What would happen to the administration of justice if the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors chose to relocate their general district and circuit courts outside of downtown Charlottesville? That was the subject of a panel discussion held at the February 17 breakfast of the city and county Democrats.
“We came up with this topic a couple of months ago as we were kicking around ideas and really felt like what was getting lost in all this discussion was the impact moving the courts might have on on access to the courts, specifically for our most-marginalized residents,” said Bekah Saxon, vice chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Committee.
The panelists were: Albemarle County Supervisor Liz Palmer; Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin; Mary Bauer, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center; and Palma Pustilnik of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
Palmer and her colleague Norman Dill have voiced their opposition to moving the courts in the past. However, in her remarks, Palmer sought to explain the motives of those on her board who have voted to study the idea.
“I think I can do this pretty clearly because I share some of the same concerns,” Palmer said. “I weigh them differently.”
Palmer said many city residents may not realize that each supervisor represents a specific district in the county. Charlottesville’s five city councilors are all elected in one big district. Palmer’s Samuel Miller District covers the southwest part of Albemarle including both urban and rural areas.
“The courts were one of the very first things on our plate when I got on four years ago,” Palmer said. “We got a presentation from our then-county executive [Tom Foley] who presented a plan for moving the courts somewhere out in the county.”
Palmer said one reason at the time included the possibility of lower capital costs, but a recent study has shown that not to be the case. Another reason would be to locate the courts in the county’s population center.
“Also given was the idea that if you’re going to put $35 million of taxpayer money, is it appropriate to spend that $35 million in the city?” Palmer asked. “Or is it appropriate to spend that money in the county? That is something that supervisors were really wrestling with.”
In December, Council sent a letter to the Supervisors reiterating what the city is willing to do to keep Albemarle courts downtown. In response, supervisors agreed to place their process on hold until early March to allow for negotiations.
“The city has already committed $6.5 million in its capital budget to make the courts reality,” Galvin said. The funding would go toward building a joint General District Court on the site of the former Levy Opera house. Both localities jointly acquired the property in April 2005.
Galvin said the city has also committed $10 million in its capital budget to build a new parking garage to serve the courts. In November 2016, Council agreed to spend $2.85 million on a lot at 9th Street and Market Street for this purpose. The same transaction for the Levy Opera House site also included the surface parking lot next door.
“It is not typical you will see a parking garage associated with a social justice issue, but in this case it really is,” Galvin said. “We’re committing 100 spaces — and the county doesn’t have to pay for it — to build that parking garage to enable their project to occur.”
Palmer said parking is critical for the county’s ultimate decision.
“We feel we have to have some ownership over how that is used,” Palmer said, adding that Albemarle officials want to ensure disabled have access to the courts.
The two other panelists focused on how a courts move would affect low-income individuals.
“We have met no one in the city or the county who is poor who thinks moving the courts is a good idea,” Bauer said, adding having the two jurisdictions’ facilities in the same place reduces the burden for those who are in court.
“I think any lawyer that practices regularly in the General District courts in either the city and the county has sat through a docket in which somebody arrives five minutes late saying they went to the wrong court. The difference between 606 East Market Street where the city’s general district court and 501 East Jefferson Street where the county court is is about two minutes.”
Bauer said if the courts were not close together, many people would be late and would be penalized as a result.
Pustilnik said she was glad the city and county have previously decided to co-locate their Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts in the same building.
“Our court system in Virginia is designed in districts and in circuits and not in city and county,” Pustilnik said. “Our judges are named to a district or to a circuit so they can serve in either a city or county court.”
Pustilnik said separating the courts would harm her clients by forcing her to be spread geographically across the two jurisdictions.
Albemarle County has been operating under the assumption that a referendum is not required to move its Circuit Court. That’s based on legislation that passed the General Assembly in 2017 that added this provision to state code:
“In the case of the removal of a county courthouse that is not located in a city or town, and that is not being relocated to a city or town, such removal shall not require a petition or approval by the voters.”
A bill from Delegate Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville) would update state law to add this language immediately after the above section.
“However, this subsection shall not apply to the removal or relocation of any county courthouse, whether located on county or city property, that is entirely surrounded by a city, and any such courthouse shall be removed or relocated only in accordance with the provisions of [other] subsections,” reads Bell’s bill.
HB1546 passed the House with a 100-0 vote on Feb. 13. The item is now before the Senate Committee on Local Government.
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