This has been a turbulent week for Napa’s justice system in the wake of Sunday’s major earthquake. The damaged Historic Courthouse will need expensive and lengthy repairs, while the jail has been yellow-tagged, restricting public access.
Downtown Historic Courthouse, which dates from the 1870s, may have sustained damages in excess of $20 million, according to “very preliminary” figures. It’s been red-tagged and put behind chain link fencing.
“We anticipate that the historic 1870 portion will probably take one to two years to reconstruct,” said Rick Feldstein, Napa County Superior Court’s court executive officer.
All civil matters usually handled at the landmark courthouse have been transferred across the street to the modern Napa County Criminal Courthouse on Third Street.
During the earthquake, a section of a corner brick wall facing Brown Street fell, leaving a hole 6 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. A number of walls appear compromised and the roof appears to have detached in places, officials said. “It is a very grave concern,” Feldstein said.
More inspections will take place this week and next, Feldstein said.
Under the best-case scenario, the newer portions of the building — one built in the 1970s and another in the 1930s — may be re-occupied during the reconstruction at the Historic Courthouse.
“That would give us access to another courtroom, Courtroom C, the Self-Help Center, the Jury Assembly Room and Family Court Services,” Feldstein said. “The newer portions of the building have not sustained much structural damage – if at all.”
Napa County owns the Historic Courthouse, but the state manages the facility.
“Because it’s a state-managed building, I deal with the state at this point,” Feldstein said, referring to the Judicial Council’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management.
In the meantime, lawyers, clients and defendants have all moved to the three floors of the 1989 Criminal Courthouse, where judges handling civil and criminal matters must now share courtrooms and chambers.
“The judges are adjusting quite well,” Feldstein said.
A number of files in the old courthouse suffered water damaged when an office flooded. Once the building is deemed safe to enter, these files will be freeze-dried, officials said.
Jurors will be directed to assemble at the Criminal Courthouse beginning Monday. Feldstein said he does not expect a backlog of cases to develop.
Feldstein praised the 70 courthouse staff and 10 bailiffs and security personnel assigned to the courthouses.
“Our staff have been incredibly brave, dedicated and flexible in this whole transition, and to their credit, their primary concern has been serving the public,” he said.
Others are making adjustments as well. Both Napa County Public Defender lawyers and their counterpart with the Napa County District Attorney Office are now based at the Napa County Library in downtown. Their offices were in the Carithers Building on First Street, which was damaged during the earthquake.
Public defenders now work in the Teen Room, while prosecutors work on computers and laptops set up in the Community Room.
“We’ll make this work as we do here in Napa County,” Public Defender Ron Abernethy said Thursday during a court break.
The Hall of Justice, located next to the Criminal Courthouse on Third Street, has been yellow-tagged, displacing about 50 personnel from several departments, including Probation and the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District.
The Napa County jail has been yellow-tagged as well, putting it off limits to the public, but inmates and corrections staff are allowed to stay
Inmates continue to be booked at the Napa County jail, which Molly Rattigan, the county’s emergency public information officer, said is safe for inmates. There are both phone and video access for lawyers and others who cannot come inside to visit, she said.
As of Thursday, there were about 200 inmates at the jail.
Longtime Napa attorney Mervin Lernhart Jr. said he has had to postpone some cases because he was not able to meet with his clients. He’s also working from a laptop on the road.
His office on Jefferson Street, home to the five lawyers, has been-red tagged, meaning it is unsafe to enter.