Leon County in Need of New Courtrooms

A space crunch at the Leon County Courthouse is forcing judges to get creative. Mediation hearings have been held in hallways and child support hearings are routinely held in the county commission chambers.

Jury trials are up 20 percent this year. The number of capital murder cases has doubled, and though five new judges have been added to the bench in recent years to handle the growing caseloads, not one new courtroom has been built to accommodate them.

Charles Francis, Chief Judge of the Second Judicial Circuit, says, "This is our courthouse; the primary use is for courthouse facilities, especially courtrooms and court proceedings. We've had a major problem since '97 and have asked for courtrooms every year since '97 and had none built."

Many court employees are doubled up in offices, some with makeshift dividers, and more employees will soon be on the way if the Legislature funds two new judges this spring.

A prime example of the space crunch is child support hearings are up 51 percent this year and they routinely use the county commission chambers to hold those hearings.

The Leon County Commission recently approved a plan to build four new courtrooms. Plans are on the drawing board, but the courtrooms won't be ready until 2007.

Tom Brantley, Director of Facilities Management, says, "The board is sensitive to the needs of the judiciary. We're aware of the needs that pertain to courtroom space and we have a plan of action underway to address those needs."

Chief Judge Charles Francis says court personnel will continue to juggle trial dates and hearing locations until the courtrooms are ready, but delays, he says, could become a regular feature on the docket.

The addition of those courtrooms is part of a plan in which several offices including the supervisor of elections and property appraiser will be moved across the street to the old Bank of America building to make way for the courtrooms.