Special Reports

Building temples to justice

In 1998, the Kentucky State Supreme Court's new Chief Justice, Joseph E. Lambert, embarked on an ambitious program to build or improve courthouses in all 120 counties in the state. But a decade and $880 million later, has the courtroom boom been worth the cost? Part two of three

The $8.4 million Clay County justice center is a gleaming example of a modern courthouse.

Inside the three-story building, shiny cherry columns adorn the two enormous courtrooms, one district and one circuit. The circuit and district judges' chambers encompass spacious suites of offices and conference rooms, including private bathrooms. The family courtroom is smaller, but includes adjoining offices for Family Court Judge Gene Clark and his staff.

The Clay County justice center provides roughly 52,000 square feet of courtrooms, offices and waiting rooms for a court system that serves 23,000 people. That's about 2.2 square feet for every person in the county.

Wolfe County, which has about 7,000 residents, will have a new courthouse with a lavish 5 square feet per person. It will be about the same size as Perry County's courthouse, even though Perry's population is 30,000.

As part of an $880 million program to provide new and renovated courthouses in every county in the state that needs one, officials with the Administrative Office of the Courts say these spaces are necessary for present and future court needs, including better courtrooms, stronger security and more space for court personnel.

"We don't want to have to invest in an addition," said Garlan VanHook, facilities director for the AOC, referring to Wolfe County. "I don't know how to explain beyond that it takes 33,000 square feet to build family, circuit and district courtrooms."

As the state cuts education and social services, there are questions about whether the sizes and costs of new courthouses are appropriate.

"Certainly at a time when money is so scarce, we should not be wasting our financial resources on unneeded construction," said state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, a former governor.

Courthouse size is determined through a complicated formula set forth by the AOC, the office that oversees the building program. It involves population and the number of cases each court must handle, but because of the specific requirements for every space — ranging from the square footage required for a courtroom to a jury lounge —even the smallest new courthouses generally exceed 30,000 square feet.

The specifications are so detailed, in fact, that they list the square footage allowed for the coffee station in the judge's chambers at an urban courthouse — 20 square feet — and the judge's toilet — 64 square feet.

And because population and caseload predictions change, the determination of courthouse size is a moving target. For example, while docket sizes have continued to grow throughout the state, many county populations, particularly in rural areas, are going down.

But the idea — promulgated by the AOC under the direction of former Chief Justice Joseph E. Lambert— that nearly every county needs a big, new courthouse riles critics of the program.

"The AOC has operated under Chief Justice Lambert with more autonomy than we should have allowed," said state Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

"I'll have to say that some of the ones that have been built seem a bit too palatial to me, and clearly the program needs to be looked at with more scrutiny in the future."

Family courtrooms

In other states, such as Texas, more attention has been given to renovating and adding on to existing courthouses and preserving historic buildings. But judicial officials say that in many cases in Kentucky, renovation is out of the question because today's courthouses have to be larger.

That's because there are so many new requirements, including a separate family courtroom and space for personnel, such as clerks and social workers, they say.

Family courts were created by constitutional amendment in 2000 under the auspices of Lambert, whose wife, Debra, was a family court judge. She lost her seat in the 2006 election.

But Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, says that Muhlenburg County, for example, doesn't have the court volume to make a family judge necessary.

"The circuit judge handles those cases quite well," Yonts said. "And we can't afford the extra cost."

The new $11.4 million Wolfe County justice center will have the bare minimum of three required courtrooms, yet its 5 square feet of space for every person in the county is high. In other, more populated counties, justice centers tend to have 1 or 2 square feet ratio per person.

Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, who represents Wolfe County and is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that much space is needed because the county's population is set to explode with tourism in the Red River Gorge.

However, Wolfe Judge-Executive Raymond Hurst said: "We haven't had any growth in 50 years." Wolfe County's population actually declined 0.3 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to census reports.

The other biggest space-to-population ratios belong to the Cumberland Justice Center in the hometown of Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and the new justice center in Washington County, home of Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield. Cumberland County's population declined 4 percent between 2000 and 2007; Washington County's grew 6 percent.

Carlisle County, which lost its courthouse to a fire in 2007, will get a new one that provides 7 square feet for each of the 5,166 people in the county. It will cost $2,500 per person.

Build or renovate?

Not every county chooses a big, new courthouse.

Gallatin County was under a federal court order to upgrade its 1838 Greek Revival courthouse because the only courtroom was on the second floor and there was no elevator.

For a little under $2.3 million, the county added an elevator and a large addition in back with another courtroom and plenty of office space for court workers without destroying the spacious, antebellum atmosphere.

"We've needed this done for years and years," said resident Winslow Baker, who attended the June reopening.

With fewer than 8,000 people in Gallatin County, officials decided they could renovate the old building rather than build a massive new one.

Nearby Pendleton County was also going to get an upgrade to its historic courthouse facilities, but local officials decided they needed a new building altogether, and the AOC agreed. So they applied to the legislature for a new justice center and were awarded $11.7 million for a 36,000-square-foot building due to open next year.

"We are one of the fastest-growing counties in the state," Pendleton Judge-Executive Henry Bertram said of the roughly 15,000-person community. "We said we didn't want to waste $2 million on something we'd have to expand. That's not smart business. The plan is for these new courthouses to last 100 years, and it might not even be adequate."

Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Keller, whose district encompasses 21 counties in Northern and Eastern Kentucky, understands that people might question why Robertson County, with 2,200 residents, needs a $3.3 million justice center, but she defends the new construction.

"I know Robertson is a tiny county, but they deserve a better courthouse — theirs didn't even have a restroom facility. They had to go next door to the annex to go to the bathroom."

The courthouse construction program has plenty of other supporters.

Laurel County recently broke ground for a $24 million, 86,000-square-foot judicial center to relieve a court system that's "busting at the seams," says Judge-Executive Lawrence Kuhl.

A few years back, the county spent $6 million to expand the county courthouse, but Kuhl says there still wasn't enough room for trials to operate alongside county offices.

A new professionalism?

Stivers, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has seen plenty of new justice centers approved, including the 52,000-square-foot Clay County building in his hometown of Manchester.

He defends the building of new courthouses, saying the new system works well for three reasons: It spruces up downtowns by getting rid of old buildings, makes more space for county and court officials to operate separately, and provides a new professionalism.

"I've watched it in these small, rural counties and seen how the court system and county system operate so much better," he said. "The administration of justice is where the rubber meets the road, where social problems like divorce or child neglect are dealt with. What's more important than that?"

Circuit Clerk James Phillips of Clay County says one of the best improvements of the 2004 courthouse is upgraded security. The mold-filled, 1930s building housed most county services and had one courtroom. Prisoners walked past victims; divorcing spouses sat in the same waiting room. Now prisoners come into the courthouse through a secure garage, ride up to the courtroom in a separate elevator and wait in locked rooms outside the courtroom. Everyone else enters through a metal detector.

"I think we've been really fortunate," said District Judge Henria Bailey-Lewis. "In other courthouses, there's no protection for the judges at all."

The first floor now offers ample space for files and the 12 clerks who work in Phillips' office.

"I think it's the size we need," said Phillips. "We didn't waste anything."

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