Courthouse expansion addressed

Officials fear for safety of witnesses, jury members

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— Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis remembers holding court in a crowded Routt County Courthouse.

That was 14 years ago.

Today those same crowded hallways and courtrooms concern the former District Judge for the 14th Judicial District, which includes Routt, Moffat and Grand counties.

Kourlis returned to Routt County Wednesday to facilitate the selection of candidates to fill retiring District Judge Richard P. Doucette's position.

A judicial nomination committee recommended two or three candidates to Gov. Bill Owens, who will then appoint Doucette's replacement.

The names of those candidates will be released today.

Although Kourlis received her appointment to the Colorado Supreme Court in May 1995, she retains her ties to the 14th Judicial District, where she served from January 1988 to June 1994.

She has intently followed the efforts of men and women in Routt County to relieve the pressure of increased caseloads and outdated building standards with the construction of a new judicial facility.

The county is expected to ask voters this fall to support a building referendum for a new court facility.

The courthouse, which was built in 1923, can no longer meet the needs of Routt County, Kourlis said.

County officials share her concern that overcrowding will only continue as the number of criminal cases rise.

The 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office in Steamboat Springs filed a total of 2,643 cases in 2001. That number grows to about 4,600 when civil cases are included in the count.

Only 216 cases were filed in 1923, court administrator Evan Herman said.

A narrow hallway separates the 14th Judicial Courtroom and the Routt County Courtroom and maintains a daily steady flow of traffic.

Nothing prevents defendants in the custody of the Routt County Sheriff's Office from passing witnesses, jury members, victims or attorneys in the hallways on their way to the courtrooms.

Such an everyday situation robs people of their privacy and creates serious safety issues, Kourlis said.

Defense attorneys have no other place to go but the hallway to discuss cases with their clients during a jury trial, she said.

That means what should be a private conversation becomes a discussion aired to the public.

In some cases where neither of the courtrooms is available, cases have been held in other rooms in the courthouse annex or moved to other buildings in town.

Routt County Judge James Garrecht can recall several occasions in and out of the courtroom when he feared for the safety of jury members, witnesses or victims.

"It's not a question of if things will happen It's a question of when," Kourlis said.

The county is proposing to build a 52,000-square-foot building at the southwest corner of Oak and Sixth Streets.

The current court facility houses two district court judges and one county judge in 11,200 square feet.

State standards mandate that any courthouse in the state with three judges provide at least 33,200 square feet.

"This courthouse is definitely out of compliance with that," Kourlis said.

But more than facts and numbers in the argument for a new court facility, she said, is the idea of justice.

"We think of justice in terms of symbols," Kourlis said, alluding to the compelling image of the U.S. Supreme Court building or the well-known portrait of the blindfolded woman holding a scale.

A courthouse holds the same powerful distinction in a community, she said.

The people of Routt County deserve a local symbol of justice they can take pride in, she said.

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