Chatham County Justice Center open for business

Jan. 03, 2013 @ 12:13 PM

On Tuesday, District Court Judge Jay Bryan opened District Court in the new Chatham County Justice Center in downtown Pittsboro.
The grand opening of the new justice center was scheduled for Friday afternoon with dignitaries, speeches and tours, but the real work of the courthouse quietly began Tuesday morning.
The 87,000-square-foot facility is located one block south of the old Chatham County Courthouse and is aligned so that it is a straight walk on a brick sidewalk from the old courthouse through the courthouse annex to the new stately facility.
“Taking its cue form the historic ‘Circle Courthouse,’ the Chatham County Justice Center project is a modern adaptation of a classical judicial facility,” according to Corley Redfoot Architects, which designed the courthouse.
The three-story brick building has six huge columns like courthouses of old, but it also has a glass atrium, mirrored elevators, stone tiled floor and high-tech courtrooms with special audio and visual equipment.
It also has enough room for the district attorney’s offices, the public defender’s offices, juvenile justice offices, hearing rooms, drug turnaround offices, a jury pool room, enough room for all the civil and criminal court files, as well as a tiny courtroom for special proceedings, such as incompetency or estate hearings.
“We love it,” said Kayley Taber, managing assistant district attorney for Chatham County. “It’s so nice to have an efficient, beautiful facility to work in. We had a beautiful facility to work in before, but a historic courthouse is not always the most efficient place to work.”
Taber and others were at work in the historic courthouse in March 2010 when the fire alarm went off. She and the rest of the employees in the courthouse walked outside, not thinking there was a real problem. But when they looked up, smoke was coming from the attic area, and soon the fire had spread throughout the old courthouse, completely gutting the inside of it. It was a blow to the small town that cherished its old courthouse.
However, at the time of the fire, plans were already under way to build a new justice facility, so officials set up a superior courtroom in the old library and moved the district attorney’s office to a former law office.
The new courthouse may only be a block away from the old one, but it’s a world away from some of the problems that came from holding Superior Court in the old courthouse.
“It’s a whole different world,” said Clerk of Court Sam Cooper.
As part of his job, Cooper must hold hearings for competency, foreclosures, estate settlements, but there was no room in the old courthouse or the annex.
“It became an exercise in musical chairs for space,” he said. “How many people can we fit in a clerk’s office.”
Now there is a special room for hearings, along with several conference rooms.
People called for jury duty will be treated better in the new courthouse. When jurors were called for trials in the old courthouse, they had to hang out in the main hallways of the courthouse. If they were quick and lucky, they might have been able to grab a seat on one of the benches, but the others ended up sitting on end tables, on the floor on the steps or were left standing.
At the new courthouse, there’s a room for the jury pool with its own bathroom and plenty of chairs.
The new courthouse also houses two large district courtrooms to replace the small dark courtroom in the courthouse annex.  For both Superior Court and District Court, there was no privacy for victims and often victims and suspects had to mingle in the same area while they waited for court to start.
“For domestic violence victims, there was no convenient place where personal matters could be discussed privately,” Cooper said. “Now we can better meet the needs of the public.”
One of the new District Court courtrooms in the new building is spacious and bright with tall windows along one side of the courtroom letting in natural light. The courtrooms have television screens for the judge, the jurors and two widescreen TVs are mounted from the ceiling for the people sitting in the gallery so they can see the evidence as it’s presented.
Senior Resident District Court Judge Joe Buckner thinks the building will be good for 75 to 100 years.
The building cost $23.7 million to build and was financed through a long-term, low-interest USDA rural development loan.
And since the county does not have to rent space for the various offices or facilities that are now all located in the justice center, it’s expected the county will save $80,000 a year on rental costs, Buckner said.
The facility also has tighter security with deputies checking everyone who comes in the front door and screening them for weapons.
“We had some close class in the district attorney’s office and the clerk’s office,” Buckner said.
Major Mike Roberson of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office likes the extra security and design that keeps people in custody away from the public. When someone in custody has a court date, the Sheriff’s Office drives the person from the jail a couple blocks away to the back parking lot, drives into the secured parking lot and into a sally port.
Deputies escort prisoners through the basement, and they can be held in holding cells in the basement until their case is called. It’s safer for them and for the public, Roberson said.
Meanwhile, work continues on the restoration of the old courthouse in the middle of the traffic circle, and it is expected to be completed in mid-March, said Debra Henzey, director of community relations for Chatham County.
“There’s still a lot of detail work,” she said. “The clock tower isn’t finished yet. The clock still has to be put in.”
The second floor of the historic courthouse is being renovated to look like the old Superior Court courtroom, where so many trials were held over the decades. It will still be available for low-risk Superior Court trials if needed, but mainly it will be used by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners for its meetings.