January 5, 2007
Update - New Franklin County Courthouse
~ written by Judge Richard A. Frye
How big – costing how much - and how do we get there?
After six months of intense study by a host of architects, court planners, and construction experts, using input garnered from the county commissioners, the local judiciary, public defenders, prosecutors, Sheriff’s, clerk’s office and probation department personnel, and many lawyers, the current status of the new courthouse can fairly be summarized in those three questions.
Groundbreaking remains scheduled for July 4, 2007. By coincidence that is the same date ground breaking occurred in 1885 for the “old” courthouse torn down in the mid-1970s. (A photo of the large crowd in attendance in 1885 hangs on the front wall of Judge Pfeiffer’s courtroom 8C, attesting to the civic importance of these buildings.) Presently, completion is planned for fall 2009.
Current discussion has been predicated on a “bricks and mortar” budget of $75 million tied to the County’s bonding capacity. Consultants recently predicted that figure only permits a new building roughly identical in size to the existing Hall of Justice: 245-270,000 square feet versus HOJ size of 237,000 square feet.
Notwithstanding investigation by some consultants of possible savings through shared courtrooms, downsizing courtrooms, having fewer conference rooms, and other design limitations, our judges committee concluded the heavy dockets make most such ideas a false economy and foretell a scheduling nightmare. Presently there appears to be agreement on a more sensible plan. Each common pleas judge would continue to have a courtroom and jury room; and, each magistrate would for the first time have an individual courtroom with a ten-person (civil case size) jury box. Magistrate courtrooms might be obligated to share nearby jury rooms with common pleas judges. However, discussion continues on whether a bit more space can be found to enlarge the jury boxes to accommodate felony trials, and to build jury rooms for each magistrate courtroom as well. Such seemingly small questions have potential long-term consequences. When new judgeships are created in the future, common pleas judges might end up assigned to those magistrate courtrooms.
A key feature in present planning is moving all magistrates from the Muni Court building. Their chambers and courtrooms would be interspersed within the same court floors with common pleas judges. Proximity between magistrates and their assigned judges (which assumes the current two-to-one ratio is continued) should afford our magistrates much closer professional involvement with individual judges and more visibility with the trial bar. For the first time it might offer magistrates direct assistance from judges’ staff attorneys, bailiffs, court reporters, and secretaries. It would greatly ease scheduling cases before the magistrates. While such enhanced utilization of magistrates is possible only with a new courthouse, our magistrates are respected judicial officers who deserve appropriate physical surroundings in which to perform their important work.
As presently conceived, the new courthouse could accommodate 20 common pleas judges (there are 17 today), and ten magistrates (eight today.)
The $75 million budget figure was developed in 2001-02. Apparently, if that $75 million figure must be maintained it will allow only a small amount of growth space for the future of the court. Future growth beyond three judges and two magistrates, according to a briefing by consultants two weeks ago, would therefore entail brand new construction of an additional wing - outside the envelope of this new courthouse. (The alternative used in new courthouses in Orange Co., Florida and Charlotte, N.C. was an entire floor of unfinished “shell” space held for future expansion. Cost savings, in the short run, is about 25-30 percent of the fully completed cost for final space.)
The problem is inflation. As those familiar with the construction industry have told us, inflation has been high each year since 2002 and collectively stands around 35 percent over those five years. (Circumstantial evidence supports this. Some of us have started seeing criminal theft cases involving copper pipe cut out of vacant homes and peddled to scrap dealers, because building materials have increased so much in value.) So, just factoring inflation since 2002 into the $75 million working budget figure, it may be low by roughly 35 percent if other assumptions on location, quality and size of the new building were held constant. But, as discussed below, they are not.
Correctly sizing this new building is a matter of no small consequence for the bar and the community we serve. Absent more capacity in judicial officers and facilities, it is unclear how heavy, annual increases in our dockets can sensibly be addressed. Final case-filing figures for 2006 are not yet completely available. Nevertheless consistent with national FBI statistics released last month showing a four percent surge in violent crime in just the first six months of 2006, Franklin County saw a huge surge in felony case filings in 2006. When business ended on 12/31/06, new criminal indictments in our court had jumped from 8,180 in 2005 to 10,118 in 2006 (+24 percent). New civil filings rose from 14,835 to 17,170 (+16 percent). Both totals set new records.
By any measure we must have additional judicial officers, and additional, more efficient space in which to work. No area remains available in the asbestos-laden Hall of Justice to add judges before the new courthouse is completed.
How will people get there?
Another key unresolved issue is connecting the new courthouse to the existing county courthouse/jail campus.
Preliminary studies for this courthouse done in 2001-02 sited it at Battelle Commons on the east side of High Street. Now the County is using the parking lots west of the Southern Hotel. That simple change added a big new wrinkle: two separate 138KV electric transmission lines are buried under Mound Street. Relocating those (encased in oil, along with other insulation, because they are so “hot”) could prove extraordinarily costly. But, to tunnel underneath them will require, potentially, a very deep hole with multiple elevators at either end to move people up or down. (If you want to learn how important “vertical transportation” is in a new courthouse visit Orange County, where the wait to get upstairs from the lobby many mornings is an hour and a half!)
Offices for assistant prosecutors, public defenders, and the probation department probably will remain in their existing space in the 373 South High building (with the Court of Appeals, Domestic Relations, and the county cafeteria.) Understandably, those frequent court-users (and the staff of the clerk’s office and the common pleas court itself) have concern about getting back and forth to the new courthouse north of Mound Street. For overburdened prosecutors and public defenders the daily chore of moving multiple files, and sometimes moving illegal drugs or loaded guns while shepherding crime victims and witnesses, is daunting. Traveling multiple times each day using only a public street level connection – waiting for the light to change while standing in the snow at Mound and High and keeping the “crack” dry in the evidence envelope - portends serious time inefficiency and, in criminal trials, issues of personal safety. The other potential alternative is a sky-bridge. But, this is said to be inconsistent with modern urban planning according to some consultants.
I saved the best for last: Sheriff Karnes moves dozens of incarcerated prisoners safely and efficiently between the main county jail and the courthouse each day. In the future do we have them all stand patiently at Mound and High waiting for the light to change to cross over to the new site?
So far an open, constructive, and respectful dialogue has focused upon these and related questions. Many issues remain unresolved. Columbus Bar leaders Elizabeth Watters, Sam Weiner, and others remain actively engaged, along with Judges Brown, Cain, Hogan, Reece, Schneider and myself as members of the court’s committee focused on this project. All of us welcome input. All of us seek the best reasonable solutions available. The future of justice in our community depends upon it.