As the gavel rang down on the last decade, the state of California and its 58 counties closed the books on a massive real estate transfer, part of an ambitious court reform that leaves trial court facilities under the jurisdiction of the state.

Now the state looks to carry on the reform’s promise of equal justice represented by courtrooms with a consistent standard of facilities and security features.

“The challenge for the state is to make sure that that bond money originally set up for court construction stays dedicated for court construction,” said San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, a leader of the restructuring effort as former president of the California State Association of Counties.

“There are some judges looking at the lack of funding coming from Sacramento for courts,” Cox added. “Some would like to not spend that on court facilities but on court operations. I think that would be a travesty.”

From the original Trial Court Facility Act of 2002, progress was lagging on counties transferring courthouse facilities to the state when the Legislature in 2008 passed a $5 billion bond issue for courthouse construction as part of a reauthorization.

“The state needed to come up with some way to encourage counties or entice them to transfer facilities,” said Cox.

That spurred a host of settlements in 2008 and 2009, including a swap of buildings and real estate between San Diego County and the state to pave the way for a new, 17-story downtown courthouse. Cox was a principal in those negotiations.
The state reauthorization set up a deadline of Dec. 31, 2009. The last transaction — in Glenn County — was authorized two days before that.

Cox credited the leadership of California Chief Justice Ronald George. “The transfer of the last court facility marks a significant milestone in the Judicial Council’s effort to establish the judiciary as a separate and equal branch of state government,” George stated in a news release.

The Glenn County memorandum of understanding came in under the wire. It took some time to hammer out protections for the 115-year-old Willows courthouse as a historic landmark, while renovations are planned.

Some of the last agreements to be reached were tough nuts for negotiation because of historic landmark status and seismic liability issues, Cox noted. The latter was an issue in the San Diego courthouse settlement.

“There is still a large and growing backlog of unfunded repairs and renovations, so our current task at hand is to allocate limited resources wisely and equitably,” said Philip Carrizosa, a communications officer for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. “A working group of court representatives (judges and court executives) helps us do this on a regular basis.”

Two decades ago, court officials sought ways to improve the consistency of procedure and facilities for local courts, which received funding from their home counties and from the state. The reform was to consolidate each county’s superior and municipal courts into a single, state-administered trial court system.

The Trial Court Act of 1997 built a framework for moving funding and administration to the state, first with a shift of court personnel to be state employees, explained Elizabeth Howard Espinosa, a legislative representative with CSAC, the California State Association of Counties.

After the personnel centralization was accomplished, the state passed the 2002 act to transfer ownership of court facilities. With the Glenn County settlement  in December, it totaled 532 facilities transferred in seven years. See link here.

“The process to transfer was extremely difficult,” Espinosa said. “At certain points along the way, it was hard to see a way out. It was a great deal of work.”

There was no model for the breadth of the statewide transfer process, Espinosa said. “It was the largest intergovernmental real estate transaction in our (California’s) history,” she said.

The negotiations included the individual counties making payments in perpetuity to the state as court administration was centralized.

A key tool to leverage progress in negotiations, said Cox, was the establishment of a Court Facilities Dispute Resolution Committee, with one representative each from CSAC, the state Administrative Office of the Courts and the state Department of Finance. Cox praised the vision on that committee of his colleague, Riverside Supervisor John Tavaglione, second vice president of CSAC.

Lance Howland can be reached at