Due Process

Local courthouses must be more secure and operate more efficiently, while still projecting an image of openness and fairness.
August 11, 2010

Tighter security demands and greater technological innovation in courtroom presentation techniques, not to mention the simple need for more space, are key reasons for new construction and reconstruction of county and city court facilities.

Take the case of Alachua County, Fla. Its 1960s-era courthouse lacked separate circulation corridors to keep prisoners, court personnel and the public apart. That was a key factor in the drive to build the new courthouse it dedicated in January.

The Alachua facility was designed by Omaha-based DLR Group, in association with Rink Reynolds Diamond Fisher Wilson Architects of Jacksonville. Michael LeBoeuf, who heads the courthouse design group in DLR's Orlando office, says that courthouses are now providing separate entrances for courthouse staff members, as Alachua does, to facilitate their screening. In this way, employees arriving after hours can be screened without the need to rev up equipment that would be operating during regular business day.

In a departure from the traditional placement of courtrooms primarily on upper floors, two of the Alachua facility's large courtrooms are on the first floor. This allows inmates to be brought directly to a courtroom from a central holding facility on that level. The court clerk's office, which receives substantially less visitor traffic, is on the fourth floor.

Until last January, when a new $13 million courthouse was opened, North Carolina's Dare County had court facilities that consisted of a 100-year-old, 4,000-sf building with a single courtroom on the second floor and offices on the first. The public is restricted to about 10% of the area of the new Dare County Courthouse, says Mike Tomy, VP with Atlanta-based Heery International, which designed the building and managed its construction. In areas where the public interacts with court staff, separation methods range from a counter to a wall glazed with security glass.

Terrorist concerns addressed

When the security focus turns to terrorist acts, county and city courthouses are considered far less a target than Federal facilities. Since 9/11, however, local governments are increasingly incorporating passive features into their new justice facilities. These include placing the main mass of the building farther from the street, protecting entry points with planters or bollards, or surrounding the building with low walls. Sensitive areas of the building are placed deep within the interior.

DLR's LeBoeuf readily acknowledges the conflict between making buildings secure and making them open and accessible — "not exactly friendly, but at least oriented toward the users." He describes these actions as "subtle adjustments to make sure you can't just drive a vehicle into the building."

The four-story, 118,000-sf Alachua County Criminal Courthouse, located in downtown Gainesville, is expected to meet the county's needs for the next decade. It is the first phase of a planned multi-building program. Constructed on a master-planned, six-acre site and dedicated in January, it was one of the first new county courthouses in the U.S. to be bid for construction following 9/11, when its security-related features had already been included in the design. For example, the entrance lobby, where security screening occurs, is pulled out from the main building mass. It is also oriented away from the street.

 
The new Alachua County (Fla.) Criminal Courthouse features separate entrances and circulation corridors to keep prisoners, courthouse personnel and the public apart.


Embracing high-tech

The high-tech revolution that is transforming courtroom audio-visual and recording techniques is evident at the new Onondaga County/City of Syracuse (N.Y.) Criminal Courthouse. All 12 of its courtrooms have built-in infrastructure for high-tech presentations, and four have high-tech communications equipment as well.

At the Onondaga facility, jurors can view courtroom evidence on eight flat screen monitors installed in each 14-person jury box. The courtrooms also have large-screen plasma displays for viewing by everyone in the room. The chief judge wanted to test both small- and large-screen approaches, according to Frank Greene, a principal with Ricci Greene Associates, a New York City architectural firm that consulted on the project.

"Attorneys come to court these days with PowerPoint presentations and expect to be able to use them," Greene says. Infrastructure for high-tech audio-visual presentations is incorporated into every project his firm designs, he says.

At the Alachua County Criminal Courthouse, a central electronic system records court testimony, theoretically eliminating the need for court recorders. However, court recorders are not likely to disappear, especially since civil lawyers use recorders to take depositions or in cases that are likely to be appealed. Recorders can provide transcripts more quickly than those produced by transcribing the recorded testimony, so new technology does not always beat out age-old methods.

