Bar News - July 7, 2006
Broderick: New Courthouse for Merrimack County Is Top Priority
By: Beverly Rorick
Bill McGraw stands in the Merrimack County Superior Court's crowded evidence room, located off the employee lunchroom.
“The Legislature has always been very supportive of the Judicial Branch when it comes to building new courthouses,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice John T. Broderick in a recent interview with Bar News in which he discussed plans for a new courthouse for Merrimack County Superior Court. On the list of courthouse projects, Merrimack has, for the last decade or so, been second or third. However, the gravity of its situation has become so apparent that both Broderick and Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn have asked the Legislature to place Merrimack County Superior Court at the top of the list of needs.
Broderick, who chairs the Court Accreditation Commission which oversees court facilities, asked the Commission on June 23 to make construction of a new courthouse for Merrimack County Superior Court the top priority in requesting funding from the state for capital projects. “For a long time the Hampton and Exeter District Courts have held that position,” Broderick said, but recent moves of those courts to temporary quarters (Hampton’s court has moved to Seabrook and the Exeter court to the Brentwood complex) have lessened the urgency of their relocations.
In addition to cramped building space, Merrimack County Sheriff Chet Jordan has testified that without enough holding cells (there are only two) and a too-small parking lot, police cars bringing prisoners to court must often circle the block until space opens up after other prisoners are processed in the courtrooms. Without enough parking spaces, police cars cannot just wait in the lot.
“And there’s no grand jury room available,” said Judge Lynn who also spoke with Bar News. “In a weighted case study completed recently, we can see that when the family court expands in 2007, at least three judges will be needed at Merrimack County Superior—and there just isn’t room.”
Needs Recognized by Lawmakers and Others
State Administrative Services Commissioner Don Hill is supportive of the project—as are many lawmakers and legislative leaders.
“Another consideration,” said Broderick, “is that the State of New Hampshire pays about $255,000 a year in rent to the county for the Merrimack County Superior courthouse—and another $91,000 for the smaller building that houses the Probate Court. I thought the county might be reluctant to lose the revenue.” Broderick added, “But, it turns out they may have other plans for the site. If the court is relocated, they would move county government functions into the courthouse and might also have the county attorney return.”
Broderick and Lynn have met twice with Gov. John Lynch and have also met with a representative of the City Planning Commission, and with Senate President Ted Gatsas, Majority Leader Robert Clegg, House Speaker Stella Scamman, Senator Sylvia Larsen and Representatives Gene Chandler and Elizabeth Hager—and with Commissioner Hill. They have also met with the County Commissioners, the legislative delegation from Merrimack County and Jordan. “At first we thought we might be able to renovate an existing building—there was one on the state hospital grounds—but the consensus was that it would cost more to renovate an older building than to build a new one,” explained Broderick.
Merrimack and Hillsborough counties do not have family divisions, so their superior courts handle family matters as well as criminal and civil cases. The plan for the future would be to turn the Concord District Court into the family division site for Merrimack County. The new courthouse then would be a three-court facility. The district court would move to the new courthouse, joining the superior court, and the probate court. There would also be offices for Lynn (now at a separate location from the court), Judge Edwin Kelly (Family Division) and Judge John Maher (Probate). Jordan would also have his quarters there and the county (in a reversal of roles) would pay the state rent for the sheriff’s space.
Noble Drive Site Considered
Officials are considering a state-owned tract of land located next to the Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts on Noble Drive in Concord, land that is now a ball field and wooded area. The state also could save on design costs by modeling the courthouse on the design of the Hillsborough County South courthouse.
“Another advantage is that it is not a ‘mystery site’; people know the general sub-surface conditions,” said Broderick. “The state would be using its own land and the cost of the project would be about $21 million.”
Many in the Legislature agree on both the need for the new courthouse and the practicality of the proposal—and while, as Broderick says, “It’s quite a chunk of money,” putting off the project would only mean it would cost more down the road.
