Judge’s research finds sites to add courtroom space

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

[12/31/03]Reserve courtroom space has been identified in two buildings outside the Warren County Courthouse, and Circuit Judge Frank Vollor said it’s time for supervisors to act. Board President Richard George said they will.

The buildings are at 1529 Walnut St., between South and Veto streets near the Vicksburg Police Department, and at 900 Clay St., just west of the former Aeolian Apartments.

Proposals from owners of the two buildings were submitted in advance of a Monday letter from Vollor to the Warren County Board of Supervisors

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“It is imperative that something be done to provide more courtroom space so that cases can be set for hearing and moved along,” Vollor wrote the board. “My civil cases are presently docketed up through 2004 into 2005. I presently have two cases set for trial in 2004 for which I have no courtroom space to use for the trial.”

Vollor cited an October 2003 grand-jury report in which the panel wrote that it “was made aware of the need of additional courtroom space and would like to recommend that the county work to resolve this problem.”

He said he probably had about as many or more cases pending than he did around the same time the previous year, when he had about 120 civil and 189 criminal cases pending.

Vollor and Judge Isadore Patrick are the two judges for the 9th Circuit Court District, which also includes Sharkey and Issaquena counties. Under state law, it is the function of boards of supervisors to provide courtroom space and Warren County’s has not been increased since the present courthouse opened before World War II. Adding impetus are time standards created by the state Supreme Court in 2002. The standards specify “reasonable times” for citizens to get access to courts.

Warren County Circuit Court is allocated one courtroom and that prevents Vollor from making primary trial-settings during about 14 weeks during the year, he said. Similarly, it prevents Patrick from doing the same during the weeks Vollor has priority for the courtroom.

Letters have been sent to the board by the judges; a bar association committee was created to work with the board and several meetings have been held but no definitive action taken. George pledged that will change.

“Through it all, we’ve got to bear in mind that taxpayers will be bearing the brunt of whatever decision we might make,” he said.

Both proposals are for the county to rent additional courtroom space for at least five years.

The Walnut Street building, owned by 1529 Walnut LLC, is a former office supply store. It has been used intermittently for trials in the past. The rental proposal from representative Roy C. Strickland would cost the county $177,000 over the term of the lease.

The Clay Street building is a former federal office building and housed Thomas’ Furniture. Renovation work was being done there Tuesday, however, and the rental proposal to the county was from FJK LLC, of which Jamal Khouri is president.

Under it, the county’s payments to it would total $213,600 over the lease term.

“We try to push these cases along for fairness,” Vollor said. “It’s not fair for cases to languish” in the system for excessive amounts of time.

The time standards say civil cases should be resolved within 18 months of filing and for people accused of committing felony crimes to be tried within nine months of being arraigned.

Vollor added, however, that if the additional courtroom space allowed the county to speed criminal cases pending against defendants who were in jail, then it could also produce some savings to the county government.

Defendants awaiting trial in prison are housed by the county government. Those who are sentenced to prison following circuit court convictions become the responsibility of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, he explained.

Several other locations around town have been mentioned as Vollor has pushed for additional space. Discussions with supervisors began about mid-2001.

In submitting the proposals to supervisors, Vollor said Patrick had been working to obtain additional space in the mostly vacant courtroom in the federal building on Crawford Street, “but with the recent development of the city refusing the deed from the GSA, I do not feel the federal courtroom will be an option.”

In February 2002, the city helped Vollor arrange to have an option to use the Vicksburg Municipal Courtroom in the police department for eight weeks.

But trial courts need facilities such as jury seating, rooms for witnesses and for jury deliberations.

George has said the county may add a wing to the courthouse, but that would probably not happen for several years.

The county’s former justice court building was also considered earlier this year for additional circuit-court space, but Vollor eventually rejected it, citing size and safety considerations.

The vast majority of civil and criminal cases never go to trial, but Vollor said setting a trial date is a crucial step to parties settling and defendants entering pleas.

If that doesn’t happen, however, a courtroom must be available for a case to proceed.

“They never settle until you set them down,” Vollor said.