Soon There Will No Longer Be Criminal Courts in Berkeley. Does Anyone Care? 

One judge does: Carol Brosnahan is fighting a one-woman battle to save the court she fondly refers to as "our dump"

It's a few minutes before Berkeley's Drug Court is scheduled to begin, and the second-floor hallway is filled with defendants comparing rap sheets. "They get you on a drunk in public?" one court regular asks the guy next to him. But the chatter briefly ceases when a grandmotherly woman with a gray Dutch-boy haircut walks by. "Good afternoon, judge," a court client says. Judge Carol Brosnahan shoots her familiar greeter a smile and heads into her chambers.

Minutes later inside Dept. 202 of the Berkeley-Albany Municipal Courthouse, a robed Brosnahan takes her seat and begins plowing through the foot-high stack of drug-related cases.

Seated in the jury box are a variety of service providers unique in the county's criminal justice system: A mental-health worker who weighs in on cases involving the mentally ill; Dr. Davida Coady, a recovering alcoholic who founded the Options Recovery Program, which tries to keep convicted drug abusers out of jail and sober; and a representative from the Berkeley Own Recognizance Project, an agency that helps the judge decide if a poor inmate should be let back on the streets without having to come up with bail money.

Brosnahan disposes of most of the cases within two minutes, often requiring someone to return in two weeks to a month for a check-up. She is efficient and to-the-point.

Appointed to the bench by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 1979, Brosnahan lacks the New Age reputation of her Drug Court predecessor, Judge Ron Greenberg, whom local law enforcement jokingly accused of holding "Kumbaya sessions" in court. Greenberg hung up his robe in March 2000, announcing he would continue "authoring articles and books on subjects related to law and practicing meditation."

While Brosnahan doesn't write articles on meditation, she does, however, believe firmly in the alternative, sometimes touchy-feely methods of Berkeley's court. That's understandable considering Brosnahan has spent her entire 22-year judicial career in the Berkeley-Albany court. At the end of this month, when veteran Berkeley Judge Jennie Rhine retires--to pursue, in her words, "other interests [like] travel, gardening, yoga"--Brosnahan will be the last vestige of a long-ago era in which Berkeley and Albany voters elected their own judges.

Now the final chapter of the Berkeley-Albany court is about to be written. In the near future--exactly when isn't clear--the court to which Brosnahan has dedicated more than two decades of her legal career will forever change in form and function. Court executives plan to convert the Berkeley courthouse to one that doesn't hear criminal matters. Berkeley's felony and misdemeanor cases--including Brosnahan's Drug Court caseload--would be transferred to the Oakland courts.

Brosnahan doesn't want to leave her longtime perch in downtown Berkeley, and she insists that she's not just worried about a longer commute to work. She fears that the caseload transfer could mean the end to the OR Project as well as reducing the effectiveness of Coady's drug-treatment program in Berkeley.

"We do a good job," she sighs. "It's a shame to see it all go down the tubes." Which is why Brosnahan is fighting a one-woman battle to save the court she fondly refers to as "our dump."

Built in 1959, the morbidly rectangular building housing the Berkeley-Albany Municipal Court is the epitome of functional but aesthetically challenged postwar architecture. You won't find a Doric column or cupola here. You will, however, encounter lime-colored restroom floor tiles that happen to be on the walls instead of the floor. The courthouse sits in marked contrast to its two elegant neighbors: to the south is the classic Old City Hall; to the north is the brand-new $20 million Public Safety Building.

Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean says she cringes every time she sees the cookie-cutter courthouse amid such architectural splendor. "It [the courthouse] is one of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen," she clucks.

"The mayor says it's an ugly building," Brosnahan retorts. "But she hasn't been inside to see that what we do here isn't ugly--it's important."

If all had gone according to plan, Carol Brosnahan wouldn't be forced to defend her courthouse against the architectural criticism of Shirley Dean.

