As most of you are aware, effective January 1, 2013, the Walnut Creek courthouse will be closed, except for traffic matters. All Walnut Creek/ Mt. Diablo criminal and civil cases will be transferred to the main courthouse in Martinez. The closure of the Walnut Creek courthouse will end a piece of local history in our County. Consequently, I asked Judge Minney and Judge Eaton to reflect on the history and time they spent as Judges assigned to Walnut Creek.
Prior to 1966 there were Justice Courts in Danville and Walnut Creek. Dick Calhoun sat in Danville in the old Veteran’s building there. Betsy Rahn sat in in an old office room next to a body shop in Walnut Creek where the noise regularly filled the court – she subsequently moved to the old veteran’s building nearby. Walnut Creek soon reached a population of over 40,000 which under law mandated a Municipal Court there. Someone filed a lawsuit to compel the same for Danville, and the Board of Supervisors decided it would be cheaper to consolidate the Danville court into the Walnut Creek district, so both Betsy and Dick became Municipal Court judges sitting in the Veterans building in Walnut Creek – Betsy upstairs in the meeting room/auditorium, and Dick downstairs in a court put together in a room next to the bar, which on Mondays smelled strongly of booze.
In 1973 Dick was appointed by Governor Reagan to the Superior Court, and Joe Longacre was appointed to succeed him. Betsy lobbied the Board of Supervisors for a proper court building, and the county decided to have it built for them and leased it from the owner/builder. (The county later bought it).
At Betsy’s request the building had three courtrooms for future expansion needs, and the legislature created a third judgeship for the court in 1974. John Minney was appointed by Governor Reagan to that position January 3, 1975, the Governor’s last few days in office. Betsy retired and Mike Phelan won the election to succeed her. Mike was elevated to Superior Court by Governor Deukmejian in 1987 and Barbara Zuniga was appointed to succeed him. Minney was elevated to Superior Court later that year and Merle Eaton was appointed to succeed him.
When I was first appointed Betsy Rahn would occasionally sit pro tem when I went on vacation or was off for training. We used to chuckle over the fact that before I left I had to find her a pillow for my chair in the courtroom and a gavel. In my nearly nineteen years on the bench I can never recall using a gavel, but we always got one for Betsy.
Probably the most significant event that occurred during my time in Walnut Creek occurred on August 28, 1995 while I was Presiding Judge of the Walnut Creek Court. I was awakened from a sound sleep at approximately 5am by the phone ringing. When I groggily answered, Chuck Wyrick’s voice on the other end said, “Judge you need to get down here now. The courthouse is on fire!”.
When I arrived at the courthouse we had to wait in the parking lot and surrounding area for quite some time while the firefighters went about completing their work. It was a dismally depressing experience when we were finally allowed access into the building to see what we had come to know as a second home reduced to scorched and smoldering framework of what it had once been. I can remember walking into my courtroom and being able to see the clouds and sky through the ceiling that was open to the outdoors. Then walking into my chambers and seeing the ashes and the twisted and charred remains of my bright and cheery Mickey Mouse collection was just heart wrenching.
However, what I was most proud of was the fact that we only lost one day of service to the public; the day of the fire itself. The very next day we were up and running in the various rooms and offices in 2020 Broadway next door. In all of my working career I have never been more proud of a staff. We remained nearly fully operational, including jury trials for the months that it took to rebuild the courthouse. For our in-custody matters one of the judges would drive to Martinez and we would borrow one of the Superior Courtrooms to handle those matters.
While there were a lot of funny incidents that occurred over the years, off the top of my head I can’t think of any that would be suitable for public printing. I loved the staff Walnut Creek Court, there and hold many fond memories. It was a wonderful place to work despite some of the personalities. I always had the feeling that at that level I could be much more personal and more effectively serve the local community and do more good with regard to the people that appeared before me.
After Judge Eaton retired from the bench in 2005, I was assigned to be Supervising Judge of the Walnut Creek-Danville court. In 2007, Judge Mary Ann O’Malley, the Presiding Judge at the time, asked that we consolidate the Mt. Diablo district cases into the Walnut Creek-Danville district caseload. Since that time, Walnut Creek has handled the calendars for both judicial districts. (As an aside, I also received a phone call similar to the one received by Judge Eaton. On September 14, 1995, while acting as Presiding Judge of the Mt. Diablo court, the court administrator called me at home to inform me that our court was burning down. Unlike Walnut Creek however, the Concord courthouse burned down to the ground).
I am also very proud of the all the staff that work in Walnut Creek. They are hard working, dedicated people and I have enjoyed working with them. I know I speak for the judges and the entire staff when I say that we will all miss working in the Walnut Creek-Danville courthouse.
Filed Under: Spotlight