The Morris County Courthouse, opened in 1827, is a nice place to visit.
If you’re not a plaintiff, defendant, juror, lawyer, judge or someone in a wheelchair.
“We’re doing the best we can, but we can’t do with this much longer,” Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz told the Morris County Freeholders on Wednesday.
The county’s top judge was joined by a parade of experts pleading the case for a proposed $106 million criminal courthouse, to ease the burden on an historic Morristown facility described as dangerously overcrowded, incredibly difficult to secure, virtually impossible to access via a wheelchair and, potentially, a tinderbox because it can’t meet modern fire codes.
At stake are public safety, efficient justice, and Morris County’s place as a regional legal hub that generates an estimated $170 million yearly for the area economy. That’s according to Morris County Sheriff James Gannon, other county officials, representatives of the Morris County Bar Association, and the Jersey Battered Women’s Service.
Video: ‘We have no space for vulnerable litigants,’ says county’s top judge:
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful building. But with security as it is today, we need better than that,” said Sheriff Gannon, voicing concerns about evacuating people from a maze of narrow hallways where prisoners are omnipresent, and protecting the public from modern threats that 19th-century sheriffs could not have foreseen.
Video: Old court poses new worries, Sheriff cautions:
“Our courthouse is historic, it’s beautiful, but it is completely inadequate to house a modern legal center,” added Jennifer McAndrew Vuotto, president of the Morris County Bar Association.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click / hover on image for captions:
A report last year by the Dewberry consulting firm proposed a structure with four floors and two levels of parking in a county-owned parking lot across from the old courthouse, between Court Street and Schuyler Place.
It would house eight criminal courtrooms, judges’ chambers and court support offices, with secure entry points, parking and inmate holding areas. No property would be taken from tax rolls, and the old, Federal-style courthouse could function undisturbed during construction, county Engineer Christopher Vitz said.
Video: Engineer describes proposed court building:
The estimated $106 million price tag would include renovations to the old courthouse when criminal courtrooms are relocated to the new building, said county Administrator John Bonanni, predicting the entire project could take a dozen years. Morristown municipal officials would be included in the planning, he said.
“We’re going to go very slowly with the process,” Freeholder Director Doug Cabana told Mayor Tim Dougherty at Wednesday’s session.
Something must be done. Paying for it is the issue, Cabana said.
Video: ‘There’s a lot of struggle here,’ says Freeholder Director:
“There’s a lot of struggle here… the struggle is really the cost of it, and how best to do it. And decide what we need to do, and the extent we can do. And then it’s a negotiation with the board,” the director said.
Cabana and fellow Freeholders Kathryn DeFillippo and Thomas Mastrangelo on Thursday announced they will run together as a team in the June primary, on a platform stressing fiscal responsibility.
DeFillippo and Freeholder Deborah Smith were absent from Wednesday’s meeting. John Krickus and Stephen Shaw were just sworn in to the seven-member all-Republican board last week.
Public comments will be solicited for the next 30 days, Bonanni said. Submit them here.
‘FEAR AND INTIMIDATION’
For about 90 minutes on Wednesday, the Freeholders heard about situations that range from annoying to alarming for the 600,000 or so people who use the old courthouse each year.
Demands have grown exponentially. Since 1974, court filings in Morris County have more than quadrupled, to 25,693 last year. Over that span, the number of Superior Court judges here has jumped from 10 to 19. Also added: Tax Court judges, three recall judges, three administrative hearing officers, state appellate judges, and state Supreme Court judges, too.
The creation of Drug Court has brought an array of associated social programs that desperately need space as well, Minkowitz said.
Jury rooms cannot hold a large enough pool of jurors for all the trials, slowing the wheels of justice. Closets have been converted to offices. Routine repairs–Minkowitz’s chamber has two leaks–are hindered by the building’s historic status and ancient design. A lack of electrical outlets has led to lots of extension cords–and lawsuits from people tripping over them, the judge said.
Three sections of the third floor are disconnected; one must go downstairs and come back up to traverse them. One portion of the second floor is “absolutely impossible” to access via wheelchair, because a narrow hallway with steps cannot accommodate a ramp, Minkowitz said.
CONFISCATED IN THE COURTHOUSE:
Among the 170 items Sheriff’s officers took from visitors in 2018:
Knives, pepper spray, scissors, throwing stars and handcuff keys.
–Sheriff James Gannon
And then, there is the really scary stuff.
Without private passageways, judges risk confrontations with the public, and disqualification from cases because of legal conversations overheard in hallways, Minkowitz said.
The old courthouse lacks sprinklers and enclosed stairwells; stairways could become “chimneys” during a blaze, cautioned Scott DiGiralomo, the county director of law and public safety.
Video: Here’s what worries the county safety director:
Sheriff Gannon said his officers strive to ensure everyone seeking justice may enter “without fear or intimidation.”
But the lack of private meeting spaces creates dangerous situations in cramped corridors, where advocates and abuse victims must discuss intimate details of abuse within earshot of the public–and the abusers, said Diane Williams, C.E.O. of the Jersey Battered Women’s Service.
“Imagine the intimidation, fear and anxiety that our victims feel when they are at risk of coming face to face with their abuser or the abuser’s family. And that happens on a regular basis in our courthouse,” Williams told the Freeholders.
In the same courthouse where restraining orders are issued, there sometimes is not enough security to separate perpetrators and their victims in the halls, asserted Marcy McMann, chair of the county Bar Association’s Domestic Violence Working Group.
“When somebody comes into this courthouse and does not feel safe and protected, they are not going to go forward with a restraining order,” McMann said. “They are not going to cooperate with a criminal prosecution. And those have real consequences to people when they go home.”
Video: The courthouse plans, so far: