Imperial County courts juggle heritage, convenience and efficiency

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Renderings of the proposed new courthouse in El Centro.

By Gary Redfern

The halls of justice are worn and narrow in Imperial County. Its main courthouse in El Centro was an architectural marvel—in 1924—and its two sidekicks are drab yet functional converted retail spaces, one part of a shopping mall in El Centro and the other a former bank in Brawley. Still, like many other issues involving government in these post-recession times, contentious debate flares over whether these facilities adequately serve the public and whether money should be spent on a new court. As always, external influences weigh heavily on possible outcomes.

“We have a critical need for a new courthouse,” snaps Christopher J. Plourd, presiding judge of the Imperial County Superior Court.  “We have 10 judges and no room for them all.”

Until this summer that position had the full backing of the California Judicial Council, the state entity that oversees operations of the superior, appellate and supreme courts, to the point where ground was about to be broken in January on a new $48 million courthouse near South Eighth Street and West Wake Avenue on El Centro’s far south side. Then, just like the dampness from a summer desert shower, that money was gone.

Citing a bleak funding outlook, the Judicial Council in August suspended construction for 17 proposed new courts statewide, including Imperial County’s. There is no timeline for resumption.

As a San Diego-based attorney, Plourd gained national acclaim walking the high wire of defending those facing the death penalty, and often sparing their lives. Raised in the tiny Imperial County city of Holtville with his father a leading local attorney, and later sometimes practicing law in the county himself, Plourd navigates well in the Imperial County justice system.

The state funding maze, however, is another matter, even for a barrister of his acumen. In an interview in August, Plourd and Tammy Grimm, local Superior Court executive officer, quickly nodded in agreement when asked if they were blindsided by the Judicial Council’s decision this past summer to halt the courthouse project. The next steps are uncertain.

“We have to come up with a plan. We’re not sure what that is,” Grimm conceded.

While they maintain more room and better security are two driving factors behind the need for a new courthouse facility, there is a more finite factor: the court’s $380,000-per-year lease of 18,000 square feet of space in the Valley Plaza shopping center at 1625 W. Main St. in El Centro expires in 2019 and renewing it is not an option, Plourd and Grimm agree.

“My thinking is if Tammy thinks we should get out, it’s what we should do,” Plourd said of the trust the judges have in their executive officer.  “Tammy will be in charge of that. We have two and a half years before the Valley Plaza lease expires. We have plenty of time.”
The two court executives also agree there is hope the state will restore funding for the new courthouse, but uncertainty means the courts must proceed as if funding will not come through. Aside from that, there is local debate over whether a new courthouse is even necessary, in particular because the Judicial Council’s plan for the new courthouse in El Centro included closure of the popular Brawley court.

Even though the new courthouse had been planned for several years, the controversy over the corresponding closure of the Brawley court flared in June, causing the Imperial County Board of Supervisors in August to vote unanimously against the move in a symbolic vote.

“That (main El Centro) courthouse is fine,” argued District 3 County Supervisor Michael Kelley, who was the local court administrator from 1981-1991. “They do a fine job. I don’t want to say the judges are hiding behind a smoke screen, but there should be complete communication with the local government and that just started.”

District 4 County Supervisor Ryan Kelley (no relation), whose district includes Brawley, is among the chorus of North End locals arguing strenuously against closure of the court branch in that city.

“I don’t believe the Brawley Courthouse should be closed. It might be more convenient for the judicial system, but it is a hardship on the citizens in North County,” Ryan Kelley argued. “I don’t think keeping the (Brawley) courthouse open should be at the expense of the building the new courthouse. We should be able to do both.”

If Michael Kelley experienced a bit of déjà vu with the issue, it came as no surprise. Controversies and seismic shifts involving the courts from time to time rock the stately halls of justice that go about their daily business in a precise and often little-noticed manner. News out of the court nearly always involves verdicts in major criminal or civil trials.

There is, however, a rarely seen administrative side. As in counties throughout the state, the 10 local judges meet regularly, just as legislative bodies do, though their meetings are not public. They determine local court policy, assign judges to various types of court proceedings, manage a budget and oversee personnel matters. That administration only rarely goes public, and facilities changes historically are a common cause of that.

Among the court mileposts were the statewide elimination of justice courts in the 1970s that were in local cities and whose judges were elected but not necessarily attorneys. That ended having courts in Imperial, Westmorland and Holtville. Under the next structure there were municipal courts in El Centro, Brawley and Calexico, with the superior still only in El Centro. A proposal known as “court consolidation” to close the Brawley and Calexico courts in 1989 was met with heated resistance.

Kelley, court administrator at the time, recalls that even though the plan would have saved a lot of money, there was a decisive response from the Board of Supervisors, which at that time still held control over court facilities and budget.

“The board totally opposed it. They (the courts) did try to consolidate and the board said, “Hell, no’,” Kelley recalls.

The board voted 4-1 in April 1989 to keep the Calexico and Brawley municipal courts open.

This is the second in a series of articles The Desert Review is publishing on the Imperial County court system. Next: Imperial County courts juggle heritage, convenience and efficiency Part II: Big Changes