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Officials scrambling for courtrooms as need exceeds space

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

Facing a “crisis in the courthouse,” officials are scrambling to find space for courts to operate.

With the addition of a sixth District Court judge, the county now has more judges than courtrooms.

An upcoming civil Superior Court session will be held in the old courthouse, which is now the Rowan Museum adjacent to the Justice Center complex.

County officials agreed to work quickly to come up with a “Band-Aid” to deal with the immediate problems and then look at long-term solutions.

“We have a crisis in the courthouse,” said Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown, speaking before the Board of Commissioners Monday evening. “The crisis is the courthouse has six courtrooms. As of Thursday we have seven judges permanently assigned to preside.”

Brown said the additional judge is based on the “crushing weight of the growth in the caseload.”

To help deal with the caseload, the Administrative Office of the Courts has set three sessions of Superior Court in March, creating the need for nine courtrooms.

District Attorney Bill Kenerly described the continuing growth in criminal cases, while the county has continued to hold about 22 to 25 weeks of Superior Court each year since 1976. Kenerly said that for 30 years, the caseload has grown 300 percent.

“The jail is full. We have up to 18 murders to try involving 35 people,” Kenerly said, adding that to try half the cases would take three years.

Kenerly, Brown and Clerk of Court Jeff Barger said they have worked to make the court system move as efficiently as possible, moving courts around, consolidating, staggering and transferring sessions to get the maximum usage out of existing facilities.

They cited the administrative court on Friday that was created to take traffic cases out of District Court. That session averages more than 1,000 cases each week.

“We’re in immediate need of at least two additional courtrooms,” Barger said. “We’re asking for your help.”

Due to the lack of courtrooms, the county’s newest District Court judge, Marshall Bickett, is working some days in Cabarrus County where courtrooms are available.

Calling the caseload “mind-boggling,” Commission Chairman Arnold Chamberlain quickly authorized officials to look at the situation and come back with a recommendation as quickly as possible.

Chamberlain appointed County Manager Bill Cowan, Ken Deal, director of administrative services, Barger and Commissioner Jim Sides to the panel.

Chamberlain stressed the board is aware of the situation and plans to discuss more long-term solutions at the board’s retreat later this month.

Sides asked the group of officials what they need now.

“A Band-Aid,” Barger replied.

“That’s all we can give you in two weeks,” Sides responded, pointing out that it will take awhile to build new courtrooms.

Sides and Hall asked the court officials about the possibility of holding night court to better utilize the facilities.

Kenerly said it would take a “massive influx of staff,” to hold night court. Brown and Barger agreed.

Later in the meeting, Major Tim Bost with the Sheriff’s Office, said a night court would be impractical for the Detention Center, requiring many more officers.

He also cited the need for additional bailiffs, saying that while the courts have increased, the number of bailiffs hasn’t kept pace.

During the discussion of the growth in court cases, Kenerly admitted that it has grown much faster than he ever imagined.

While planning the Rowan Justice Center, which opened in 1993, Kenerly said he did projections of future caseloads and space needs.”

“I did a terrible job,” Kenerly said. His projections were invalid after three years.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge John Holshouser attended the session but remained seated in the audience.

In 1993, when the Justice Center opened, the county had two District Court judges and one Superior Court Judge.

The Justice Center complex has unfinished areas on the third floor.

Also, the county has a judicial support building in its capital improvement plan. That facility would be constructed across Liberty Street and would free up space in the Justice Center for additional courtroom space. In the current facilities plan, that’s earmarked for completion in 2012.

Chamberlain and Sides said commissioners will likely vote on reordering priorities in the capital improvement plan.

Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette@salisburypost.com.

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