Judges are handing down a harsh verdict on newly configured courts that deal with speeding tickets, landlord disputes and small claims.
The new centralized courts make many people drive miles farther than before to fight a ticket or get an order of protection.
The building’s design forces clerks to walk up to six miles a day to retrieve files and get judges to sign documents.
And judges describe possible danger with an inmate detention area that could put deputies at risk because security guards have limited access.
The courts are part of the San Tan Regional Court Center in downtown Chandler, which was supposed to improve customer service and make the courts more efficient. The roughly $11 million center opened in March, housing four justice of the peace courts that serve Chandler, Tempe, Gilbert and parts of Queen Creek. The courts had been housed in separate locations, usually in their own districts.
The center has made many things worse, said Judge John Ore of the University Lakes Justice Court. During a tour of the facility, he mocked the building’s design, which put clerks at the opposite end of the building from files they need to constantly access. One clerk wore a pedometer that showed she walked six miles a day.
“We give them eight hours of work to do and we tell them sometime during the course of the day, you have to walk from here to 6 miles from here — and don’t get behind on your work,” Ore said.
That means the public spends more time at the front counter while clerks get files and try to track down judges in another part of the building to sign the documents, Ore said.
Ore’s district includes Arizona State University — so many of his cases involve students who are getting evicted or dealing with arrests for underage drinking. His old court was about two miles from campus, but his Chandler court is 12 miles farther away. Since the move, he sees just 10 percent as many tenants show up in court to fight evictions because of the distance.
“They lose because they’re not here,” Ore said.
The more-distant court could prove tougher for both landlords and tenants. Tempe landlord Bill Butler said his former 10-mile round trip to the old court is now 32 miles. He recalled one eviction that required 12 trips to court and said he’s making leases less flexible so he can evict tenants much faster without having to visit the court as much.
“It has caused me to write much tighter leases because I don’t want to spend my life on the road if I have to go for an eviction,” Butler said.
The new court puts sheriff’s deputies at risk, Ore said, because they are the only ones with electronic key cards to access an inmate holding tank. Security guards initially had no access to the area and would not have been able to rescue deputies if an inmate assaulted one, Ore said. Guards have a key for the holding area, which is at the back of the building. But the guards — and the key — are posted 1,000 feet away at the building’s front.
Ore and other judges fought to redesign the building because Maricopa County had already built four similar court centers with other designs that they found inefficient. The Maricopa County Superior Court, which is in charge of the new buildings, ignored the justices of the peace, Ore and other judges said.
And the county is about to repeat the same mistake with a new cluster of four justice courts in Mesa, the judges said.
One tenant of that new center will be Judge Lester Pearce of the North Mesa Justice Court, who is fighting to redesign the building. He saw the plans and started to suggest changes — only to be told major changes were impossible because the county already ordered the steel.
Pearce, also a contractor who has built thousands of houses and commercial buildings, said the design is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t consider how employees relate to one another or use the building. He’s calling on the county to scrap the way it designs the courts.
“I believe they ought to take a closer look at what serves the people and not what serves the bureaucracy,” Pearce said. “The failure to be efficient and effective costs the public money.”
The justice acknowledge the consolidated courts offer some benefits. The public sometimes couldn’t get same-day service at the stand-alone courts if its judge wasn’t in court that day. With one location, another judge can step in quickly. The new building has room for more services, and many parts of its design are an improvement over the usually cheap construction of the stand-alone courts in strip malls.
Several justices of the peace said Superior Court judges micromanaged the court design based how a Superior Court works. Justice courts handle far greater volumes and constantly have to access files.
The county acknowledges the justice court judges didn’t have much say in the buildings they use. The Superior Court was in charge of the building’s design and had final say over everything, said Heidi Birch, who oversees new county building projects.
“They’re our client,” Birch said. “We really don’t deal with the justices.”
The county will change new court buildings based on complaints, such as the distant file room, said Marcus Reinkensmeyer, the court administrator for Superior Court.
“There’s an example where we’ve learned some things there,” Reinkensmeyer said.