Bricks and mortar have always been a popular product among politicians, and brand-new courthouses deliver them from Frankfort back to lawmakers' and judges' home districts.
But Kentucky is now facing a severe budget crisis, and some lawmakers and citizens want to know whether a program to build new courthouses all over the state should outweigh cuts in education, social and judicial services.
Change might be coming. In a recent interview, the new chief justice of the Supreme Court, John D. Minton Jr., who has been in the job less than two months, says he needs to study the program more closely.
Minton recently put a hold on the new $30 million Franklin County judicial center because of concerns about whether it would make more sense and save money to adapt existing buildings rather than starting from scratch.
"We've had a big building era, but we're headed into an era of budget constraints," he said. "Whether we can continue to build courthouses in lean budget times is a matter for scrutiny."
Joseph E. Lambert, the previous chief justice, initiated a program to build new courthouses or renovate old ones across the state. In the past decade, $880 million has been allocated for courthouses.
Steve Royce, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, would welcome that scrutiny. He says he wants to make sure Kentucky's government is as focused on numerous cuts in services.
"Certainly, in terms of good government, they should be on the table alongside $800 million spent on new courthouses," he said.
For courthouse critics such as Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, the elephant in the room is that Kentucky has too many counties — only Texas and Georgia have more — and the courthouse building program exemplifies wasteful spending and duplication.
"Most legislators will admit the fact that we cannot afford the Balkanization of Kentucky the way we have it," he said. "They could be designing regional courthouses so we start taking steps toward regionalization of services, but that's a threat to local politicians, so they put pressure on the AOC" (Administrative Office of the Courts).
But both Lambert and Garlan VanHook, head of the AOC facilities, say there was never any discussion of shared justice centers.
"I could not make an intellectually honest case to give less to Robertson County than to Fayette County," Lambert said.
For anything to change, he added, the General Assembly would have to mandate regionalization of services. (Several such attempts have been made throughout the years, but none has ever succeeded.)
"As long as that's the law, I could think of no way in the world to regionalize court services," Lambert said. "I predict that will never happen."
Still, former governor and current state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, said he was pleasantly surprised by Minton's willingness to put the proposed Franklin County judicial center project on hold.
Carroll is representing a Franklin County group that wants to renovate the current courthouse rather than spend $30 million to build a new one in Frankfort's historic downtown.
"I think our former chief justice was a strong advocate of the separation of the three branches, and the stand-alone buildings give an identity" to the judicial branch, Carroll said.
But, Carroll said, the stand-alone identity may not be the most important thing right now.
"With state and county governments hurting so direly for funds," he said, "we've got to be more judicious in the use of our tax dollars."