California Courts at High Risk for Quake Damage

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This is not a script for a disaster movie; it's just a script for disaster.

According to the California Judicial Council's Court Facilities Advisory Committee, scores of courthouses pose a high or very high risk of falling apart in an earthquake. More than 140 courts are seismically unsafe, the committee reported.

Glendale Superior and Municipal Courthouse is the least safe, according to the report, followed by Alameda County Administration Building, which houses civil courts. Retrofitting the buildings with the highest risk would cost about $2 billion.

"It doesn't get safer each year as the buildings get older," said Stephen Nash, executive officer for Contra Costa County Superior Court. "We are sitting on a time bomb. We are watching the clock tick."

Budget Quake

The report was released at a meeting in San Francisco last week, only days after the governor announced a budget that provides no new funding for courts. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the budget is not fair.

"Inadequate funding and chronic under-funding of the courts is just one way a justice system can become unjust," she said. "To be sure, a justice system and our checks and balances can fail in the face of fear and prejudice. But they can also fail with lack of funding."

The seismic report does not account for the state's fiscal limits, except if you count the courthouses that will be closed due to the budget shortfall. According to reports, 10 Los Angeles area courthouses and seven more in Fresno County will soon go dark.

Sen Noreen Evans, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the governor should give back more than $150 million that was deducted from the judicial budget in 2011.

Historic Buildings

Historic courthouses, especially those made of bricks, are most likely to fall in an earthquake. Some are already falling down.

Napa's Historic Courthouse was shut down after a 6.0 earthquake in 2014 with an estimated $20 million to repair. It has a risk rating of 22.9; the Alameda building rates 37.2.

Of the state courts cited in the report, approximately half had acceptable ratings. The rest were deemed seismically unsafe.

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