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Green County grows into new justice center

Judge James Beer stands in front of the jury box in his Branch 1 courtroom at the Green County Justice Center. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

A second circuit court branch would have been impossible without a new Green County Justice Center.

“State regulations require that if you have two judges, you need two jury-ready courtrooms,” said Judge Thomas Vale, who became the county’s second judge after the justice center opened in 2009.

The historic, 118-year-old original courthouse had charm, but it did not have extra space, let alone a second courtroom.

“The court clerk had a couple of people in a walk-in safe,” said Judge James Beer, the county’s only presiding judge before Vale arrived. “The treasurer, during tax season, had people in their vault.”

Still, it was not easy persuading people to spend $12.6 million to replace the building during the depths of the recession, even if it meant improving security and reducing the reliance on out-of-county reserve judges.

“There were people in the community who thought, ‘Do we really need to spend $12 million?’” County Clerk Mike Doyle said.

The new justice center opened in 2009.

The debate extended to deciding where to put the new building.

Officials in Monroe wanted the justice center built downtown. Attorneys wanted it within walking distance of their offices, which were near the old courthouse. County officials pushed to build on county-owned land next to the Sheriff’s Department.

County officials won. The justice center went up on county land in Monroe about a mile east of the old courthouse, which now houses the county’s tourism offices.

“Now that the building is here, I think it’s something people can be proud of,” said Vale, who spent a few months in the old courthouse before moving into the new building in September 2009.

The new building followed through on the promise for better security.

Sheriff’s deputies using the old courthouse drove 12 to 14 blocks, from the Sheriff’s Department to the courthouse, as often as six times a day. They parked in the common parking lot and walked prisoners through the main courthouse entrance.

The jury box in Judge James Beers’ courtroom has ample room for jurors and alternates.

“Security was nonexistent under those circumstances,” Vale said.

Now, the Sheriff’s Department is next door to the justice center, and prisoners are brought through a private tunnel to a secure elevator en route to the courtrooms. There are two holding cells between the courtrooms.

The tunnel has an enhanced radio antenna for communication, and dispatchers watch prisoner transports because of the cameras mounted in the tunnel.

“What a difference,” Green County Sheriff Jeffrey Skatrud said. “It’s much, much safer for us. And it’s much more efficient. One deputy can take two or three or four inmates.”

The change also worked well for the court’s staff members.

“Nobody’s in a closet anymore,” Beer said.

Judge Thomas Vale stands outside of his Branch 2 courtroom.

With nearly four times the space of the old courthouse, the justice center more than made way for the second courtroom, which state officials had pushed for starting in 1997.

“They weren’t even going to commit to a second judge,” Doyle said, “unless we committed to a new facility.”

The new building means Green County has office space at the justice center not only for county prosecutors and Sheriff’s Department detectives, but also for the county public defender’s office and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ probation and parole staff members.

The building also has a law library, an information kiosk and a multipurpose room with a kitchenette.

But the real difference has been in the courtrooms.

“The new building provides us with some things we could never put in the old building,” Beer said. “We have Wi-Fi. We have screens that lower from the ceiling for video conferencing.

The 3-year-old justice center replaces the county’s historic but outdated courthouse.

“Judge Vale has a special area for media to sit in his courtroom. When I had trials in the old courthouse, we had cameras in the back of the room and wires running all over.”

For jurors, there are now two bathrooms, instead of one unisex room. And, in the courtroom, the jury box has space for 15 people, and they all can face the witness.

In the old courthouse, Beer said, four jurors always sat behind the witness.

The new building, and the new circuit court branch, has been an asset for the judicial district, which includes Green, Lafayette, Rock and Dane counties.

Before the second branch was added, recusals and substitutions from Green County — and neighboring Lafayette County, which still only has one judge — were sent to Dane County.

A majority of the Green County cases now can stay in Green County, said District Court Administrator Gail Richardson.

“We’re able to cover just about everything ourselves,” she said. “We use many fewer reserve judges. And we can call on Green County a little more.”

And, to top it off, the justice center offers room to grow.

“This building is expandable,” Beer said. “You could add two jury-ready courtrooms on the first floor, where branch 3 or 4 could be.

“I’m not saying that’s going to happen in my lifetime, but at least there’s a plan for the future.”


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