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Justice has a rural home in Walworth County

The Walworth County Judicial Center was completed in 2005 on the outskirts of Elkhorn. The $12.5 building offers more space than the previous courthouse.

Judge David Reddy talks about working at the new building, which he said is hard for out-of-towners to find.

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.

Judge James Carson sits in his chambers at the Justice Center.

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.

Chairs in the jury box overlook Carson’s courtroom at the Walworth County Justice Center.

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.”

THE BASICS

Walworth County Judicial Center
1800 Highway NN,
Elkhorn, WI 53121
Clerk of Courts office hours:
8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday – Friday

PEOPLE TO KNOW

Clerk of Court
Sheila Reiff
262-741-7012

Circuit Court Branch 1
(traffic/misdemeanor)
Judge Robert Kennedy
Judicial Clerk Laurie Brown
262-741-7052

Circuit Court Branch 2 (civil)
Judge James Carlson
Judicial Clerk Elisabeth Yazbec
262-741-7023

Circuit Court Branch 3 (felony)
Judge John Race
Judicial Clerk Deb Fraunenfelder
262-741-7024

Circuit Court Branch 4
(family/juvenile)
Judge David Reddy
Judicial Clerk Kay Broihan
262-741-7005

Family Court Commissioner
Kristine Drettwan
262-741-7033

District Attorney
Phillip Koss
262-741-7198

State Public Defender
Jeffrey Krebs
262-723-3212

Corporation Counsel
David Bretl
262-741-7221

Sheriff
David Graves
262-741-4400

KEY DATES

1839

the first courthouse is built in Walworth County

1984

the last of four circuit court branches is added to the county

2005

the newly constructed Judicial Center opens April 1 on Highway NN, three miles outside of town

AROUND TOWN

Government Center
100 W. Walworth St.

Moy’s Restaurant
3 N. Wisconsin St.

Casey’s General Store
454 E. Geneva St.

Elk Restaurant
13 W. Walworth St.

AmericInn Lodge & Suites
210 E. Commerce Court

BP Amoco
195 E. Commerce Drive

Walworth County Sheriff’s Department
1800 Highway NN

Walworth County Judicial Center
1800 Highway NN


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