Waukesha County Circuit Judge Mike Bohren says he knows what an ideal courthouse looks like, and he does not work in one.
Bohren worked on a 2012 update of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s security recommendations for state courthouses, and wants some of those guidelines, which are not mandatory, to shape the future of Waukesha County’s courts.
The county has set aside $250,000 for a study of its courthouse, which was built in 1959. The study will help determine whether a new courthouse is needed or if the current one can be renovated to rectify problems with security and aging electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems.
Although the county primarily is looking at the building’s aging infrastructure, Bohren said the dated building presents several security issues.
Ideally, he said, security screening would be done outside the courthouse. That way, if someone tries to bring in a weapon, he said, any altercation would happen outside of the lobby.
But the courthouse’s cramped security area means an X-ray scanner and metal detector are inside the lobby.
“If there’s a security breach,” Deputy Chief Judge Lloyd Carter said, “it’s already in the building.”
There’s also the issue of accessibility, said Bohren, who heads the county’s security and facilities committee.
As laid forth in the state Supreme Court recommendations, an ideal courthouse would have three separate levels of access: one for the public; another for judges, court and jail staff members; and a third for inmates. The Waukesha County Courthouse only allows for two of those layers. The courthouse has two types of hallways, Bohren said, and the public can access only one. The second is limited to and shared by judges, court and jail staff members, and inmates.
The courthouse is next door to the jail, and a secure corridor connects the jail to the five criminal courtrooms. Two other courtrooms are connected directly to the jail.
One possibility, said Allison Bussler, the county’s director of public works, would be to demolish the oldest portion of the jail and build a new courthouse there.
“It makes great sense from an operational standpoint,” she said, “for the courthouse to be connected to the jail.”
But if the county decides to build new, it also might find itself accommodating Waukesha’s municipal court, which is handled at Waukesha City Hall.
The city is piggybacking on the county’s study and might hire the county’s consultant to explore the feasibility of a combined City Hall and county courthouse. The county plans to select a consultant by Jan. 30.
Ed Henschel, Waukesha’s city administrator, said he discussed with County Executive Dan Vrakas the idea of a combined building. The city is having growing pains, he said, and with upcoming budget commitments, buying a new City Hall might not work.
A combined building could save the city and county money on construction, he said. The city has one judge, Henschel said, so it only would need one courtroom.
Bohren and Carter both said the idea would need to be explored further before they could give an opinion but agreed a new building would mean courtroom design could be improved.
Carter’s courtroom, which is on the first floor, was added to the original building. Two structural pillars block some sightlines from the bench, he said, and because he presides over family court, his jury box goes unused.
“It is what it is,” he said, “but it works.”
Bohren presides over juvenile court, which is in its own building.
There would be merit, he said, in the county moving his court into a renovated or new courthouse. The current separation poses a hurdle for staff members, he said, but maintains confidentiality for people involved in his cases.
The juvenile courtroom’s litigation area, Bohren said, is a tight fit for social workers, guardians ad litem, advocate counsel, lawyers, family members and state prosecutors.
“While it looks big,” Bohren said, “when you start getting those people here, it starts filling up.”
Space also is a problem in criminal courtrooms, Carter said. Criminal cases often have a lot of evidence, he said, which piles up.
“It gets to the point,” he said, “where people are tripping over things.”
Although the needs are many, the decision on whether to renovate or build new will take time. The study should be done by Aug. 1, according to the county’s request for proposals.
Paul Decker, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, last month said supervisors might not be able to decide how to move forward by the end of 2013.
That means the Waukesha County Courthouse probably has another year to wait before any change. That’s OK with Bohren he said, because the decision is complex and deserves lengthy consideration.
“There are certain deficiencies,” Bohren said, “but the building functions well.”
Putting together a redraft of the state’s courthouse security rules, took three years, after all.
“Something as important as a courthouse remodeling or a new courthouse,” he said, “is something that should be looked at carefully and judiciously.”