Editor's note: Mary Schenk has covered police, crime and courts in Champaign County for 20 years.
URBANA - The walls of Champaign County's 102-year-old courthouse, before it was renovated, featured portraits of former presiding judges, pictures of members of the Champaign County Bar Association, a Freedom Shrine, plaques with the names of Champaign County veterans killed in wars, and a needle-pointed tapestry of all the townships in the county.
Call it a sign of the times, but the only pictures adorning the walls of the new Champaign County Courthouse are evacuation plans.
Open one year ago this week, the new courthouse is a monument to modernity. The old courthouse renovation was completed earlier this month and employees are being moved back in in phases. The building should be totally reoccupied by mid-June.
The entire $27.7 million complex has been paid for by a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1998.
"Once it's fully operational, we'll know exactly if we've hit a home run or not," said Denny Inman, county co-administrator. "The public and users will tell us. We'll see how flexible the building is to accommodate different scenarios. I think it will be a technologically and worker-friendly courthouse for at least 20 years."
However, the new building hasn't escaped criticism of some features - everything from a shelter for smokers near the front door and shattered commodes in a men's room, to courtroom seating that many consider designed by a sadist.
"I think we have to remember where we came from to understand where we are," said Steve Beckett, a veteran lawyer and Democratic county board member who chairs the facilities committee and played a major role in the courthouse project.
"There's a little bit of 'Is the glass half empty or half full?'," he said, referring to criticisms.
"The judgment was made to stay downtown. We can complain, but we have a beautiful building that functions very well. Even in the building that would be put out in a cornfield someplace away from the center of the communities, I can figure out a way to criticize it.
"What a significant improvement this building is over what we've had. The glass is more than half full," Beckett said.
Security is the difference
The major difference between old and new courthouses is the separation of inmates and courthouse personnel from the general public and the screening of the public as they enter through the front door.
"It's got to be the most secure building in the county by its layout, manpower and technological systems. We have to not let ourselves be victimized by continuing hoaxes," Beckett said, referring to five bomb threats phoned in during late March and April.
Republican Sheriff Dan Walsh, who is responsible for securing the building and its occupants, agreed.
"I'm reasonably happy with the security, although I'm not happy with the extra resources we're devoting to it right now," he said in late April. The departure in late April of most of the construction workers from the old courthouse closed a security breach that had Walsh concerned.
Walsh, who succeeded former Sheriff Dave Madigan in December, has also made changes that he hopes makes the building more user-friendly, including adding informational signs and telling his security officers to lighten up in general while still doing their jobs.
The first things a person approaching the courthouse notices are signs telling them that certain items are prohibited, such as pocket knives or Mace. For several months, people could get all the way to the door only to be told they had to return to their car with the contraband. The system of checking such contraband at the old courthouse proved to be cumbersome and was eliminated with the new building, Walsh said.
Users next notice that they have to put coats, purses, briefcases or other items on an X-ray machine and walk through a metal detector.
Those didn't exist at the Champaign County Courthouse before April 8, 1997, the day a mentally deranged man entered the courthouse and threw a lit Molotov cocktail at a sitting judge. John Ewing's actions caused a fire that burned out an entire courtroom and changed the tenor of local court security forever. Ewing is still being held in a federal mental health facility awaiting trial.
Greeting courthouse users first is Frank Nickle, a young man in a suit whose job it is to read the X-ray scans. Other uniformed court security officers watch the metal detector and help visitors collect belongings that have been scanned.
"I have made an effort to say to the officers at the front door, 'Let's be friendlier,'" Walsh said.
Beckett said the change has been noticeable.
"The public coming to the courthouse are not thinking friendly thoughts. It's not atypical that people who come there come because they have to, not because they want to. Not every case is an adoption where people walk out smiling, hugging and kissing. Not everyone is there getting married. People who are accused, who are victims, who are there to get orders of protection, the better those folks can be received by a personable staff that recognizes they are there to do business, the better we are as a system," Beckett said.
Although there is not an information officer per se, there is a desk in the lobby where a court security officer usually sits to have a better perspective on the front door traffic. To the extent possible, he or she will answer questions like how to find a courtroom, but Walsh said his employees are there for security.
"I don't believe that's my function (to provide information,)" he said.
Circuit Clerk Linda Frank's employees can provide information. That office is on the first floor and has multiple windows to wait on the public, for anything from paying a traffic ticket to filing a small claims suit to getting a passport application.
Frank has made a concerted effort to work out early complaints about her office, including having separate windows for attorneys and court staff to do their filing so they aren't forced to wait in long lines with the folks there to pay traffic ticket fines.
Also on the first floor is the traffic courtroom, by far the busiest of the 11 courtrooms in the building. There are five on each of the other two floors.
