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New, state-of-the-art federal courthouse officially opens in downtown L.A.

After nearly two decades of delays, the scales of justice are moving down the street in Los Angeles.

Thursday marked the opening of a new federal courthouse on 1st Street, in the city's downtown civic center.

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The $350-million glass cube structure replaces a stately but outdated courthouse a few blocks away that has been in use since 1940.

With 24 courtrooms and chambers for 32 judges on 10 floors, the new building will be home to nearly all of the city's U.S. district judges. Magistrate judges and a few district judges will work out of the nearby Roybal Federal building, according to court officials.

Following a ribbon cutting in the courtyard of the new building, elected officials, judges and others who were involved in the arduous battle to complete its construction spoke to a few hundred guests.

Several of the speakers, including Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), Chief Judge Virginia Phillips and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), commented on the resistance from other politicians and bureaucrats and the obstacles placed in the way of the new courthouse.

Federal employees and guests wait in the jury assembly room during opening ceremonies in the new U.S. district courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Federal employees and guests wait in the jury assembly room during opening ceremonies in the new U.S. district courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times) (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Roybal-Allard recalled first discussing the idea of a new courthouse sometime in the early 1990s, when she was a newly elected member to the House of Representatives. She was asked by more senior colleagues to champion the idea in the House and make the case that a new courthouse was needed to address overcrowding and security issues.

In the ensuing years, she said, she and other supporters of the project ran into a seemingly endless gantlet of bipartisan opposition to the idea. Saying there was no money for the new building, many lawmakers told its backers to find a way to make do with existing facilities.

Things didn't improve much even after Congress relented and approved the idea of the new courthouse. Eleven more years would pass before construction began on the project as it got mired in disagreements over funding, design and other issues.

"We all know the saying about not watching how the sausage is made," Roybal-Allard quipped. "Well, the same can be said about building a new courthouse."

Several of the speakers singled out former Judge Margaret M. Morrow, praising her for the leading role she played in seeing the project through during her time on the bench. Morrow retired this year.

General security and how people in custody are handled will be improved in the new building, said Randall Schnack, chief deputy of judicial services for the court's Central District of California.

Currently, marshals must escort shackled inmates through public hallways and elevators. In the new courthouse such movements will be made in secure areas, Schnack said.

Judges are expected to begin hearing cases in the new courtrooms next month. The old building will be used by state judges and other federal agencies.

For more news on federal courts in Southern California, follow me on Twitter: @joelrubin

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