Berkeley's politicians spent more than a decade wrangling over potential sites for a new courthouse in the city, while county officials patiently waited. In 1997, it looked as if a majority of the city's elected leaders had finally agreed on a site: a parking garage on Kittredge near the old Hink's department store. But when Berkeley council members finally went "ta da," county officials--who had waited years for a decision--were not impressed. They were even less impressed when they heard that city officials were insisting on expensive mitigations like replacing the garage's parking and installing air conditioners in nearby apartments so tenants could comfortably close their windows during noisy summertime construction. Overall, the estimated cost of the courthouse project swelled from $52 million to $85 million.

Meanwhile, California voters approved the unification of municipal and superior courts throughout the state. That meant the Berkeley-Albany Municipal Court, and other municipal courts in Alameda County, would be swallowed up by the superior court system.

In October of last year, court officials approved a master plan prepared by Daniel Smith & Associates that laid out the framework for consolidating court operations. Gone in the plan was any money to pay for a new courthouse in Berkeley. Instead, money was set aside to build a new facility in Dublin to serve the growing eastern area of the county. All that was left for Berkeley was a relatively paltry $2.9 million to make the existing court seismically safe and more accommodating for disabled people by December 2003.

Last week the Board of Supervisors --under pressure from court reps --agreed to begin implementing the court's master plan. Barbara Fox, the superior court's chief assistant executive officer, says the plan now is to eventually--most likely around the time renovation work begins--shift Berkeley's criminal cases to Oakland. Remaining court operations inside the aging facility will be temporarily moved over to a leased site on Center Street until hard hats finish the job. At that point, Fox says, the Berkeley courthouse will handle only small claims and traffic-court cases.

Carol Brosnahan has been hearing predictions of the Berkeley court's imminent demise for more than a year now, but at least until now, as the saying goes, rumors of the court's demise have been greatly exaggerated. News reports from a year ago said Berkeley's criminal court operations would end in December 2000; that obviously didn't happen. According to Brosnahan, court executives didn't have any room in Oakland for Brosnahan and Rhine and their caseloads. And there still isn't room in the Oakland courthouses, she says. "If they don't have a place for us, why should they bother to shut us down?" she reasons.

"There's really no urgency to closing it," Brosnahan argues, "because we're operating very efficiently right now. I just hope they put it on the backburner and don't close it."

It may be hard for most people to get all fired up about keeping a criminal court in Berkeley. After all, do any law-abiding citizens really care about a crack-smoking convict from Berkeley being inconvenienced because he'll have to go to a court in Oakland in the future? Supervisor Keith Carson, whose district includes Berkeley, says that at a series of community meetings last year local residents overwhelmingly wanted to keep a traffic and small-claims court nearby, but they didn't seem to care much about keeping the criminal court. "The people of Berkeley don't want [a criminal court]," Carson says. "And it's cheaper to have it consolidated [into the Oakland courts]."

But Brosnahan asks local taxpayers to consider this: Berkeley cops now will have to spend lots of extra time traveling to Oakland--instead of going next door--to find a judge who can sign a search warrant or emergency protective order. "It will involve taking the police off the streets to a large extent," the judge says.

Though widely respected by both peers and prosecutors, the veteran judge knows she's fighting an uphill battle. She sounds reasonably sure that Berkeley will keep its criminal court through the end of the year. After that, she sighs, "No one knows."

A major hitch is that in order to save the court operation as it is, Brosnahan must stave off the building's planned renovation. Brosnahan concedes--and other court sources agree--that if renovation on the building begins, Berkeley's criminal court ends. The reason: There won't be enough room in the leased Center Street court facility to accommodate the old courthouse's array of prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, and the remaining judge. (Assistant County Administrator Donna Linton says Berkeley's prosecutors and public defenders will likely be picked up by the Oakland courts.)

And there's the nagging fact that, for the most part, the purpose of the renovation isn't to make the building prettier. The court sits perilously close to the Hayward Fault and needs seismic reinforcement. "Judge B would love to keep this thing open forever and ever," says Assistant District Attorney John Adams, who supervises the district attorney's Berkeley office, "and God bless her, her heart is in the right place. But I don't think it's going to happen."

In spite of the odds, Brosnahan at least tries to sound stubbornly optimistic. The judge insists that she will run for re-election next year even though she's already fully vested in the state's retirement system, meaning she can't boost the amount of her pension checks anymore. "I want to stick around," she chuckles. "I'm fully committed to keeping this court alive if I can."


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