Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2015

Gordon Mallon has tried cases in many of Oregon’s courthouses and has an appreciation for their strengths and weaknesses. The Umatilla County Circuit Court building, which replaced a structure burned by an arsonist in 2005, earns his praise. So does the Klamath County Circuit Court building, constructed after a 1993 earthquake destroyed its predecessor.

“The Baker County Courthouse is an old-style courthouse. It’s fabulous inside and has tall pillars and lots of wood. Some of the Eastern Oregon courthouses definitely have their own flavor,” says Mallon, a Lake Oswego attorney who serves as secretary of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “Some of the old courthouses are very cool, but not very functional.”

The sorry state of many of Oregon’s courthouses is well documented, from dilapidated buildings that are structurally unsound to others that are not equipped for today’s technology or even the weather.

“One of the most common problems is substandard air conditioning,” Mallon says. “I’ve been in trials in some counties in Eastern Oregon where the judge has gone beyond asking lawyers to remove their jackets and sort of ordered them to.”

Mallon notes that in the Harney County courthouse, the air conditioning system was so loud that it had to be turned off during proceedings and could only run during the breaks. Space is another prominent problem. In Malheur County, Mallon took part in a jury trial in a small courtroom that was not designed for 12 jurors and barely allowed space for the attorneys.

Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier, president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association (ODAA), also has presented cases in several courthouses and ranks the buildings in Josephine, Douglas and Jackson counties as those in reasonably good shape.

“The Coos County Courthouse is outdated and there are questions about its ability to withstand an earthquake. In my opinion, it does need to be replaced or extensively remodeled, but it is not a crisis situation yet,” Frasier says. “The Curry County Courthouse is in bad shape. In the past, the roof leaked and the No. 2 courtroom really needs to be replaced.”

Though the need is evident, the solution is not. Both Coos and Curry counties are dependent on timber, and the disappearance of federal timber dollars means other services take financial priority, Frasier says.

“The state of the buildings is taking a back burner as there simply are no funds to do major fixes,” he says.

While Oregon has struggled for decades to fund its courthouses, recent progress has been made to maintain and replace several of them in the near future. With funding allocated by the legislature and creative financing options being explored, a handful of Oregon counties are crafting plans to either improve their court facilities or build new ones.

Site Assessments Lead to Priority List of Fixes

Financial responsibility for state trial courts was shared between county governments and the state until 1981, when the legislature passed a bill that unified the system under the Oregon Department of Justice. The bill, which also created the state court administrator’s position, left the counties responsible for funding district attorney offices and providing “suitable and sufficient court facilities.”

The phrase “suitable and sufficient” has not been defined by statute, but it has become well-known lexicon for those with a stake in the safety and efficiency of Oregon’s courthouses. Cash-strapped counties have struggled to maintain, repair and upgrade the courthouses, nearly a dozen of which date back to the turn of the century. The passage of property tax ballot measures such as 5 (1990), 47 (1996) and 50 (1997) further hampered counties’ ability to fund courthouses, according to a 2009 final report issued by the Interim Committee on Court Facilities.

The committee, established by the legislature in 2007, was charged with: evaluating the status of the state’s court facilities; recommending standards for reasonable and sufficient court facilities; reporting the cost of meeting those standards; and developing a proposal to ensure that needed improvements are made. During its first meeting, it took testimony from the three co-chairs of the Task Force on Court Facilities, which laid the groundwork for the committee’s work (see sidebar). According to the committee’s final report, Paul De Muniz, former chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, said it was essential to acknowledge that the nature of court functions has changed since many of the existing courthouses were constructed.

“Those changes, both in terms of technology and the way that courts operate, compel consideration of not just rebuilding the system as it currently exists, but of making renovations and improvements with an eye to different kinds of court activities, including specialty courts, increased use of mediation, evening court hours and paperless court operations,” the report states.

The committee partnered with the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to commission a study of 48 courthouses across the state. The site assessments and surveys conducted by Portland firms Hennebery Eddy Architects and Ethos Development ranked courthouses on a scale of 1 to 5, based on a list of more than 200 criteria outlined in state guidelines. These included configuration, space allocation, security, code compliance and physical condition, among other requirements. The courthouses with the most excessive upgrades needed ranked a 1 while those that did meet state guidelines received a 5.

