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Safety top priority at new courthouse
The view from the jury lobby balcony overlooks the Stockton channel as well as the Stockton Arena, Banner Island Ballpark and the southwestern edge of Downtown Stockton. - photo by JASON CAMPEBLL/The Bulletin

STOCKTON – When jurors reported to the old San Joaquin County Superior Courthouse, they took the elevator to the basement and waited in a room that had no windows – sometimes for hours on end.
But now they have a $308 million view from the 12th floor of the new 13-story courthouse building set to open on Monday – ending a decade-long process that included cost overruns and setbacks, but will transform the way criminal justice is administered in San Joaquin County.
And for those who work in the building on a daily basis, the new digs are more than welcome – a modern state-of-the-art LEED-certified building that will increase efficiency as well as safety.
“I absolutely feel safer here than I did in the other building, and everybody should feel safer with these upgrades,” said San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Robin Appel Tuesday afternoon on a media tour of the new facility. “We’ve taken every step that we possibly could to make sure that safety is the top priority, and that means that things are going to change a bit when it comes to how the courthouse is operated.
“We urge people to be patient – there are going to be some changes and we’ll eventually get all of the kinks worked out.”
The new building, designed by Seattle-based architectural firm NBBJ Inc. – with design credits including the Samsung America headquarters in San Jose, the Royal Liverpool University Hospital in Liverpool, UK, and the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center in China – will replace the adjacent courthouse building that was completed in 1963 and poses a challenge for law enforcement officials tasked with maintaining security of the outdated building.
In addition to making all staff members and lawyers go through security screening prior to entering the building, the new structure and layout will ensure that those being arraigned never have to physically step foot inside of a courtroom – answering legal questions from a hallway adjacent to the courtroom through an open half-window – and will prevent those in custody from having to travel the same hallways as the public.
For convenience purposes, those needing to make payments to the court will no longer have to proceed through the security line now that clerk windows have been installed just inside the front doors of the Weber Street entrance – a sprawling lobby that includes a tile mosaic of a satellite image of San Joaquin County as well as a four-story glass atrium that includes an escalator that provides access to the second and third floors without having to get onto an elevator.
Upgrades also include a courtroom capable of handling two juries and two defendants at the same time – something the old courthouse was unable to do efficiently in the event of a trial with multiple defendants for the same crime – as well as state-of-the-art ticketing system that will allow those visiting clerks to check in and wait for their number to be called rather than standing in line and waiting to be told to go somewhere else.
The paper and clipboard docket system listing those who will appear in court on a given day has also been replaced by a screen system that will detail the name of the defendant, the department and the case number in the lobby to make it easier for observers and even court officers to find where they need to be.
Appel stressed the safety aspect of the need to complete the project – which began with public input meetings 17 years ago – to not only protect the public from those who are in custody, but also those that are in custody from one-another.
In 2009, a man accused of murdering his girlfriend was shot dead in a Stockton courtroom after he lunged at Judge Cynthia Fox with a jail-made weapon – sending her to the hospital with minor injuries and mental trauma that eventually led to her taking a medical retirement 10 months after the incident happened.
According to reports, the family of the man – 29-year-old David Paradiso – warned jailers that he had cryptically told them that he had a knife.
The new courthouse has 282,763-square feet of space – an estimated 30 percent more space than its six-story neighbor – and was originally designed to accommodate 30 court rooms, two of which were scrapped in order to save money. There are only 26 judges in San Joaquin County, with three expected to be appointed anytime by California Governor Jerry Brown.
Initial plans to tear down the old courthouse building were scrapped when it was determined that the cost of removing the asbestos would be prohibitively expensive, even though the glass-design of the new complex was laid out with the belief that the old courthouse would be an open plaza and not a six-story building.
The cost of the building construction was supposed to be roughly $283 million – paid for by fees, bonds and funds provided by the State of California – but cost overruns have the put the project more in the neighborhood of $308 million.
The new courthouse will open to the public on Monday, July 31.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.