Thursday, June 22, 2006
Grand Jury report sparks call for court space
By SUE WATSON
A recent report of a Marshall County Circuit Court Grand Jury has once again confirmed what chancery and circuit clerks, the sheriff and judges have already been pleading for. Marshall County needs more courtroom space.
The report, handed over to the board of supervisors by circuit clerk Lucy Carpenter, said the Marshall County Grand Jury believes courtroom facilities “will continue to be inadequate” especially with the addition of a third circuit court judge in January 2007.
“The Grand Jury therefore strongly recommends that the Marshall County Board of Supervisors seriously consider budgeting appropriate funds for an additional courtroom,” the report said.
In presenting the report, Carpenter and sheriff Kenny Dickerson argued that the need for more space for court, judges chambers, witness rooms, and records is dire.
On the last day of the Grand Jury in June, the report states, “There was a conflict with the Chancery Court. Because of inadequate courtroom space the Grand Jury was forced to meet in the Judge’s Chambers on the second floor of the courtroom. This space was cramped and not appropriate for 22 people. In fact, two jurors were forced to stand because there was not enough room for chairs. Owing to the fact there was such a large number of people in such a small space, the air conditioning was not able to cool the room properly.”
In relaying the message of the Grand Jury, Carpenter called the day “downright embarrassing.”
She cited numerous visitors and out of town attorneys, a Grand Jury meeting, Chancellor Roberts court proceedings, poor acoustics in the courtroom, and the heat running on for three days.
“Friday, Judge Roberts had Chancery Court and he had too much business to move to another courtroom,” Carpenter said.
Sometimes Judge Roberts’ has used the space on the second floor of City Hall as a meeting place for attorneys and their clients.
“We are asking for the board of supervisors to consider budgeting for another courtroom,” Carpenter told supervisors two weeks ago. “I have over 200 cases on the docket left over and another Grand Jury meets in September. I’ll have to move out in the hall.”
Carpenter said case file space has run out at the courthouse.
“I am asking you to seriously consider more space; either build on to this building or get one of us (chancery or circuit court) another building.”
Carpenter said all the case files for chancery or circuit court need to be together in one building if one of the courts is moved to another building.
Chancery Clerk Chuck Thomas quipped regarding a possible move of one of the courts to another building: “I’d like for it to be her (Carpenter).”
“Because of the heavy case load and backlog, judges say they will have six months of court to move some of it off the docket (when the third judge is added in January). I would like for you to say this is going to be a priority this budget year. We have tried to schedule around (each other) but didn’t anticipate this many cases coming up the day before the Grand Jury meets, for example.”
Carpenter said she felt the Grand Jury could schedule around the other needs of the courts - the civil trials and Chancery Court proceedings when Grand Jury meets again in September.
“I’d rather you to say we’re going to make it a priority issue and where both (courts) can be comfortable,” she said.
County Administrator Larry Hall estimated filing space would require an additional 8,000 to 10,000 square feet of space.
“We’re growing and we’re bursting at the seams,” he said. “It’s time to do something.
“We have to do something,” supervisor Keith Taylor, adding that the county school district needs new administrative space, also.
“Have you thought about building us a justice complex and maybe letting the superintendent of education move into the courthouse?” asked Carpenter.
“I think we need to look at something existing or buying something,” said supervisor George Zinn III.
Thomas said he is in favor of buying space rather than renting, but would be in favor of renting space for the short term.
Carpenter suggested the board of supervisors try to work out an arrangement with City Hall in the short-term if the board was going to do some long-term planning.
Supervisor Willie Flemon suggested the county rent the old funeral home off the square.
“What if we get the judges together and we all talk about it?” Carpenter asked.
Sheriff Dickerson rose to his feet to make a plea once again for space for case records and courts.
“There is an immediate need for a building,” he said. “We are mandated to provide adequate court space - something we are in serious need of. The state had to retire a lot of good cases because there is not enough space in court for the docket.
“We’ve got great judges, great people. If we wanted to have more court here in Marshall County, judges say there’s no space to have it. The case load is ever increasing. More people are coming into the county, and we have more drug problems just stacking on top of the criminal docket.
“You need to do something now with adequate criminal record storage. You can’t track back and forth up and down the street to return records. You have to have a back up and files. You can’t go to the courtroom and testify off a computer file.
“So, it’s a must to have adequate space. We’re just out of space and we desperately, desperately need a space where we can have court and do justice.
“We need an immediate fix to this problem because it’s past being serious.”
Carpenter added the Grand Jury wants to add to their report a request for a meeting of the board of supervisors.
“Can I say to them, you are looking seriously at this and would be willing to give them an answer by September?” she asked.
In a separate interview last week, Carpenter said with just another 10,000 in population growth the county will be mandated by state law to have a County Court to handle Youth Court, preliminary hearings in felony cases and all civil matters up to $10,000.
The space would provide storage for case records, courtroom space, rooms for attorney-client conferences, witness rooms, judges’ chambers and conference rooms, offices for the District Attorney, and storage space for the elections commission records and equipment.
Carpenter said court needs and the demand for services in Marshall County are running ahead of the increased tax base that comes with growth.
“There is a horrible backlog of criminal and civil cases,” she said. “The civil cases take a back seat. “As long as you’ve got criminal cases to try, the civil cases just keep getting pushed back. That’s the thing that got us to this third judge. Starting January 1 with this new judge, the judges said they are going to have court every day until we get this backlog up to date.”
The circuit court Grand Jury in June returned 131 true bills, seven no true bills and three presentments.
Carpenter said some of the true bills had multiple defendants “which translates into 151 cases from this Grand Jury.”
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