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New federal courthouse expected to open in early August

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Court should be in session at the new federal courthouse by early August, and there's a chance a local judge could sit there permanently once it opens.

Cape Girardeau resident Stephen Limbaugh Jr., currently serving on the Missouri Supreme Court, is a candidate for the open federal judgeship created when Judge Donald J. Stohr assumed senior judge status. The vacancy in the U.S. District Court's Eastern Division of Missouri will be filled in the coming months.

Jim Woodward, chief clerk of the court, said there are no concrete plans to have a judge permanently sit at the courthouse, but if a resident from Southeast Missouri were selected to fill the vacancy in the district, the judge could ask the court to sit at the Cape Girardeau courthouse.

"Those decisions are made by the court as part of their administrative duties," Woodward said. "If a justice expressed a strong preference to sit in the area, the judges would consider that in their decision."

Federal district judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Normally, a senator from the state gives names of qualified candidates to the president for selection. The senator also has informal veto power over a judge's nomination, known as senatorial courtesy.

After a judge's nomination passes the Senate, the judge is appointed for a life term. A judge who turns 65 can retire or become a senior judge, as did Judge Stephen Limbaugh Sr. of Cape Girardeau.

Senior judges often retain full caseloads or serve in an advisory capacity to current district judges.

District judges appoint federal magistrate judges to eight-year terms and supervise them while they serve. The magistrate judges are responsible for initial proceedings and minor crimes committed on federal lands. They can hear civil cases with the consent of the parties involved. After initial proceedings, cases are turned over to the district judges for trial.

Cases are assigned to district judges and magistrate judges by automated random selection unless the case is specifically referred to one.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri is based in St. Louis. The district is composed of three parts: the Northern Division based in Hannibal, the Eastern Division based in St. Louis and the Southeastern Division based in Cape Girardeau.

Woodward said the Southeastern Division's criminal caseload has grown steadily in the past five years due to increased federal prosecution of methamphetamine cases.

The present courthouse has only one courtroom, which Woodward said causes many delays when multiple cases are on the day's docket.

Woodward said the three courtrooms in the new courthouse will expedite the court's business and solve scheduling concerns.

"I think all three courtrooms will be in session simultaneously at least once a month," Woodward said.

The new courthouse will allow more cases to be tried, Woodward said, because the current courthouse has security limitations that slow down the judicial process and leave judges, attorneys and the public vulnerable.

"The new courthouse has security systems that are state-of-the-art," Woodward said. "We won't have the same concerns about tragedies caused by lack of security in the new building."

Security 'shakedown'

Charlie Cook, spokesman for the General Services Administration, which is building the courthouse, said other federal agencies set to move into the courthouse will have to wait until after the initial "shakedown" by the U.S. Marshals Service to occupy their offices.

The shakedown, a routine security sweep conducted on all federal courthouses, will be delayed for at least a few more weeks. "It's not really out of the ordinary," Cook said. "The court wanted some extra security devices installed, and that led to the delay."

He said court activity is expected to begin in early August, with a dedication ceremony tentatively planned for early September. While the courthouse remains closed, Cook estimated the building's monthly utility budget will be $10,000.

pwylie@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127


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