Judicial Beauty

New county courthouse gets winning verdict

By Gary Delsohn
March 2023

Over the years, I spent lots of time in two buildings that have generated countless colorful stories—the state Capitol and county courthouse.

Both spawned captivating tales of intrigue and chicanery, but it was no contest when it came to which was the more inspiring structure. The original neoclassical Capitol is 149 years old and one of the most graceful statehouses in the nation.

The Gordon D. Schaber courthouse, named after the late, longtime dean of Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law, is as far from graceful as you can get.

Opened in 1965, the boxy building and its cold, uninviting plaza personify bleak. Its architectural style is known as Brutalist for a reason. The tomb-like structure can get so overcrowded that it’s unsafe and inefficient. Judges refer to the courthouse, one of the busiest in the state, as a logistical nightmare that should have been replaced years ago.

For a long time, that was the plan. In 2008, the Judicial Council of California listed it as in “immediate and critical need” of an upgrade. Retired Judge Lloyd Connelly, known for his sound judgment and integrity, spent years calling out the building’s many shortcomings.

“We don’t have fire sprinklers above the first floor,” he said more than a decade ago. “It’s at the highest earthquake risk level that there is. It violates all the (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. We don’t have secure hallways, so we’re escorting (defendants) down the hallways, frequently in belly chains, where jurors, witnesses, other people can see them. Our holding cells are so far below the code that we have prisoners frequently forced to stand up. They cannot sit down during the time that they have to wait there.”

It is not just defendants who have no place to sit. When there are multiple trials in the building’s 44 courtrooms (I witnessed several as a reporter), jurors would sometimes sit in the stairwells during breaks. There was no place else to accommodate them. Jurors, the public and everyone who works in the building deserve better.

For more than a decade, it seemed every time the state was ready to fund a new Sacramento courthouse, some other California city got the green light first. Our new courthouse was stalled by more than one state funding crunch. Construction on a 2.4-acre site in the Downtown railyards between H and G streets didn’t begin until late 2020.

Now the $514 million courthouse adjacent to the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building on I Street is shaping up nicely. It will be 18 stories, have more than 538,000 square feet and 53 appropriately sized courtrooms, with enhanced security and circulation systems.

Scheduled to open in May 2024, it will include the court’s civil and criminal operations, a large jury assembly room, food services and a civil settlement counter. The new building allows for consolidation of court operations at five nearby satellite locations.

When the building opens, the old courthouse will be fenced off and eventually sold. Money for the new courthouse comes from lease revenue bonds retired over time by the state’s general fund.

Designed by NBBJ, a global architectural firm that planned successful public buildings around the world, the new Sacramento County Superior Courthouse will provide an attractive addition to the skyline.

It will feature a glass curtain wall on the north side that allows natural light in public hallways and views of the American River, two aesthetic considerations clearly not on the minds of the 1965 courthouse architects. The new building will feature precast concrete panels on the east and west facades that match the Capitol, which can be seen from the site.

“At their most basic level, courthouses provide space for judicial proceedings to take place,” NBBJ’s website explains. “However, these buildings must also project an outward appearance that upholds the community’s faith in, and respect for, the justice system. The Sacramento County Superior Courthouse replaces an antiquated Downtown courthouse with a state-of-the-art facility that brings renewed prosperity to the region while meeting the judicial needs of its growing community.”

Sacramento is capital of the fifth largest economy in the world. It deserves a courthouse that not only works effectively but reflects the city’s growing stature. I look forward to the colorful stories the new building will generate in years to come.

Gary Delsohn can be reached at gdelsohn@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento

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