After series of delays, first legal hearing in new courthouse held Monday
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Nearly five years after the first shovelful of dirt was turned on the new federal courthouse in Cape Girardeau, the building is open for business.
The first legal hearing in the Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. United States Courthouse came Monday in a civil case, Bartoe v. Missouri Barge Lines, a lawsuit over an injury suffered by a towboat hand. Senior U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr., son of the building's namesake, presided over the hearing and afterward said he's pleased with the courtroom and the building.
"It is fantastic," Limbaugh said. "It really is superb."
From the bench, Limbaugh and the other judges working the courthouse can raise and lower shades on courtroom skylights, increase or decrease the volume on speakers aimed at spectators and even, Limbaugh said, focus security cameras tightly on those same spectators.
The judge can also watch a running transcript of testimony as recorded by the courtroom stenographer. "If I heard a witness say something and wasn't exactly sure what they said, it will show up on my screen," he said. "That is a great piece."
The construction delays that repeatedly pushed back the opening date for the new courthouse have been well documented. Poor original site work resulted in additional preparations related to seismic safety, construction issues forced the selection of a second contractor and finishing problems included a complete roof replacement.
But pre-construction delays also pushed the project back. Jim Woodward, clerk of the courts for the Eastern District of Missouri, said the original architect submitted three drawings in 2000 and 2001. All three were rejected and another architect was selected, he said.
And the push for a new courthouse has been going on for even longer, Woodward noted. "I have been employed by the courts for 16 years," he said. "This project has been underway for 14 years."
The finished project, estimated to have cost taxpayers $62 million instead of the $50 million in original projections, represents the state of the art in federal courthouse design, Woodward said. The building incorporates several standards outlined in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system, he said. In the parking lot, for example, there are charging stations for electric cars.
Woodward acknowledged that the delays, cost increases and lack of a sitting federal district judge permanently in Cape Girardeau have all been the focus of criticism of the project.
"My hope is the controversy dies out quickly and the public accepts it as only the piece of architecture it is," he said.
To silence one controversy stemming from news stories about a fitness facility installed at the courthouse, he took visitors to the Spartan exercise room, which contained two treadmills, an elliptical machine, two weight benches and a large rack of dumbbells.
The courthouse is 3.6 times larger than the courthouse it replaces on Broadway. That courthouse is now starting the process by which it will be declared surplus and either given or sold to a new user, said Charlie Cook, a spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration. Offices that will not be moved to the new building, including the FBI, the DEA and the Social Security Administration, will continue to use the old building until new quarters can be found. A contract for a new Social Security building has already been awarded.
The usable space in the new courthouse is about three times greater than the available space in the Broadway building. Much of the unusable space is consumed by a four-story atrium at the main entrance that draws visitors' eyes upward to the large windows that fill the space with light.
"Public buildings should have one or two grand features that distinguish them from office buildings," Woodward said. "The emphasis has been to design practical but dramatic buildings that fit in the community and make a statement about the important work done there."
There are numerous features of the new courthouse that will make the work done there more efficient, Woodward said Monday as he guided a media tour. There are three courtrooms capable of conducting hearings simultaneously for cases with a jury or large numbers of parties or spectators, while only one such courtroom was available on Broadway.
Jury deliberation rooms are isolated by surrounding rooms and sound-dampening walls to prevent eavesdropping. A jury assembly room on the first floor provides a comfortable space for the upward of 40 people usually called for criminal trials to get initial instructions and await a call to the courtroom. Training rooms with 12 computer work stations await employees of the clerk's office who need regular updating on systems and procedures.
"This is space we desperately needed in the old courthouse," Woodward said of the extra rooms.
The courthouse is ready for technology upgrades as well, Woodward said. Floors are elevated off their base to allow easy access to wires and cables feeding computers and other systems, he said.
The courthouse is named for one of Cape Girardeau's most prominent attorneys, Rush H. Limbaugh Sr., who practiced law almost until the day he died at age 104 in 1996. Judge Limbaugh said his father "would absolutely be amazed" at the building. "He would have been very humble about it, and would have said there were so many other people the building should have been named after."
But with no prominent Republican U.S. Senators or U.S. Representatives from the region, and with Republicans making the naming decision, the Limbaugh name was the obvious choice, he said.
"It just works out that way," he said. "If the Democratic Party was in control of the House and the Senate when the Cape Girardeau building was conceived, they could have named it after someone they chose."
As for whether the building will get adequate use, Limbaugh said the federal Magistrate Judge Lewis M. Blanton has actions every day and that the courthouse will lead to the assignment of a district judge to the city.
"There is no doubt it is an expensive building," Limbaugh said. "But the overall benefit from now for the next 75 years is immense for the legal system and the people of Southeast Missouri."
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