With courtroom space at a premium in the 114-year-old McLennan County Courthouse, judges and county officials are looking at two long-vacant, county-owned structures to create a possible criminal courts building.
The county’s two primary felony court judges, Matt Johnson and Ralph Strother, are history buffs and appreciate the significance that their respective courtrooms have in the landmark building.
But the judges, along with 74th State District Judge Gary Coley, who is taking on a portion of Strother’s criminal court duties and expects to take on more, realize the county’s present-day criminal justice system has outgrown the courthouse design and function.
“For us to be able to utilize the 74th District Court as a full-time criminal district court, we are going to need an additional courtroom that can securely and safely handle felony trials,” said Johnson, judge of 54th State District Court. “The current courthouse is at capacity for courtroom space, and with the growth in our county and the increase in indictments, we need to look to the future and be prepared.”
Johnson, Strother and Coley met with McLennan County Judge Scott Felton and County Commissioner Ben Perry recently to discuss the county’s criminal justice issues.
For some time, county officials have discussed how to gain more use from the former Grand Karem Shrine building at Washington Avenue and Seventh Street, which has 50,000 square feet.
A court that presides over attorney general child-support cases and the county health and human service office are the building’s lone tenants.
But a recent study of the building, which features a huge ballroom on the fourth floor, said it could cost up to $12.5 million to renovate it. That was more than double what Felton expected, he said.
“People come up with a lot of good ideas, but they very seldom have any money. We are looking to see if it is feasible to use the Shrine building to a great extent or some sort of shared-use services arrangement with the city,” Felton said. “It is just pretty expensive to redo an old building.
‘Looking at all things’
“We are just looking at all our options, looking at what we occupy and space we own and don’t have anything in it. We are looking at logistical and financial things and, really, just looking at all things.”
Felton declined to discuss potential plans in detail because he said the discussions so far have been preliminary and he wants to talk to members of the commissioners court about them first. That could come Tuesday at their meeting, Felton said.
When the high Shrine building renovation estimate came in, officials turned to the vacant downtown jail on Columbus Avenue, which they say could be turned into a criminal courts building.
They say the building has sufficient room for holding cells, which the main courthouse lacks, and for three or four district courtrooms and two county courts-at-law.
“The way our current courthouse is configured, there are security risks with the way we have to transfer inmates,” Johnson said. “It is not just a risk to court personnel. It is a risk to any citizen or individual who is in the courthouse. Because of the Jail Standard Commission’s regulations on holding cells, we have very limited space to detain individuals in custody.”
On any given week, because of the limited number of holding cells, eight to 10 defendants charged with serious felonies are placed in jury boxes in the courtrooms to wait their turn in front of the judge. Courthouse deputies transfer the inmates to Strother’s 19th State District Court through the courthouse hallways, which can be filled with witnesses, victims’ family members, jurors, spectators, lawyers and others.
“I don’t want to put ideas into anybody’s head, but it is basically a train wreck waiting to happen,” Strother said. “With all those people we sometimes get up there, it makes for a volatile mix and it makes it very difficult to operate. That is our present situation, and it is totally inadequate for our present-day needs. This place was never designed for the volume of business that we do now.”
Coley, of 74th State District Court, is the county’s juvenile court judge and spends most of his time at the juvenile detention center on Gholson Road. He also handles civil cases.
Recently, he has been coming to the courthouse annex to handle the state-jail felony plea docket from Strother’s caseload. Eventually, if there are other courtrooms available, he could handle more felony cases to ease the growing load on Johnson and Strother.
Coley can’t handle felony cases in his courtroom on Gholson Road because adult inmates and juvenile offenders cannot be detained in the same building.
Johnson said he expects county officials to consult with an engineering firm to get an estimate about converting the downtown jail, which has been vacant about seven years, into a courts building.
There also has been talk of relocating the 10th Court of Appeals, which has outgrown its space on the fourth floor of the courthouse. The county considered the Shrine building as a place for the intermediate appellate court, but the old jail might be able to accommodate it, Johnson said.
“There is a lot of room over there in that old jail that is just sitting there empty,” Strother said. “It would be up to the commissioners to give final approval, but the three district judges who were in that meeting are all in favor of the concept.”
Despite the need for courtrooms, the history buff comes out in Johnson and Strother when thinking about moving their courtrooms.
“I certainly understand making sure the system works and making sure it is efficient, but I can’t tell you I won’t have some regret taking the 54th District Court out of the McLennan County Courthouse, where it has been located since 1902,” Johnson said.