According to Broderick, he and Lynn have met with much enthusiasm for the courthouse project. “It’s very gratifying, although I know we are competing with other capital budget requests from others in state government and UNH.”
Tour Reveals Untenable Conditions
Bill McGraw, clerk of Merrimack County Superior Court, gave Bar News a tour of the facility. “Merrimack County Superior has the heaviest judicial workload in the state. We badly need another judge—but we have no place to put one.”
As it is, the court has made many adaptations in its present space, turning what used to be the grand jury room into a fourth courtroom, thus, creating two small hearing rooms on the first floor in addition to the two larger jury-trial courtrooms on the second floor (courtrooms I and II). Courtroom III (first floor) has video-conferencing capability, but because of its heavy usage for hearings, the video-conferencing cannot be used as much as was hoped. In fact, when the Probate Court comes from its nearby quarters to video-conference, it must do so during the lunch hour.
Partial view of the Merrimack County Superior Court’s crowded public lobby, usually holding 80-100 people.
The storage areas of the building are only able to accommodate five years’ worth of court documents—so the older (but still often needed) records must go to archives. In addition, there is no back-up for files, so the originals must be carefully preserved. Anything further back than 10 years is being stored in the Manchester District Court basement, making retrieval difficult and shuttle runs frequently necessary. Court files overflow their spaces at Merrimack County Superior—and the evidence room is incredibly crowded.
Against All Odds
There are only five small conference rooms for the entire building—and they must be used also for jury prepping since there is no jury preparation room. Yet, in spite of all the drawbacks, more than half of the criminal cases that go to trial are dispatched right away. Many cases are resolved before trial: the court has come to rely heavily on its highly successful Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) program, which McGraw says has been made possible through the generous efforts of many attorneys. “We hold hundreds of our mediation sessions in these same few conference rooms throughout the year. This severely limits the use of these rooms for their intended purpose.
“There are about four dozen statutes that make Merrimack County Superior Court the original venue or vest us with exclusive jurisdiction over particular matters, resulting in cases being filed here which are found nowhere else,” McGraw explained. “Habeas corpus petitions involving the state hospital, state prison and other state facilities located in Concord land in our lap, too.”
The waiting room/lobby often contains 80 to 100 people, without adequate seating or privacy (see photo). Amidst all of this, lawyers and clients are often forced to confer there. Judges must cross the public area to consult with staff and any judge who uses Courtroom IV has to cross the public area to enter or leave the courtroom; there is no private judges’ entrance.
“One of the most pressing concerns,” said McGraw, “is that there are no secure corridors; prisoners must be led through public areas and use the [one] public elevator.”
Although McGraw praises the sheriff’s department’s efficiency in handling prisoners, with only the two holding cells (and rules against housing juveniles and adults or males and females in the same cell) the situation borders on the impossible. “Prisoners and witnesses have to be kept apart, too,” said McGraw.
Physical Plant Failing
“It’s an old building,” said McGraw. “I’ve had to catch bats once in awhile—and there are mice and a variety of insects….The heating and air conditioning, the plumbing—all give us trouble.” The evidence room opens off the employee lunchroom—and the sink cannot be used because the water smells so strongly of sewage. In winter, people on the northwest corner of the building nearly freeze—particularly in Chambers I and III. “I’ve seen Judge [Kathleen] McGuire working in chambers with her coat and gloves on,” continued McGraw. The court has even had to close its doors on occasion because of the cold.
Being in the state capital places Merrimack County Superior Court in a unique and highly visible position. Not only is it close to the Capitol building and many state offices and facilities, it often receives visits by out-of-state and foreign dignitaries—such as the Russian judges who usually visit at least once a year. Court officials believe it should reflect the best the state’s judicial system has to offer.
Courtroom made from former grand jury room
Chambers on Northwest corner
Possible Courthouse Site
Crowded File Room