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Aging courthouse loses pace with growing county

Friday, August 14, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

As Travis County commissioners march forward with a plan to replace the aging Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, denizens of that historic building are pulling no punches in their description of it.

“It’s awful. It’s terrible. It’s undignified,” was the way Judge Darlene Byrne described it to the Austin Monitor and other members of the press during a guided tour on Thursday.

Led by Judge John Dietz and chaperoned by the Austin Bar Association’s Nancy Gray, the tour was intended as a sort of show-and-tell argument for the proposed Civil & Family Courts Complex that voters will decide on this November.

While there’s nearly unanimous agreement that the Sweatt courthouse is past its prime, Thursday’s tour – with its jarring sights and smells – did not fail to impress.

Built in 1931, the courthouse was originally designed to serve a population that has increased more than 15-fold since. As county government has expanded to accommodate that relentless growth, certain original services of the courthouse – criminal courts and the jail – have found new digs elsewhere.

However, the courthouse is still crammed to the gills with an array of civil courts, probate courts, the Justice of the Peace Precinct 5 (the busiest of all Travis County JP’s, according to Dietz) and stacks upon stacks of records under the charge of the district clerk.

Having begun construction in 1930, when the county’s population was still shy of 80,000, the courthouse now serves approximately 200,000 visitors each year. It manages to achieve this feat thanks to a Frankenstein-worthy floor plan of tiny courtrooms and offices patched together pell-mell and packed with staffers working in windowless rooms beneath lighting that seems designed to make the healthiest skin appear sallow with jaundice. Also, if jaundice had its own proprietary smell, several rooms – one complete with two dusty microfilm readers – seem steeped in it.

While the conditions for employees are inconvenient at worst, the situation for the courthouse’s most vulnerable visitors, as related by Dietz and Byrne, is far more dire.

“We don’t have a waiting room for victims of violence,” Byrne said. “So I may have mom sitting here, there’s a lawyer sitting between them, and the dad who just beat the crap out mom a week ago is right beside her.” Byrne said that unsettling scenario can also happen to children who are victims of domestic violence.

Dietz described the makeshift solutions for gathering so much conflicted humanity in one space as a “maelstrom.” He concluded, “Programmatically, we are out of space.”

While plans for the new Civil & Family Courts Complex include much more room for visitors as well as a special floor plan to segregate victims from their alleged abusers, there is no guarantee that tax-averse voters will approve the $287.3 million bond package to build it.

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