The public opening of the new $70 million Tuolumne County Superior Courthouse is just over a month away on Aug. 23.
On Friday, a few workers were putting on the finishing touches to the interior. From the entrance, the view is all the glitter of terrazzo marble, high lit ceilings adorned with "scales of justice" lights and the sheen of seats and screens and vestibules and courtrooms all yet unused.
"I hope the public would find it to be a space conducive for easy maneuvering and equal access to justice," said Shelley Henley, court facilities manager and fiscal liaison. "All of the services are going to be accessible in one spot."
The courthouse is at the county Law and Justice Center off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora. Construction began in December 2018 and, after a few postponements through the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Henley calls the opening date "firm."
"Construction is always a moving target," she said, "but we're ready."
Turner Construction, based in New York City, is the general contractor for the project.
The courthouse was mostly vacant on Friday except for Henley, Shelley Walker, the court fiscal manager, some scattered staff and construction workers. Upon opening, they expect the ground floor to be a hub of activity.
In the public lobby, there will be new X-ray machines and a marble manufactured desk for security. On the other side of a partition will be the designated exit. Surrounding them are dark, calloused stones, rising above to the tall ceilings set with wooden planks and five symmetrical lights, designed like the "scales of justice."
Every corner of the courthouse will be monitored from a ground-floor surveillance room staffed with multiple computers and Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office deputies.
Nearby is the jury assembly room with its floral patterned seats and view of the outside, staff-only patio. There's a law library for public use in the self-help legal resource center (the books aren't filling the brown wooden shelves yet, but they will, Walker assured).
There's also multiple desks for the public to access court files and information, from civil, traffic, criminal and other divisions, and with digital signage to specify the time and the department of each window. There is a file viewing room available to the public and connected to the clerks’ windows.
The public and staff areas are high-tech in design and functionality compared to the Historic County Courthouse on Yaney Avenue, originally built at the turn of the 20th century.
Digital screens will announce the daily court calendars — all of them in the lobby — and individual screens at each courtroom. The courtrooms will even be equipped with "white noise machines" to drown out confidential discussions and clerks will be able to digitally present evidence.
Unlike the historic courthouse, there will be elevators and disability accessible seating throughout the various rooms.
"The ta-da moment. We have an elevator," Henley said.
Every courtroom has its unique touches, most notably in the patterned mosaic of stone blocks of variable thickness and color mined from a local quarry, set with the Great Seal of California and flanking the judge's seats.
Department 1, for Tuolumne County Presiding Judge Kevin M. Seibert, has an occupancy of 143 people, the largest courtroom.
On the second floor, there will be Department 2 with Judge Laura Krieg, Department 3 with Judge Kate Powell Segerstrom, Department 4 with Judge Donald Segerstrom and Department 5 with Commissioner Philip A. Pimintel.
The courtrooms will feature a variety of amenities: attorney conference rooms out front, cushioned seats inside, and visible projectors to the jury box and public. Every room in the courthouse has motion lights.
Outside the courtrooms are also historical images of Tuolumne County and captions explaining local heritage, such as photos of the Tuolumne County Historic Courthouse, of the construction of Hetch Hetchy, or aerial photos of Pinecrest.
Tall windows flood many of the public areas outside of the courtrooms with natural light. The building itself is largely monotonal: off whites, stone-hewn blacks and occasional accent walls of oceanic blue or sage green.
"That's our goal, to make everyone feel good about the building," Henley said.
Inmates will be shuttled outside of the public eye, through a basement, via a sally port and in detention elevators to holding cells outside of the court rooms.
An outside walkway to the Dambacher Detention Center, which is just next door, is still in development. For the time being, the inmates will be transferred via bus, as they are now.
Also in the back, are the private staff offices, still appearing fresh, unused and unembellished yet by personal touches. There's a wellness room (mandated for the state for nursing or mental health breaks), a break room, bathrooms with showers and even a high-density filing system with twistable steering wheels to move shelves on tracks.
The judge's private offices on the second floor are spacious, with ample seating, workspace and standing-optional desks. The views from the windows are of the jail down below and the rolling foothills south of Sonora.
Outside, there are local marbles mined by Blue Mountain Minerals, trees and seating.
Ongoing work at this time includes "punch list items," Walker said, like fixing a battery backup on the detention elevators and finishing equipment installation.
The court plans for a ceremonial grand opening in October, which Walker said will feature Chief Justice of California Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye and her staff.
A parking garage will have secure parking for judges. There are two elevators from the garage level that go to the first and second floor, where the courtrooms and holding cells for those courtrooms are located.
The construction on the new courthouse is paid for entirely by the State Judicial Council, not the county, and employed approximately 90 trade workers a day at the site, including employees from NorCal Glass, Joe Cover and Sons, steel workers and drywall contractors.
There are approximately 40 employees between the two existing courthouses, including contractors, part-time employees, and the elected or appointed judges.
At a public meeting on June 15, the county Board of Supervisors approved hiring the architectural firm Lionakis to come up with some designs for potential remodels of the old courthouses on Yaney Avenue and North Washington Street, the old Tuolumne General Hospital and the fourth floor of the County Administration Center at 2 S. Green St.
The county sent out requests for qualifications in April after a board authorization about a week prior to that.
The work request asked for the best and most economical remodel overall, a structural evaluation review of both courthouses, the best and most economical placement of an elevator at the Yaney Courthouse, and the development of a parking plan at the Tuolumne General Hospital site.
The county received architectural proposals from five firms, including Lionakis.
Completion of the all the required tasks is expected to take Lionakis five months. The total cost of the contract is expected to be $259,910, which will be split between the capital budget ($145,356) and the Health and Human Services Fund ($114,545).
According to a county letter to Lionakis, the county intends to relocate the County Administrator's Office, the Board of Supervisors and the County Counsel from the fourth floor of the County Administration Center to the Yaney Avenue Historic Courthouse. They plan to install an elevator at the Historic Courthouse, a requirement before it can be used for any other purpose.
The county plans to relocate the District Attorney’s Office to the courthouse on North Washington Street, though if they do not fit, they may be moved to the Historic Courthouse. The fourth floor of the administration center will be repurposed as the new home for the county's Information Technology Division, which currently operates out of a building on Morning Star Drive leased by the county for nearly $100,000 per year.
The county Health and Human Services Agency, made up of the social services and public health departments, plans to be relocated to the former Tuolumne General Hospital building with re-evaluated parking.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at email@example.com or (209) 588-4526.