Low-tech law books won't fit in new, high-tech San Diego courthouse

Superior Court Judge Runston “Tony” Maino found a use for the law books lining his courtroom shelves as nice footstools for short-legged jurors.

Judge Gerald Jessop noticed that the fat, leather-bound volumes in his courtroom provided effective sound insulation.

In this day of vast and immediate online resources, Superior Court Presiding Judge Jeffrey Barton noted, “Law books have an almost negative value.”

So what will become of the thousands of volumes of largely outdated legal resource books at the downtown San Diego courthouse when the move is made within a few months to the new state court building?

A majority will end up in recycling. Most libraries, law schools and lawyers don't want them. Their focus has shifted to the internet.

There will be little space for printed material in the streamlined, technology-oriented, 22-story courthouse at 1100 Union St. Courtrooms there have no large walls of shelving, but a little bookcase can be tucked behind each judicial bench.

It is court Executive Officer Michael Roddy’s job to figure out what books, files and furnishings will fit in the new building, and what to do with the excess.

“Twenty years ago, books were our life,” Roddy noted.

That was when most courtrooms had a subscription to California Appellate Reports that included an annual hard-bound volume and periodic paper updates.

Judges had various government code books, including the state penal code and city municipal codes. Also at hand were judicial guides to procedures in specialty areas such as juvenile or family law.

Now, judges say they rarely pull a law book off the shelf. They use computers on the bench and in chambers, and lawyers set up laptops on counsel tables in the courtrooms.

In 1997, Roddy's budget for law books and periodicals was $994,000. By fiscal year 2016-17, court spending on books had dropped to $419,000, with an additional $118,000 for access to online resources.

Jessop recently perused the California Appellate Reports standing in long rows down one wall in his courtroom. The first volume was dated 1906. The most recent: July 1997. It was still in its plastic wrapper.

"I don't use them," said Jessop, who has been on the bench since 1999 and relied on law books while in law school. "I go online and pull the case up. Research tools nowadays are so powerful."

He said he deals mainly with family law, and needs access to the latest laws and court decisions in that field.

Barton, the presiding judge, said he still likes to flip through bound copies of judicial procedure guides because he may come across one item of interest while looking for something else.

Judge Louis Hanoian called himself a "hybrid" on the transition from books to internet.

"I'm online savvy, pretty much. I like the books. They serve as a very nice decor. They make the room look courtroom-ish," he said.

Maino, too, said books "add a certain ambiance to a courtroom. The high bench, books, the subdued wood — they give the idea that the law is a permanent thing."

Hanoian has penal code books going back to 1993, when he became a judge. He said he has found them useful if an old case gains a fresh review and he must apply the law as it was written at the time the case was filed.

But Hanoian added, when he moves to the new courthouse and leaves most books behind, "I won't miss them."

The $555 million San Diego Superior Court building, also to be known as the Central Courthouse, was supposed to open early this year. Delays pushed the opening past summer.

Best estimates now are that judges will be moved in by the end of the year.

The new building’s 71 courtrooms will absorb operations now at the 1961-vintage courthouse at 220 West Broadway as well as other downtown family law and probate courts.

High-tech devices will greet the public in the spacious lobby, with electronic billboards listing each court's calendared cases for the day. Other stations offer interactive maps of the building. Courtrooms will have wifi connections.

Roddy plans to have a small library in the new courthouse for the books judges use most, such as training manuals, jury instructions and practice and procedure guides.

John Adkins, director of the downtown San Diego Law Library, said he may be interested in some books, such as government codes, if they are up-to-date.

The library mainly serves members of the public wishing to research law on their own. It provides books, computers, videos, microfiche and a research staff along with a host of online resources accessible from home computers.

“We’re the last bastion of print, because we serve the public. We have to have it all,” Adkins said.

He has reduced his book collection from 119,000 volumes to 111,000 in his seven years as library director. In that time, his total budget has been cut from $4.2 million to $2.8 million.

Meanwhile, Barton and Roddy have been trying to think of who else might want their aging law books.

Barton said one school is interested in some volumes to lend realism to its mock trial sessions. There was a suggestion that a theater group might want some.

But the rest need to go — and soon. Barton said the court may need to pay a contractor to haul away books for recycling.

“Our courthouse is built for the next 50 years, not for the last 50,” Barton said.

pauline.repard@sduniontribune

Twitter: @pdrepard

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