Walworth County’s six-year-old Judicial Center is equipped with the latest technology to assist visiting lawyers in their court presentations, but most will be hard-pressed to find the building using modern means.
“I don’t think anyone can find us on their GPS,” Branch 3 Judge John Race said. “That’s a problem, when it doesn’t recognize us.”
The county built the $12.5 million Judicial Center in 2005, in a rural area three miles outside of downtown Elkhorn.
Initially, the building was not in the city, but county officials approved an expansion of the Elkhorn limits to ensure the new courthouse stayed in the county seat.
The county’s old courthouse was in central downtown, but provided less than a third of the space the 286,000-square-foot Judicial Center offers.
The move to an area populated more by cornstalks than people positioned the courts next to the Sheriff’s Department and across the street from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The site can be tricky to find, however, and Race and other circuit court judges said it’s not unusual when litigants or out-of-town lawyers run late for hearings or call from the site of the former courthouse.
“If you Google the location, it actually still shows up as the downtown building,” Branch 4 Judge David Reddy said.
Though technology can’t necessarily get people to the Judicial Center, it can help them when they finally arrive.
Flat-screen monitors for videoconferencing hang next to the bench in every courtroom, all of which are wired for video evidence presentations and digital dictation.
The technology breeds efficiency, said Branch 2 Judge James Carlson, because judges don’t require in-person hearings unless necessary and lawyers can present evidence on a laptop, rather than through handouts.
“It makes it easier for the jurors, too,” he said. “Trials go faster because lawyers can present a case better to them.”
Videoconferencing is frequently used in bail hearings, initial appearances and probable cause hearings for mentally ill defendants.
It also comes in handy for juvenile hearings, Reddy said. Walworth County doesn’t have a secure detention facility for juveniles, which means defendants typically have to be transported from Racine, about 45 miles away, for hearings.
“We do as many of those hearings as possible by videoconferencing,” Reddy said. “That saves money and distress it might cause juveniles to be transported back and forth.”
When prisoner transfer is necessary for adult cases, it is done via an underground tunnel connecting the Judicial Center and the neighboring jail, which moved from the downtown courthouse in 1995.
The underground system is a welcome change to walking shackled defendants through public hallways at the old courthouse, Clerk of Courts Sheila Reiff said.
Such security concerns were a primary motivation for the county building the Judicial Center, she said.
The old courthouse had six public entrances, none of which was stationed with security. The newer building has one public entrance monitored by two guards who usher visitors, including attorneys, though a security scan before they enter.
Race, who joined the court in 1984, said he appreciates the enhanced security but laments the bland design of the building compared to the downtown courthouse.
Race said he was a fan of the old building’s 1960s architecture, walnut paneling and terrazzo. By comparison, each courtroom, office and hearing room in the Judicial Center is a blend of taupe walls and Berber carpeting.
“If the court ever goes out of business,” Race joked, “they could put a big Walmart here.”
Branch 3 Judge Robert Kennedy, who joined the court in 1988, said he wishes the new building had even more space and amenities.
“The side rooms to discuss cases are small,” he said. “If a husband, wife and their attorneys go in and sit down, their knees are practically touching. That’s ridiculous.”
Lunch options also are lacking at the newer building, Carlson said. The Judicial Center does not have a cafeteria or vending machines, and there are no cafes, restaurants, gas stations or hotels within walking distance.
Carlson said jurors sometimes complain about the lack of commerce near the court, due to its more rural location. But, he said, a 10-minute drive to downtown Elkhorn is a worthwhile concession to having essential county services so close to the courthouse; even if it’s hard to find.
“It is an inconvenience, no question about it,” Carlson said. “But it’s a trade-off for certain things like being able to have people walk across the street, even from the jail, for alcohol or domestic violence counseling.”
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