What the public does not experience in the new courthouse is entering with or riding in the elevator with shackled, uniformed prisoners. That separation of prisoners from the public is the single biggest difference.
"We have a central command similar to our master control in the jail that is between two floors," said sheriff's Capt. Jim Young, who runs the jails and oversees courthouse security with Walsh.
"We also have a holding area/control room, offset from the first floor and above the basement ... that is designed to keep inmates out of public access (areas). That has worked exactly how we wanted it to," Young said.
Prisoners are driven from the satellite or downtown jails by a van that uses a separate entrance on the south side of the courthouse off Elm Street. Trips are made to the courthouse about 8 a.m. for those with morning hearings and about 1 p.m. for those with afternoon hearings. Young said the courthouse is not equipped for prisoners to be fed there. If a judge wants an inmate in the courthouse all day, that person will get a sack lunch.
Prisoners usually are held downstairs until their hearing time nears, when they are moved to holding cells closest to the courtroom where they are to appear. No one except for correctional officers or court security officers is allowed in those areas, including inmates' lawyers.
Change can be difficult to accept
Brian Silverman has been a practicing defense attorney in Champaign County for 24 years, including several years as the county's public defender.
"In many ways, it's a vast improvement over the last courthouse, but because of security requirements or perceived security requirements, there are things that are more difficult to do," he said.
His major beef is not being allowed to have face-to-face contact with clients in custody. A phone system allows attorneys to call an inmate from a conference room in the public hallway.
"I have always objected to discussing things on the phone, not because I'm so concerned that someone is listening, although clients are, but it loses something in not having a face-to-face discussion with your client about his case," he said.
Young conceded the phone system hasn't been used much.
Silverman has muscular dystrophy and uses a motorized scooter, which he has to leave in the hallways because it's inconvenient to maneuver in the courtrooms and an impediment to other foot traffic, he has been told. The courthouse does comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Silverman noted.
But Don Aldeen, a Champaign attorney who has been practicing 41 years, complained that the closest handicapped parking is at the Civic Center to the north or the parking garage to the west, both about a block from the courthouse entrance.
"Then there's this long, circuitous ramp that someone not very strong would have difficulty getting up to get to the elevator bank. That was just a design flaw," Aldeen said.
Another former public defender now in private practice, Jim Kuehl of Urbana, said he objects to the lack of personal contact with in-custody clients as well, and in general is not particularly taken with the new courthouse.
"I don't think it's user-friendly," said Kuehl, who has practiced 28 years in Champaign County. "It may be a sad fact that because of 9/11, things have to change, and we have to go along."
"When the courthouse first opened, there was this tent out in front (for smokers)," Aldeen said. "Now there's some stupid lean-to. That looks so crass."
"The building itself is nice," - Kuehl said. "But there are some spectacularly stupid things, like the witness chairs being invisible in certain parts of the courtroom. How that happened is just incompetence as far as I'm concerned.
"What was unintended but what has happened is the building is linear. You can go from floor to floor and never see anyone on any other floor. The collegial atmosphere is gone. In the (old courthouse), if you went up the stairs, you were forced to look at everyone in the center. That's what I miss," Kuehl said, adding he's not sure why the main public staircase on the north side of the building ends at the second floor instead of the third.
Elevators go all the way to the third floor, but if you want to take the healthier option of walking, you have to find the fire escape stairwell on the east or west sides of the building to walk to the third floor.
The other thing that Kuehl and others have complained of is the inability to "drop in" on judges merely to shoot the breeze.
Judges and their staffs are now physically separated from the general public by locked doors. A person wanting to see a judge has to be admitted by a staff person.
"It's not that it's impossible. It's just extremely difficult," - Kuehl said.
Aldeen said: "It's like getting into Fort Knox to get back to see the judge."
Urbana attorney Jack DeLaMar is in the unique position of having been a judge in the new building before his December retirement.
The biggest improvements he sees are that the public doesn't have to mingle with prisoners and that accommodations for jurors are vastly improved.
"Our old jury rooms were pretty disgraceful. In my old courtroom, the (single) bathroom for the jury room was on a common wall with the courtroom and with a 10-minute recess and 14 jurors, that was not very good," DeLaMar said.
The lack of contact between judges and lawyers bothered him more as a judge than it does now as a lawyer, he said.
"As a judge, I missed it because it was my only experience. I enjoyed going to the fountain to fill my own water pitcher or get a cup of coffee. I also missed running into my old colleagues. You don't have the inadvertent contact with colleagues and staff that we did in the old building," he said.
"As a lawyer, I feel as if I'm less isolated because now I see more attorneys. I can express an opinion and can actually talk to someone about their case. I'm having so much more contact and am so much more relaxed that I don't miss the casual contact like I did when I was on the bench," he said.
