• 63°

Renovate or relocate? Fate of Franklin’s courts may lie with judges, not City Council

FRANKLIN

A final decision on whether Franklin’s combined courts building can be renovated, or whether its courts should be moved into a planned replacement Southampton County Courthouse at Courtland, may rest with the judiciary rather than City Council.

Emails between Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson and Paul DeLosh, the director of judicial services for the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia — which The Tidewater News obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request — indicate that Johnson contacted DeLosh on May 25, 2016, and inquired about the process for combining Franklin’s lower courts with Southampton’s. DeLosh replies on June 10, 2016: “For clarification, are you looking at splitting both Combined Courts into one JDR and one General District with both being located in Southampton County and both serving the County of Southampton and City of Franklin?”

In DeLosh’s email, the words “splitting,” “one JDR” and “one General District” are underlined. Johnson then writes back on the same day, “Yes, you are correct in your characterization.”

To this, DeLosh replies, “The courts must seek approval from the Committee on District Courts to split. The process includes the courts notifying the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court in writing providing the details of the split including rationale, workload, staffing, etc. