February 23, 2007
New courthouse update: “program” step successfully completed
~ written by Judge Richard A. Frye
Following five months of work by architects and other members of the “design team,” a consensus came together last week on the overall capacity of the new courthouse to be built on the northwest corner of Mound and High Streets. Commissioners Kilroy, Brooks and Brown encouraged designers to revisit their previous work, and further investigate the needs of those who will use the new building in light of the ever-increasing docket at Common Pleas Court. The result is well conceived, constituting what the architects refer to as a “proposed program” document.
The “program” now calls for just under 300,000 square feet of space (of which about two-thirds is “net” after eliminating space for HVAC, hallways and the like.) The program contemplates 20 common pleas courtrooms, each with a box large enough to hold 16 jurors for murder trials, with individual jury deliberation rooms and chambers located nearby. (When 16 juror seats are not needed, the chairs will be removable to allow jurors extra seating space.) The size of these courtrooms will be approximately 1,600 square feet, enlarging the well area significantly above our current rooms to accommodate four counsel tables for multi-party trials.
Two “special purpose” courtrooms of at least 2,200 square feet, having even larger wells, public gallery areas, and a bench sized for three-judge panels used several times a year in capital murder trials, are also included. These rooms are intended to remain unassigned, although probably one will regularly be designated for criminal arraignments. The second will be available as needed for large, multi-party cases or cases attracting unusual numbers of public spectators. By leaving the rooms unassigned we will not need to have an assigned judge relocate their docket and staff whenever another judge needs a larger courtroom.
The program also includes ten smaller “civil” courtrooms, of 1,200 square feet (roughly the size of the current round courtrooms – but not round!) These are intended for trials using visiting judges or our magistrates. Each will be equipped with a box holding ten jurors. Five designated jury deliberation rooms will serve those ten courtrooms. When not in use for that purpose, those deliberation rooms will provide additional space for mediation or pretrial conferences.
At a special meeting the Common Pleas Judges adopted the following Resolution of support:
The Judges of the General Division of the Common Pleas Court approve the “Proposed Program” document submitted for their consideration at a special meeting held on February 13, 2007, subject to the following caveats:
1) The Columbus Law Library must be maintained in continuous operation open to the bar and the public, within the security envelope of the overall courthouse complex, and at a minimum useable size of 9,000 square feet;
2) Concomitant with construction of the new building some form of secure access protected from weather, within the security envelope, must connect the new courthouse with the existing county complex, serving not only to transport prisoners but also the large volume of prosecutors, public defenders, other lawyers, court personnel, and the general public who must traverse Mound Street to and from the new building; and
3) The new building should be sustainable, and readily expandable to accommodate future growth and other reasonable needs of this Court.
This Proposed Program completes the first major step in the design process. The next step is called “schematic design.” That is due for completion in early summer, and will take the general concepts in the program and make them more detailed and definitive. Also nearing completion is an overall “Master Plan” to integrate of all the County’s buildings including the downtown jail. As noted in our Judges’ Resolution, connectivity – using a tunnel or other means for lawyers and the public to access more than one building within the complex – remains an important part of the overall solution. The Judges will be briefed on March 13 concerning the “Master Plan” as it is circulated for comment by downtown planning groups and other interested parties.
Caseload statistics for the year just completed offer some insight into the Court’s docket that, in turn, ties into the size required for this new building. In Franklin County each of our 17 judges was presented with 1,741 new cases in 2005, and 1,819 new cases in 2006. By contrast, in 1973 when I was admitted to the bar and the existing Hall of Justice was completed, ten Common Pleas Judges sitting in Franklin County each received only 634 new cases. Another comparison can be drawn with the average caseload of a common pleas judge in Ohio, who in 2005 received 1,130 new cases. (2006 figures are not yet available.)
Tripling the size of each judge’s docket since the Hall of Justice was built does not, of course, actually triple the number of lawyers and parties physically present in our court because foreclosures and other non-trial cases make up a part of the increased filings. On the other hand, the explosion from 1,828 total criminal cases for the entire court in 1973 to over 10,100 felony cases in 2006 dramatically impacts the size and physical layout needed for the new building. Even with plea-bargaining, not only are more prisoners present, but also more prosecutors, probation officers, defense lawyers, families of defendants and victims. The threat verbalized in one of my colleague’s courtrooms a few weeks ago after a moving victim-impact statement (“they should have killed the b****es”) underscored the need for adequate space for the highly charged atmosphere that sometimes exists in our courtrooms.
Work in coming months will require continued creativity from everyone concerned, but in the end this new courthouse will convey, in appearance and functionality, the importance of the justice system to our community.