Other observers have opinions
Joan Miller of Champaign has been doing court watching for the Champaign County League of Women Voters for about eight years.
Speaking for herself and not the League, Miller said she has always found the court staff to be "wonderful and friendly."
"The thing I miss is you don't rub elbows with the judges and their staff. I just miss the informal interaction," she said.
She joined DeLaMar in complaining that the acoustics from the observers' portion of the courtrooms are not good.
"There are some judges I cannot hear at all. It's not open to the public if you can't hear," she said.
The new courthouse has an elaborate system for recording from the bench and the counsel tables and even a way for the judge to simulate "white noise" from the bench if he or she and the lawyers don't want their sidebar conversations overheard.
But as far as voice amplification, DeLaMar observed that the lawyers' backs are to the public and therefore difficult to hear and many of the judges simply don't speak into the microphones designed to amplify their voices.
Miller, who was in the courthouse the day it was firebombed in 1997, said she's troubled by the apparent lack of a formal emergency plan.
On a day in April after there had been recent bomb threats which prompted evacuation of the building, there was a fire alarm apparently triggered by a worker working on an electrical panel.
"Nobody was in charge. We stood around in a courtroom about 30 seconds, and everybody left. Nobody told us to leave the building," she said, adding she's not supposed to walk down steps and was fearful of using the elevator in the event there really was a fire.
By far the biggest single complaint from most users of the courthouse - lawyers, clients and observers - is the uncomfortable benches in the courtrooms.
"They are just torture devices," said Jim Clennon of Philo, who served on a couple of juries in October. "The back of the bench has an edge to it that hits you right in the middle of the back. It's terribly uncomfortable. By the time you get on a jury, you're so thankful that you get a softer seat. Everybody said the same thing."
Nancy Olson of Champaign had a similar observation about "those terrible hard benches" after serving on a jury in March.
But overriding her bench discomfort were the staff members who accommodated her and fellow members of her jury, who were hearing details of a brutal murder.
"The young man assigned to our courtroom, Travis Burr, was just outstanding. He went out of his way to be sure we were comfortable, had what we wanted, and always had a smile on his face. The second day, the court stenographer brought in doughnuts. I think everyone realized what a horrible experience it was for us," Olson said.
Having served on a jury in the old courthouse about five years ago, Olson said she is aware of the need for security.
The first morning of her more recent jury service, there was a bottleneck at the front door, which kept some people outdoors shivering, as people were screened. Lawyers, police officers and courthouse employees have a separate electric eye they walk through to prevent delays.
"I give them a lot of latitude for that because it has to be done. I would rather they screen people going in than have another fire in a courtroom or have someone's life jeopardized," Olson said.
Miller agreed. She said there were times when she was court-watching in the old courthouse, before security screening, when she'd find herself alone in courtrooms with out-of-custody defendants that made her nervous.
"Now I know they don't have weapons," she said.
Some clearly identifiable mistakes in the construction of the courthouse have been addressed. A prominent one was the placement of the entrance to the law library behind a secured door, which precluded the public or attorneys from using it. The security door was moved so the public can now get in.
A witness box was rebuilt in DeLaMar's courtroom after he retired, to address the line-of-sight problem. Presiding Judge J.G. Townsend said the consensus among those involved was that the fix was too expensive and that furniture or lawyers could be moved instead to address it.
Other items on the list to be fixed, Townsend said, include replacing loud hardware on the courtroom doors which cause distractions any time a person goes in or out and replacing noisy hinges on the gates of the bar that separates the public from the attorneys and judges in the courtrooms.
Slated to be completed in June are the parking lot east of the building and the courtyard in front. Beckett said there will be 110 spaces. Of those, five will be for people with disabilities, 20 for court officials and 85 for the general public.
The first-floor men's room was closed on April 24 after a commode broke to pieces while a man was on it, causing him to be taken to the hospital. It was the second such incident in the same restroom, the first one happening within several weeks of the opening of the courthouse, Inman said.
"We have brought the engineer back in and are going through the process of seeing what truly the issue is," Inman said.
Inman added that there's only so much money left to address problems, so nothing will be done hastily.
"We're going to take the right approach, get input from all parties and then make the decision. It won't be immediate," said Inman, who added he's surprised "at how many junior architects and project managers I've met" during the construction.
Beckett himself admitted the courthouse is too "sterile," but that will change with time.
"If I have a feel a year later, it still feels too much like a hospital," he said.
"It needs a sense of Champaign County history. I think virtually everything on the walls of the old courthouse will be incorporated in the new building. The sterile feeling will be replaced by that feeling of county heritage.
"You have to let us finish our project," he said.
You can reach Mary Schenk at (217) 351-5313 or via e-mail at email@example.com.