No order to build justice center

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Routt County no longer has a court order to build a justice center by Sept. 1, 2006.

The order, which was issued by Judge Richard Doucette in 2002 and gave the county commissioners four years to design and build a new justice facility, was vacated by the Colorado Court of Appeals on Thursday.

For those fighting the county's plan to build the center west of downtown, the removal of the 2006 deadline means a chance for county commissioners to reconsider keeping the courts in their downtown location.

"I am encouraged by that progress and perhaps now it puts the entire courthouse in a new light," said City Councilman Steve Ivancie. The City Council has encouraged the county to keep the justice center downtown.

"I understand the commissioners have invested a lot of time and effort and money into this other location ... but I hope they reconsider their position," Ivancie said.

But to county officials, who appealed the order while working under its time constraint, the vacated order means little, especially because another order could be given within the next weeks.

"This really doesn't change anything," County Commissioner Doug Monger said. "We still have a project that's on the table and ready to move forward."

County Manager Tom Sullivan said the county had invested more than $1 million into the west-of-downtown site, which is next to the county jail, and wants to move quickly to take advantage of low interest rates. Building the facilities at the downtown site -- no matter the cost -- does not make sense, he said.

The court order comes a week after City Council members told the county that if the justice center was built downtown, a parking garage would not be required. The price of the garage was a major difference in costs between the two locations.

The court order was issued at the end of 2002 to correct the existing courthouse's unsafe conditions, lack of space and other problems.

The county agreed that new facilities were needed, an issue they had been considering since 1987, but did not agree with specifics of the order and with how the order was issued.

"It's kind of like having the prosecutor and the judge and the jury all in one person," County Attorney John Merrill said about how Doucette issued the order.

So, the county appealed it.

The appeal was not intended to relieve the county of providing new facilities, Merrill said, but rather in hopes of setting a precedent that a more involved process would be required before other similar orders were issued.

In February, verbal arguments were made before the Court of Appeals. The court gave its ruling to vacate the order Thursday, the same day it gave a similar ruling in a case involving Grand County and the 14th Judicial District.

In Routt County's case, the Appeals Court vacated the order because the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court apparently did not approve Doucette's order for a new facility. That reason is a "narrow" one, Merrill said, and so represents a loss for the county.

"Even though it looks like the county won, I view it as a loss," Merrill said. "What we were really appealing and unhappy about was the ability of the judge to order us to do something without a full trial and so forth."

The ruling was not based on those reasons.

At this point, the attorney general could appeal the vacated order. Another possibility is that another order to build a justice facility could be issued by a judge who first confers with the chief justice.

Monger said he is sure the county will have another order back in place to build the justice center within another timeframe. He said even without a court order, he would still support building the justice center west of downtown.

"I personally am not going to pull off here at all," Monger said. "The green light is on, and we're moving forward."

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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