A Tale of Two Courtrooms

by jth

What follows is a copy of a recent Letter to the Editor I submitted to the Stone County Leader (our local weekly here in Mountain View), which they were kind enough to publish in this week’s edition as a guest column. I did not go into all the details of the proposed project in my letter because the newspaper had already covered them, but the short version is that the county’s Quorum Court has recently unveiled a plan — one that has supposedly been in the works for months — to create a new court facility complex for our county. While the facility is badly needed, I remain skeptical as to whether it is the panacea the Quorum Court perhaps hopes it will be. ~ JTH

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To The Editor:

This week, the Stone County Quorum Court will vote on two important, badly needed projects for our county, one of which is a new county court facility.

I won’t bother to reiterate the details of the proposal, as they have been outlined elsewhere in the Leader. In short, the proposal broadly addresses several critical problems at our current historic courthouse: security, access for the disabled, scheduling problems for the courts, and the county’s need for office space. An additional, modern courtroom near our jail facilities would help address all of these issues. However, there are additional concerns that our Quorum Court must consider prior to making its decision.

As a local attorney, former assistant city planner, historic preservationist, and citizen concerned with local economic development, I look at the proposal through many different lenses. Our current historic courthouse has served us well for over ninety years. Stone County’s most famous court case, the Connie Franklin trial of 1929, was heard in its courtroom; the same courtroom that saw music sessions which contributed to the foundation of the Folk Festival. Today, the building and grounds are still the anchor of our vibrant downtown, and a source of pride for our community. It is the “front porch” we present to the world.

The historic courtroom hosts roughly 140 court days each year that — along with the daily activity at county offices — help keep our downtown as the center of our community. Businesses, restaurants and professionals desire to be near the courthouse because of the “halo effect” it provides. That is to say, the most high profile, visible location your business will find is still somewhere near the courthouse.

However, the proposal before the Quorum Court would make the new court facility the primary one. The activity created by the courthouse around our downtown would be mostly removed to near the jail. The historic courtroom would become an “overflow” facility, reduced to seeing approximately 16 days of court each year. The Quorum Court must address any negative impact that such a change would have on businesses near the courthouse. As tourism continues to ebb and flow with the greater economy, the important commerce created by local residents patronizing downtown businesses while using the courthouse would be disrupted under this new proposal.

Also, using the historic courtroom a mere 16 days per year, plus the occasionally scheduled public meeting there, could lead to placing less emphasis on its maintenance. Any possibility of a full restoration of the courthouse interior grows smaller when future Quorum Courts are faced with the prospect of spending a significant sum of money on a facility that receives little use. The present Quorum Court would do well to keep our historic courtroom as a more active participant in our justice system, one more befitting of its longstanding status as our county’s primary seat of justice.

As for municipal planning considerations, the new court facility proposal must address the impact that moving most of the traffic created by activity at the courthouse will have at the proposed site. Our court square has at least 6 points of entry and exit; the site of the proposed facility currently has one, which is poorly designed and shared with the county jail, the county health department, and the Excel Boats factory. The current intersection at the proposed site will need to be drastically improved, adding both additional cost to the project and the likely involvement of both the city and state.

Several Quorum Court committees met last week, with each giving its stamp of approval to the new court facility proposal. The plan appears to be on a fast track toward implementation, and while the underlying purposes of the proposal are good for the county, there remain many stakeholders the Quorum Court should consult, and impacts the Court should consider. The many positive aspects to the project must be judiciously weighed against the negatives.

Our courthouse is more than just a picturesque background for a postcard; it is the real cornerstone of our community, upon which much of our identity is built. Any plan that would change the building’s status, use or importance must be carefully and critically examined before moving forward. At this critical juncture, I hope your readers will make their opinions known, and I hope that our Quorum Court will listen intently.

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