Of the 48 facilities included in the assessments, 10 ranked a 4 or above. Another 29 ranked between 3 and 4 and nine ranked below a 3, meaning 38 court facilities do not meet state guidelines. The Klamath County Courthouse received the highest ranking with a 4.66. Union County’s courthouse received the lowest ranking with a 2.04. The average ranking across all court facilities included in the assessments was 3.5, according to the report.

While costs have risen since the assessments were conducted in 2008, the total overall estimated cost to upgrade all 48 facilities was $843 million. The highest-cost facility — and a longtime top priority — was the Multnomah County Courthouse at nearly $210 million. Deschutes County had the lowest cost at about $1.3 million; the average cost per facility was $17.5 million.

The site assessments turned up expected findings, such as: a lack of access for people with disabilities; dated infrastructure that compromised heating, cooling and other systems; space limitations; and an inability to accommodate today’s technology. Other details within the assessments, primarily safety and security concerns, were sensitive enough that they were not included in information that was made public, the report states.

Funding for Improvements Begins to Flow

The assessments resulted in a priority list that has guided the legislature in its funding of courthouse improvements. During the 2011-12 session, the legislature bolstered funding for state court emergency preparedness, business continuity and security training. It also funded capital improvements that included life-safety upgrades to fire alarms and sprinklers.

Union County, which received the lowest ranking of the 48 facilities included in the assessments, last year received $2 million to replace its courthouse. Built in 1905, the La Grande courthouse was condemned in the mid-1990s because of a rotten foundation, among other problems. Court functions, including Union County’s one circuit judge, were moved to the basement of the county jail and then into part of a hospital built in 1937.

During its 2013 session, the legislature also authorized $15 million in state bond sales to match Multnomah County’s effort to build a new courthouse. Among the biggest concerns about Multnomah County’s 100-year-old courthouse is that it’s one of the most widely used courthouses in the state and also one of the most likely to suffer significant damage during an earthquake.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners contracted with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) for a study of long-term needs and planning for the new courthouse. The NCSC recommended that offices and high-traffic courts be located separately from the new courthouse, which would allow for a smaller courthouse and reduce construction costs.

In addition, the county commissioners approved an agreement with DAS that designates the state’s portion of the construction to be funded through bond sales from 2015-19. The new Multnomah County Courthouse, expected to be situated in downtown Portland, is scheduled for completion in 2020, according to a November article Renee Stineman wrote for the Multnomah Bar Association. Stineman is a member of the MBA’s Court Liaison Committee. In December, Multnomah County commissioners chose a site at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge as their preferred location for the new courthouse.

Jefferson County also ranked high on the priority list and this year received $4 million for a new courthouse to replace its 1960s-era facility in Madras. The old structure has been deemed structurally unsafe and inaccessible for people with disabilities. It is also located in a flood zone and is so crowded that victims and defendants are often seated near each other. The county plans to build its new courthouse on the same property that houses the Madras city hall and police department, the Bend Bulletin reported.

For the 2013-15 biennium, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Balmer has requested $150,000 to replace the roof of the Curry County Courthouse, which is more than 20 years old and is deteriorating. Balmer also requested nearly $1.4 million to improve courthouse fire alarm and sprinkler systems in Curry, Gilliam, Malheur and Wallowa counties.

The legislature’s formula for funding court facility improvements is showing some long-awaited results as improvement projects get underway. While methods for calculating the state match for court funding is still a work in progress, some are concerned about counties’ responsibility under the current formula.

“As president of the ODAA, I know there are some serious questions about the state funding to help replace these buildings. This came up in the ongoing discussions in Multnomah County,” Frasier says.

Within the current formula, the state provides funding for the cost of a new building with the amount paid based on the percentage of floor space used by state agencies. For example, if state courts took up 30 percent of the floor space, the state would pay 30 percent of the cost of a building. If there are other state agencies in the building, the percentage goes up depending on floor space used, he explains.

“The problem we are concerned about is that the state has taken the position that district attorney offices are not state agencies and, as a result, D.A. office floor space costs are not covered by the state,” Frasier says. “We are concerned about that ruling because each D.A. is an elected state official. It does not make a lot of sense to us that we are not a state agency for purposes of this funding formula.”


Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contibutor to the Bulletin.

© 2015 Melody Finnemore

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