate and clearly prefer that the courthouse stay at the beach.

“It cannot be done. There is not enough space at the Torrance courthouse,” Smaltz said. “They’d be spending over a million dollars to build something that won’t be nearly as nice. In your own budget, if you’re low on money, you don’t say, ‘I’m going to buy a house.’ ”

District Supervising Judge Eric Taylor, who sits on the bench in Torrance, said the move would be “a stretch.”

“There are issues with whether or not they could fit into the space available ... $250,000 is not a lot of money when you’re talking about building three courts.”

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Still, Taylor said, the review is worthwhile.

“Even though these potential cost savings would not directly benefit the court’s budget, the county is a partnered government agency,” he said. “If it’s possible for us to assist them in saving taxpayer money, it’s our responsibility to, at a minimum, review all options.

“We are cooperating with the county to achieve the greater good, if that doesn’t have a dramatic negative impact on the court’s ability to serve this community.”


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