Opinion and Forefront

BOEHM: Airport is shortsighted location for justice center

March 15, 2014

Boehm
Like almost everyone familiar with the Marion County courts, I applaud Mayor Ballard’s proposal to address the long-recognized need for a judicial center. The proposal would leave the civil courts in the City-County Building but consolidate the criminal courts and their associated agencies in one complex.

The merits of the proposal have been discussed in this column and elsewhere for years. A new judicial center addresses serious safety and security concerns over holding criminal trials in the same building—even the same elevators—used by the general public for civil trials and many local government services. A modern facility also offers efficiencies that the mayor and sheriff say will justify the cost.

The controversy is not over whether, but where, this new judicial center should be located. The “preferred site” turned out to be land the city already owns next to the old airport. This was based on a 1 to 10 score in various categories identified by the city. The major “weakness” was its location close to the Hendricks County line, remote from many parts of the county and poorly served by existing mass transit.

The response from regular users of the courts has been overwhelmingly negative. Judges express concern for the safety of witnesses and jurors. The prosecutor points out that citizens need access to his office to file complaints. Those who work in or with the courts complain that the move will add hours of commuting time and dislocate existing business.

One point that has not been emphasized is the effect of a remote site on the citizens as a whole. In each of the past three years, approximately 11,250 Marion County residents have reported for jury duty. Over 80 percent of the trials are criminal, which require 12-person juries, compared to six for a civil trial.

So removing the criminal courts from downtown, which enjoys direct bus service from most parts of the county, would impose significant inconvenience on large numbers annually.

This is no small project. It contemplates construction of a modern complex including the facilities required to process those arrested, detain those who need to be confined, conduct trials, and provide post-conviction supervision for those no longer confined. All of this needs to be accomplished in an environment that provides security for jurors, witnesses, victims, lawyers, court personnel, the press and the general public.

Even if savings from a consolidated and modern facility do not cover the immediate financial outlay, the hidden costs of doing nothing or locating the courts in a remote corner of the county are substantial.

Access to the site by suitable mass transit seems to be the response by proponents of the airport. Even if that is feasible without direct cost, that over time exceeds the savings from free land, minimizing the initial cost of the project is not entitled to equal weight over the adverse effects on its many users.

We need a new judicial center sooner or later, and the cost of financing is as favorable today as it has ever been. So we should proceed now, and do it right. That means a facility that stands the test of time and is in an appropriate place to serve the entire county.

We complain that the old County Courthouse was replaced by the odious City-County Building on the cheap. Let’s hope future generations regard our current leadership as more foresighted.•

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Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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