Courthouse Expansion Opens Monday

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

The busiest courthouse in Virginia is about to get much bigger.

The long-awaited expansion of the Fairfax County courthouse, almost a year behind schedule, opens to the public Monday when the county's public services and probate offices, as well as the sheriff and commonwealth's attorney, move into a new space in front of the Jennings Judicial Center on Chain Bridge Road in Fairfax City.

The following week, the biggest change for the 20,000 people who enter the courthouse weekly will become apparent, when the offices for paying traffic fines and court costs move into the new building, which will have a simple name: Fairfax County Courthouse.

But even as courts and court agencies move in gradually, the project is far from finished. Some agencies, such as the office of the commonwealth's attorney, are moving into the new building temporarily so that their offices can be renovated. Courtrooms and other offices in the old building will also be upgraded slowly. Once the renovations of the old courthouse are finished, the biggest tenant of the new courthouse, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, can move in, and that is not expected until January.

But in a tour of the new building given last week by Chief Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Smith and the juvenile court's Judge David S. Schell, simply the prospect of vacating the current juvenile courthouse, built 208 years ago, was thrilling to the judiciary.

"This is really about juvenile court, getting them into usable, nice facilities," Smith said of the project as he walked through the third floor, which will be the juvenile court's primary residence. "And to demonstrate to children and families that we hold them in high regard, and that they're not just in a tunnel when they're in the court facility," a feeling that often occurs in the narrow hallways and poorly ventilated courtrooms of the current juvenile courthouse.

Within the 316,000 new square feet, financed by bond referendums in 1998 and 2002, are 14 courtrooms; three more will remain unfinished and available for future expansion. Nine of the 14 new courtrooms will be used by the juvenile court; three will be taken by the General District Court; and two will be used by the Circuit Court.

Only two circuit judges, Smith and Marcus D. Williams, are moving into new chambers, and their office space is modest. Some might say small. The chambers are indicative of the county's sensitivity to overspending on its facilities, particularly in tough budget times. The new courtrooms are functional and equipped with the latest technology but not ornate or overly roomy.

The building is meant to be more accessible to the public. An expanded law library will be open to the public Monday and Thursday nights, as well as during the day on weekdays. The public-services desk, where marriage licenses and various legal documents are obtained and filed, will be on the first floor, as will a new, combined fine- and fee-paying area, complete with a DMV-style "take-a-number" system that court officials say will move more quickly than the current lines.

Sections of the court system will be moving into the new building during the next five weekends. General District Court, which handles 2,000 traffic cases a day, will move its clerks' offices during two weekends, March 1 to 2 and March 8 to 9, and Circuit Court will relocate during the two weekends following those.

Schell noted that elevators will be dedicated to moving juvenile prisoners into the courthouse, rather than having them walk through the back hallways of the current juvenile courthouse near the judges' chambers. "About once a day, I almost walk into a prisoner," Schell said.

The new courtrooms also will provide assisted-listening devices for the deaf and hard of hearing, interpretive capabilities for those who do not speak English and remote video capacity for witnesses who cannot be in the courtroom. Nearly all of the new courtrooms also feature natural light, a touch enjoyed by none of the current courtrooms.

The addition, which forms a completed rectangle with the L-shaped Jennings building, has a large, open courtyard with trees and benches in the middle. "That's something the judges really asked for," said Ellen vanHully-Bronson, the county's project manager. "A place where people could go, remain within the secure perimeter of the courthouse, get outside and decompress."

The addition was supposed to open in spring 2007. The general contractor, Dick Corp., ran into delays that county officials said were justified, vanHully-Bronson said. The original cost of the project was $115.7 million, but change orders have pushed the total cost to $120 million.

The project is set to be finished early next year, when renovations are completed in the old courthouse and the juvenile court moves into the addition.

When that happens, Schell said, "It's really going to be a tremendous improvement for the people who come to the court. To the children who come to the court, we're going to be able to offer them a very dignified space. It's a state-of-the-art juvenile court, and when finished, it'll be one of the best in the country."

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