In the past few months, a vast amount of ire has been directed at Monterey County Superior Court as it figures out how to forge into the future, facility-wise, in a resource-constrained world. That ire centers around the idea that while construction of a new courthouse has long been expected to happen in South County, the system also needs to replace its existing Monterey facility as well.
About 15 years ago, the state Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the California court system, identified South County as having an immediate need for the new courthouse to replace one that closed in King City. Greenfield stepped up, the Judicial Council spent money coming up with plans and by 2012, everyone was ready to break ground.
That’s when funding dried up and the Greenfield project landed on indefinite hold. As South County residents struggled with accessing justice, with long travel times to the Peninsula or Salinas, the Monterey facility continued to decline. In addition to flooding problems and asbestos problems and maybe even rodent problems, the Judicial Council conducted seismic reviews of all courthouses and labeled the Monterey courthouse as “very high risk” in need of prioritized mitigation.
So what to do? As the Judicial Council surveys the state’s court facilities and tries to prioritize needs, should the local court fulfill a promise and advocate for Greenfield, or should it focus on trying to replace a decrepit building with a new Peninsula courthouse?
How about both?
Monterey County Superior Court Presiding Judge Lydia Villarreal says that is what will happen: The court, in the next week, plans to send its requests to the Judicial Council, and those requests are for a seven-courtroom replacement courthouse to be built somewhere on the Peninsula – looking at you, Seaside – and for a two-courtroom courthouse in Greenfield.
Of those two, Greenfield may be more compelling: The tentative plan calls for one traditional courtroom to be devoted to criminal cases, especially cases requiring prisoner transport from Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, and one “courtroom of the future,” where a judge appears via video conference.
With access issues in Monterey County a harsh reality, and with facilitating access a top priority of California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Villarreal says a courtroom of the future could capture the imagination – and the support – of the Judicial Council.
“We think if we had a courtroom of the future, we could schedule all manner of cases, from family law, domestic violence restraining orders, civil harassment orders, child support, traffic and small claims cases,” Villarreal tells me. “We could essentially do everything folks would need, but we can do it by having a judge appear remotely. The judge isn’t spending an hour driving there and an hour driving back, but instead they’re spending two quality hours doing that calendar.”
A South County courthouse with a high-tech virtual courtroom likely means a tradeoff, and that would come with a smaller Peninsula facility. The seven-courtroom plan might be less than ideal, but it ups the possibility the Judicial Council will approve both.
“This isn’t a Seaside-Greenfield competition. It really is a competition with about 200 other court facilities and we need to figure out how to get our facility needs ranked as high as possible,” Villarreal says. “We know you can be labeled ‘critical need’ and seven years later still be waiting for your courthouse. But we think we can jiggle this loose. We have internally moved heaven and earth to find every conceivable way to bump up our scores.”
Villarreal anticipates finding out in August how the Judicial Council has ranked Monterey County’s requests.
Regardless of what the council decides, the court plans on upping its South County services, conducting its self-help clinic two days a week in Greenfield, adding traffic court in a few weeks and then expanding further to hold small-claims court.
“Whatever the state decides to do,” Villarreal says, “it’s unlikely that it’s going to be fast, so we have to keep coming up with new ideas so we can continue to serve there.”