On my recent trip to Oakland, CA—where the temperatures were much more pleasant than in freezing Washington, D.C.—I took a walk around the beautiful Lake Merritt. Protected under the California Wildlife Act of 1870, Lake Merritt is the oldest designated wildlife refuge in the United States. Across the water, you can see the Alameda County Courthouse, which is one of the fifty-eight superior courts (trial courts) in California.
Prior to June 1998, California’s trial courts consisted of superior courts and municipal courts as provided for in the California Constitution. Municipal courts handled misdemeanors and infractions and most civil lawsuits involving disputes of $25,000 or less, whereas superior courts were in charge of all other matters. In June 1998, California voters approved Proposition 220, which amended the California Constitution to permit superior and municipal courts within a county to consolidate their operations into a single unified superior court. The superior courts now handle all matters that fall under the jurisdiction of either the superior or municipal courts. In February 2001, the last county voted to unify its trial courts.
The first Alameda County Courthouse building was located in Alvarado, now part of Union City, and was dedicated in 1853. It was housed in a converted loft space above a general store owned by State Assemblyman Henry Clay Smith. The county government agreed to pay an annual rent of $200. After two years, the courthouse was moved to San Leandro, which also became the new county seat. In 1873, the county seat was changed to Oakland. The court was first relocated to a site in East Oakland and then to a larger space in downtown Oakland. By the 1920s, the fourth building in downtown Oakland had fallen into disrepair and was seen as outdated and embarrassing. Judges called it a “vermin-infested menace to health and records.” Voters were called upon to support a bond measure to construct a new building. The first bond measure failed but in 1934 the county managed to secure support for the bond issue from the voters. The bond was supplemented by $462,000 in Public Works Administration (PWA) funds, one of the New Deal “alphabet agencies”. The current building was dedicated on September 6, 1936 and is the fifth building to serve as the Alameda County Courthouse.
The current building was designed by William Corlett, Henry Minton, James Plachek, William Schirmer, and Carl Werner in the PWA Moderne Style. The PWA Moderne style was a very simple, unornamented interpretation of the Art Deco style and was often merged with streamlined styling of fenestration— the design and placement of the windows in a building—and corner members. The exterior surface of the courthouse is made of California granite and terracotta trim. The interior features fifteen-foot-high marble mosaic murals depicting Alameda county history designed by Marian Simpson and Gaetano Duccini. The building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake but was completely rehabilitated afterwards and continues to serve as the Alameda County Courthouse.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski is the first openly transgender person to serve as a trial judge in the United States.