"Technology is a big issue in courtroom design," Greene says. "Our concern as architects is that the presence of technology not overwhelm the courtroom decorum" or turn the courtroom into "a technology store." He recalls hearing a judge say, "I want all the bells and whistles, but it should be a courtroom that Abe Lincoln could walk into and still understand what he was supposed to do."

Stretching the law

Demand for more physical space is often the major reason for launching a courthouse project. Crawford County, Kan., opted for a renovation/new construction approach to meet its need for one-and-a-half new courtrooms. It purchased a 1960s-era, 15,000-sf shuttered supermarket and constructed a 12,000-sf addition, increasing the county's number of courtrooms to three.

Dare County, N.C., was also cramped for courthouse space. The old building simply couldn't handle the load on court operations that accompanies the summer surge of visitors, when the local population swells from 35,000 to more than 200,000.

Citizens also expect the architecture of their courthouses to reflect their community. Dare County's new courthouse is on Roanoke Island, in the municipality of Manteo. The courthouse is located on the island where the first English settlement in the Americas was established, in 1587. It became known as the "lost colony" after Sir Walter Raleigh returned three years later and was unable to find any trace of the more than 200 settlers.

The building projects a nautical image befitting the county's 110 miles of Atlantic coastline. Interior columns that support a second floor balcony resemble lighthouses with beacons on top. An outline of the county is incorporated in the lobby's terrazzo floor.

The suitability of building materials for Dare County's oceanic environment was an important design consideration. The corrosive, salty atmosphere dictated minimal use of wood on the exterior. Designed to withstand 110-mph winds without sustaining significant damage, the building lost only 50 pieces of shingle when a hurricane passed through last September.

Dare County's is the first North Carolina courthouse that the state allowed to be funded under a design/CM-at-risk format, rather than separate design and construction contracts, says David Clawson, the county's chief financial officer.

 
Because of its location on North Carolina’s hurricane-prone eastern shore, the new Dare County Courthouse is designed to withstand 110-mph wind speeds without sustaining significant damage.


In upstate New York, the Onondaga County/City of Syracuse Criminal Courthouse accommodates all county and city criminal courts. The county built the facility and leases a portion of it to the city. The new facility was mandated by the state because the 93-year-old existing courthouse across the street didn't meet current court requirements, according to Peter Larson, principal-in-charge with the project's architect, Ashley McGraw Architects, Syracuse. Civil cases are tried in the old building, which is being renovated.

One way to provide for future needs is to build a new courthouse larger than currently required and fill the currently surplus space with functions that can be moved when more courtrooms are needed. Such uses include space for state's attorneys, public defenders, and court recorders.

The California legislature has adopted a measure that will allow the state government to take over hundreds of county and local courts and, in effect, become their landlord. The state is now soliciting proposals from design firms to develop guidelines for court projects.

Family courts on the rise

Family courts, which have been overshadowed by a focus on criminal and civil courts, are viewed by DLR's LeBoeuf as the emerging segment for court development. Florida has mandated that each of its court jurisdictions develop a program directed at serving the needs of families. LeBoeuf says courts that hear family cases, such as custody hearings and divorces, are often exposed to situations that may lead to violence or may involve parents who are incarcerated.

"Family court drives just about every county court project we do," says Ricci Greene Associates' Frank Greene. "Meeting the needs of family courts is putting pressure on all county courthouses, not just because of growth in number of cases, but also because the type of facility needed is very different than what exists in most older courthouses."

It's crucial, for example, to provide adequate waiting areas outside the courtroom, including means for keeping apart individuals who could inflict physical harm on others. Family courts also need adequate space for social service agencies.

The major theme that unifies the trend in family courtrooms is called "one family, one judge," the object of which is to bring all matters relating to a particular family before a single judge. According to Greene, it is not unusual, for example, for a man to be on trial in one courtroom for battery of his wife, while his wife is in civil court trying to divorce him, and their child is in juvenile court for causing trouble at school. "Each judge wouldn't know about the other proceedings, and therefore how to deal holistically with the family," he says.

These types of cases call not only for changes in traditional court organizational structures, but also for a different image of a courthouse, he says, one that provides convenient circulation between various services and large, pleasant waiting areas.

"It doesn't need to be a big temple of justice," says Greene, "but more akin to 'the marketplace of due process.'"