It’s been a long wait for courthouse staff to get their new building in downtown Long Beach. The glass building on Magnolia Avenue with the sleek, black fountain in the front, a spacious garden atrium in the back and 31 courtrooms is just about a block and a half away from the faded-blue courthouse that faithfully served Los Angeles County from its perch on Ocean Boulevard.
Judges James Otto and Michael Vicencia, who serve as the supervising judge and the assistant-supervising judge of the LA County Superior Court, respectively, won’t have many regrets as they prepare for their courthouse to open on Sept. 9. Standing in a spacious jury-assembly area, Vicencia earlier this week had just finished leading a gaggle of reporters and photographers on a media tour, that began with the old courthouse and ended at the new building.
The Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse has plenty of bragging rights: courtrooms paneled in blonde wood with numerous technological advancements, Wi-Fi access, a massive lobby area with electronic boards that will display the locations of cases from day to day, a spacious area for the security personnel to check for weapons, escalators and elevators, flat-panel televisions and monitors in many areas, and lots of glass doors and windows letting in natural light. One person compared the feel of the building’s lobby to an airport.
On a late Tuesday afternoon, Vicencia and his tour group had just stepped from an outdoor balcony into the jury assembly room. The balcony had offered a view of the Long Beach city skyline, including a partial peek of the old courthouse that has had its share of maintenance nightmares. Vicencia had just been asked if there was anything he might miss about the old building.
“I did make a pet of one of the rats,” Vicencia joked. “That building– I don’t want to say served us well– but it did serve us.”
Otto interjected, acknowledging that the building on Ocean Boulevard that had been built in the late 1950s served the public well for about 10 years.
Really, neither one of these judges in charge of administrative matters for the courthouse in Long Beach owned up to any feelings of nostalgia for the building on Ocean Boulevard.
Now that they were getting set to move into the county’s newest courthouse, both Vicencia and Otto were very frank about the problems that plagued the old building. Vicencia said that it was well known that they needed a new courthouse since the 1990s. He described how he would often argue with other judges outside the area about who had the worst courthouse.
“And, I got to say,” Vicencia said, “between our rats, asbestos, mold, elevators and escalators…I always won the argument. So I’ve never met someone with a worse courthouse than this one. Sort of a sad conversation to have.”
Vicencia and Otto took the group of journalists around the old building earlier that day, pointing out leaks coming from mysterious cracks in the ceiling, outdated and inefficient security areas that were well known for causing long lines that snaked around the building. Vicencia was serious about the rat problem, recalling how the cushions in one judge’s bench had been shredded by rodents. He talked about the number of times the elevators or escalators had been broken in the old building. The companies that manufactured them had each gone out of business years ago, and oftentimes, parts had to be newly forged in order to repair them.
The elevator and escalator issue was a special sore spot for Vicencia. He recalled one time in 2005 when a man on jury duty had suffered a heart attack. Although it only took two minutes for paramedics to arrive at the building, it took another seven minutes for them to get to the man on the sixth floor. The elevators were already crowded at that time of day, and what was worse, the public elevators were only designed to go to the fifth floor. Paramedics had to hike up to the sixth floor and leave the gurney behind one floor below. By that time, Vicencia said, the man’s heart had slowed considerably. He was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at the hospital.
“It’s impossible to say whether or not those seven minutes mattered,” Vicencia said, “but it’s been a black eye to this courthouse ever since then.”
Vicencia, standing in the jury-assembly room in his new building, seemed pleased to leave behind the old courthouse with its bad memories of leaks in the ceiling and the faint smell of urine outside.
He will sit in a smaller chamber in this new building, behind a bullet-proof glass window that also has its own view of the city skyline.
“I do think that we’re going from the worst courthouse in the state to the best,” he said. “This is a state-of-the-art courthouse, and I think the access to justice that [the courthouse] will provide to this community will be second to none.”