Since an early morning fire last Sunday, employees who used to work on the upper four floors of the Arlington Court House have been packed into one unscathed wing of the third floor.
"It's like an Ellis Island over there," said Chuck Vasaly, president of the Arlington County Bar Association. "The third floor of the courthouse is where all the immigrants are waiting to be relocated."
Officials say it may take several weeks before the judges, secretaries and court clerks can enter their offices, damaged by fire and contaminated by asbestos.
Room 302 of the General District Court has been cleaned enough to allow trials to resume there on Tuesday. But whether Circuit Court workers will return to their fourth-floor offices in the 30-year-old building at all may be decided at a County Board meeting June 23, when the board will consider moving up a $47 million bond issue for building a new courthouse. Some County Board members have advocated setting the bond issue vote, originally planned for 1993, for as early as November.
Still to be determined is the cost of the damage, which county officials estimated at $2.5 million before the extent of the asbestos contamination was known.
The scene is one of controlled chaos: The Arlington County Bar Association, for instance, is holed up in a little cubicle at the rear of a third-floor corridor. Most Circuit Court judges, evicted from their spacious sixth-floor chambers, are sharing tiny offices with colleagues.
Despite the disorder, a stiff-upper-lip attitude prevails in the courthouse, and employees have a sense of pride that their departments have become almost fully operational in a few days.
"The indictments were still made on Monday . . . and I will still have to type them all up," Bonnie Johnson, a deputy of the criminal section of the Circuit Court, said early in the week.
Work crews have installed computers, phones and desks in the small, dingy offices that were barren just a few days ago. Office workers have resumed issuing marriage licenses, filing briefs and processing the day's court dockets.
Even lawyers, some famed for their brusqueness, have been cooperative.
"Most of them are trying to be helpful by not filing things that don't absolutely have to be," said Mina Ketchie, a lawyer in private practice in Arlington.
Ketchie, with a few of her colleagues, has spent much of the past few days lending moral support to court employees, filling in when court-appointed lawyers were absent and even fetching lunch for frazzled workers.
"That spirit of cooperation is one of the really nice things about the Arlington Bar," Ketchie said.
Easing the burden is that only about a third of the usual 500 visitors a day have come to the offices, according to court employees. "It's mostly been people calling to find out if their will and deeds burned up," said Kathe Powell, a deputy in the probate section of the court.
Computer capability was restored by midweek, and workers were able to conduct searches on cases dating to 1987.
But the game of musical courtrooms has not worked so well everywhere.
"We're just in limbo," said Betty Waldow, coordinator of the 13,000-volume law library, which, before the fire, was available to lawyers around the clock. Her cubbyhole office still has no typewriter and no computer, she said.
"About all we can do is open our mail," Waldow said, adding that lawyers wanting to check a legal reference must use the law library at George Mason University.
Vasaly, who also is director of Legal Aid of Northern Virginia, said that because computerized lists with lawyers' names also were stored in the library, Arlington residents seeking a lawyer are being referred to lawyers in Fairfax and Alexandria.
David A. Bell, chief clerk of the Circuit Court, said the first shipment of bound and microfilmed copies of court documents replacing those destroyed in this week's fire are expected to arrive from the state archives in Richmond this week.
If the makeshift offices have to last a long time, providing only a third of the space courthouse workers used to have, problems could result, Bell said.