State has Final Say in Brawley Court Closure

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

EL CENTRO — The decision on whether to close the Brawley branch of the Imperial County Superior Court rests with the California Judicial Council because it owns the office space the Brawley court occupies, state and local court officials agree.

Controversy erupted over the summer when it was learned a council report on a proposed second courthouse in El Centro included a provision to close the Brawley court when the new court opened in 2019. The issue went from a full boil to a simmer in August when the council indefinitely delayed 17 new court construction projects, including the one in El Centro, for budgetary reasons. That also gave the Brawley court a reprieve.

However, court facilities issues are certain to persist for two major reasons, local court officials said. First, the circumstances that caused the state to consider building another court building in El Centro­­­­—overcrowding and the need for better security at the current El Centro courthouse built in the 1920s—remain.

Second, because it is uncertain when, or if, a new courthouse will be built, the local courts must decide where to move 18,000 square feet of court operations now housed in offices at the Valley Plaza shopping mall at 1625 W. Main St. in El Centro, said Tammy Grimm, local court executive officer.

The $380,000-per-year Valley Plaza lease is up in March 2019 and Grimm said she and the county’s judges do not wish to renew it because it is too expensive. A new location has not been chosen.

The opening of the proposed $48 million court near West Wake Avenue and South Eighth Street on El Centro’s south side would have allowed for the courts to depart Valley Plaza without seeking other space, Grimm added.

The local judges can decide where to move the Valley Plaza operations because the local court holds the lease, according to Blaine Corren, Judicial Council public affairs analyst.

The local judges do not have such discretion with the Brawley court because the Judicial Council actually owns 28 percent of the building at 220 Main St. in which the Brawley court is located, Corren added. The rest of the building is owned by Imperial County and mostly houses county offices, Imperial County Public Information Officer Rebecca Terrazas-Baxter stated in an e-mail.

State court rules hold that county courts have discretion on the location of court facilities the county courts procure, provided the structure meets seismic and disability-access requirements set by the state court, Corren explained. But local courts do not hold such discretion for facilities owned by the state court.

Though the delay in the building of the new court in El Centro provided a reprieve for the Brawley court branch, it is not permanent. The Judicial Council might be a hard sell on keeping it open if the new court is ever built.

“They’re not going to fund that courthouse (in Brawley) when there is a new one. At the time it is open, we will see,” said Christopher Plourd, the Imperial County court’s presiding judge, leaving the door open a crack for the possibility of it staying open.