Lawyers cite need to replace courthouse

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 15, 2007

WINTON – The word from lawyers: a new courthouse.

As the Hertford County Commissioners review the needs of the courthouse here in the coming weeks, the people who use it regularly are in consensus that the building is likely not salvageable.

In interviews with four local attorneys, each of them indicated they would like to see Hertford County move forward with the construction of a new facility.

“We need a new courthouse,” Murfreesboro-based attorney Vernice Howard said. “I know it costs a lot of money, but we need to move forward with building a new courthouse. Ours is in bad shape, it is out-of-date and it needs to be replaced.”

Howard said she had been in the building when people fell because of the condition of the facility and that she was concerned with the health and safety of the employees in both the Clerk of Court’s Office and the Register of Deeds Office because of the mildew in the building.

“I’m not getting on the commissioners,” she added. “I know they are doing the best they can. I don’t know what can be done, but we do need to start the process of doing something.”

Howard said because of the construction of the current courthouse, those in wheelchairs were forced to come in through the district courtroom if they wanted to go to the Clerk’s or Registrars office and that was unsafe.

Ahoskie-based attorney Mitchell S. McLean was in agreement with Howard’s thoughts.

“I would certainly like to see a new courthouse,” he said. “The courthouse we have is in bad shape.”

McLean said his primary concern was the safety and health of those who worked in the building on a daily basis.

“You go into the offices and you see leaks and mildew,” he said. “It has to be unsafe. My first concern would be those who work there on a daily basis.”

He added the second concern he had was the impression the building left on those who visited Hertford County to transact business.

“I’m not talking about the structure,” he said. “The structure is obviously 1950s architecture, but I’m concerned about the missing ceiling tiles and the leak stains.

“Our courthouse is not in a state of good repair and it reflects negatively on the county,” he added.

McLean, like Howard, said he was aware finances were a concern for the board of commissioners, but he hoped the governing body would focus on the need in the coming years.

“We’ve got good commissioners and a smart county manager and I’m glad they’re addressing the situation,” he said. “What has to happen, in my opinion, is the courthouse has to be prioritized and made an issue. It is going to take some capital investment to build a new building.

“I hope they will take steps to get this moving in the next couple of years,” he added.

Windsor-based attorney Tonza Ruffin said she used the Hertford County courthouse on a regular basis and echoed the thoughts of her colleagues.

“It’s an extremely old building and we definitely need a new courthouse over there,” Ruffin said. “When you compare it to the courthouses in Dare and Currituck, you know citizens are receiving substandard working facilities.”

Ruffin also said she was concerned about safety in the courtroom, though she was pleased that it had been improved under Sheriff Juan Vaughan.

“Safety is a concern,” she said. “There is a deputy stationed at the metal detector at the front door and the others are locked, but it’s a concern. It is much better than before, however.”

While concerned about the facilities, Ruffin did praise Clerk of Court Shirley Johnson’s office for being organized well even with limited space.

Perry Martin, an attorney based in Ahoskie, said he was less concerned about security than in the past, saying the work done by Sheriff Vaughan and Chief Superior Court Judge Cy Grant had drastically improved that concern.

Martin’s main concern was the lack of facilities at the current courthouse, saying the building needed an attorney room, a new district court room and an updated and expanded law library.

“We need another courtroom,” he stressed. “I don’t know of any practical way to add a courtroom to the current courthouse. On many occasions, we’ve used the commissioner’s room for court and that’s not satisfactory.”

Martin said on many Tuesdays the current District Courtroom was filled to capacity.

“It is not of sufficient size to seat defendants, witnesses and various officers of the court,” he said. “There are many left standing which is a distraction to the court and certainly doesn’t look very professional.”

Martin did credit the local district court judges for enforcing formality and thereby making the distraction less, but said it was still a problem.

As for the other concerns, Martin said the courthouse no longer has a place for attorneys to speak to their clients and said the law library was outdated.

“We can afford to do these things with the money the court system brings in,” Martin stressed. “There is a provision in law that says all fines go to the board of education, but costs could be added to current costs of court to go to the county.”

Martin said adding that would take legislative authority and commissioner approval.

As the county looks at the possibility of building a new courthouse, Vaughan has suggested the facility be built adjacent to the current sheriff’s office and detention center by closing Taylor Street.

McLean for one liked the idea.

“I would say the sheriff’s idea to more or less merge the courthouse with his office is a good idea,” McLean said. “My thought is if we don’t do it that way, where would citizens conduct business during construction?”

McLean said building the new structure first then tearing down the old building would provide less disruption for those who needed the courtrooms, the Clerk’s office and the Register of Deeds office.