Verdict’s in: New courthouse shines

Oct. 19, 2013 @ 10:10 PM

Durham County’s chief District Court judge, Marcia Morey, likes the golden sunlight that often filters through the courtroom during a hearing.

The rays aren’t an official part of a trial, but their presence is felt.

“The whole atmosphere is much lighter, airy,” Morey said of Durham’s new, 11-story, $119 million courthouse on Dillard Street that opened in February.  “It’s a much nicer working environment, and I think it’s helping morale a lot.”

In an interview this week, Morey, who oversees District Court, where most cases are heard, said the work of administering justice is always a challenge.

“The job remains what it always has been, and that can be very contentious, with custody hearings, criminal cases and child-abuse cases,” she said. “The work’s still hard, but it’s being done in a much more pleasant atmosphere.”

District Court – which Morey calls “the people’s court” – is where all criminal cases begin. It’s also the venue for family cases such as child support, traffic matters and juvenile proceedings.

Durham has seven full-time District Court judges and two part-time emergency ones that do domestic-violence work. Eight district courts operate almost every day, and two addition courtrooms are available for traffic and juvenile matters.

Another feature of the new courthouse that Morey gives high marks to are better courtroom acoustics and technology – including flat screens that drop from the ceiling to make exhibits easier to see. Videos can be played on the screen from a computer.

Morey also likes the addition of a kiosk just outside a third-floor courtroom that handles minor traffic cases like speeding, freeing courts for more serious traffic matters.

“People can come in any time during the morning of their court date and try to handle [their case] before a magistrate and district attorney at the kiosk,” she said. “That leaves our traffic court open for DWI trials and more serious misdemeanors.”

Morey said the kiosk has helped unclog traffic court.

“It’s really made things go much smoother,” she said. “I think the public appreciates that, and we’re always trying to learn how to be more efficient.”

Although the kiosk is used only for traffic cases, Morey sees potential for adding it to handle minor civil and criminal matters.

“People could come in and if they want to resolve their case without a trial, that would help move it along,” she said.

One area of concern for Morey is salaries, especially for court clerks, who haven’t seen raises in years.

“I’m not saying the judges need raises, but certainly the clerks work very hard all day long, and leave work to go to their second job, and their third job on the weekend,” Morey said. “They’re struggling. And I hope the General Assembly someday will see fit to pay state employees what they deserve, because they do work hard and need to be more appreciated.”

Despite some problems, Morey believes the new courthouse is a plus for Durham and was money well spent.

“The aesthetics of this new courthouse are something that Durham really deserved,” she said. “We should be proud of it.”