Desert Insight: Imperial County Courts Juggle Heritage, Convenience and Efficiency

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Renderings of the proposed new courthouse in El Centro.
Renderings of the proposed new courthouse in El Centro.

By Gary Redfern

IMPERIAL COUNTY — Significant changes came to the Imperial County Superior Court in the late 1990s, first when the state passed the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 that transferred funding of all courts, including county courts, to the state.

Under this law, funding for county courts now is allocated by the state Judicial Council. Previously, funding for county courts was largely allocated and approved through the board of supervisors in each county.

While the state was a major source of court funding both before and after Trial Court Funding, having county courts get it through the state court rather than local county boards provided the courts with increased and more stable funding, more autonomy, and insulated them from the influences of local politics.

“In the 10 years since state funding of the trial courts became a reality, the judicial branch has undergone tremendous changes that have enabled it to better meet the needs of the public,” then-state Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in the Winter 2009 edition of the California Courts Review, a publication of the state Judicial Council.

“Before state funding was instituted, trial courts were required to seek appropriations from both the board of supervisors in their counties and the state,” George wrote. “Frequently, the state and the county operated on different fiscal-year systems and used different budgeting systems. Courts usually had to compete for scarce dollars, and the economic health of their particular communities affected their success.”

Next, in 1998, California voters approved the Trial Court Unification initiative. It amended the state constitution to allow each county’s trial judges to unify their courts, if desired, into a single countywide superior court system, according to the California Supreme Court Historical Society website (http://www.cschs.org/history/). Until then, separate municipal courts in each county handled less serious matters, such as misdemeanors, infractions, and minor civil cases, while superior courts dealt with criminal felonies and larger civil cases.

All 58 California counties, including Imperial, consolidated their courts. This restructuring has streamlined judicial branch operations statewide, resulting in improved services to the public, the Court Historical Society website states.

Locally, the move actually enhanced the value of the court facilities in Brawley and Calexico, because it meant they could be the site of all court matters, not just those formerly assigned to the municipal courts.

Additionally, nearly all felony criminal arraignments and preliminary hearings were held in a court opened at the Imperial County jail in the early 1990s. That was a major safety and cost-saving move for the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail. Sheriff headquarters are adjacent to the jail south of El Centro and the agency played a role in getting the courts to open a jail court. The jail court meant more potentially dangerous in-custody inmates could just be walked down a hall for a hearing instead of transported to other courts, improving security, saving work hours, fuel, and the cost of adding and maintaining vehicles for the Sheriff’s transportation fleet.

A similar convenience existed when the juvenile court was housed in the county Probation Department building along with the Imperial County juvenile detention center. The Probation/juvenile center is adjacent to the Sheriff’s Office south of El Centro.

Those cozy arrangements came to halt in 2013, however, when to reduce costs, the Superior Court judges decided to close the Calexico, jail and juvenile courts. Since then, the felony arraignments and preliminary hearings have been moved from the jail to the Brawley court about 15 miles away.

“It did have a budget impact because we had to bring more staff in,” said county correctional Lt. David Tirado. “We had to add four more transportation positions at a cost of $250,000 per year and one more van that cost $30,000.”

Tirado said moving inmates to Brawley also added fuel and maintenance costs, although he did not have an exact amount. Security is also a concern since the Sheriff’s Office is moving more than 100 felony suspects per week across the county, he added.

The current debate over court locations illustrates how making those decisions has changed. Under Trial Court Funding, the courts now have control over where their facilities are, a major change from the 1989 dispute when that power was held by county boards. Local judges make recommendations on new locations, and there is a process for community input, but the decision on those new locations ultimately rests with the Judicial Council.

Still, as locally elected officials, Imperial County judges could face voter backlash over controversial changes such as the Judicial Council’s proposed closure of the Brawley court that could occur should a new courthouse be built.

The moving of inmates demonstrates the complexities afoot when changes to the court system are considered. Moreover, the debate over the proposed new courthouse is not only a dispute over where courts should be located, it strikes at the heart of Imperial Valley’s heritage.

When the Imperial County Courthouse at 939 West Main Street in El Centro opened in 1924 it was a gem of the desert. Dignitaries came from as far away as San Diego and Los Angeles and “crowds visited the county offices and courtrooms and found the whole structure the most modern in the entire state of California,” historian Otis B. Tout wrote in his 1931 book “The First Thirty Years in Imperial Valley, California.”

The El Centro courthouse was an embodiment of independence, the spirit that drove pioneers to create a fertile farming community out of a harsh desert, and one that caused the area to break away from San Diego County in 1907 and form Imperial County.

Stately as the courthouse may be, a 2008 Judicial Council study found its “facilities are currently unsafe, substandard in size, and overcrowded,” along with those of the then-juvenile court at the Probation Department. It recommended building a new courthouse over renovating the existing facilities.

While that report probed the need for a “new El Centro Family Court” to address the needs of family and juvenile law, the project was altered in 2013 so that the proposed new courthouse would house four criminal courts and court administration. Civil, family, juvenile and traffic matters would be heard at the existing courthouse.

Even as a new courthouse is sought, the Imperial County courthouse stands as a dignified—and still functional—testament to those ideals of Valley pioneers and many do not wish to see that change.

“This courthouse is historic. A lot of the older courthouses are falling down and have to be demolished. We have no plans to do that,” Imperial County Superior Court Presiding Judge Christopher J. Plourd explained, fondly recalling cooling off there as a child on hot summer days while his attorney father practiced law. “We feel it is part of the community. Old buildings are expensive to keep up, but we’re committed to doing that.”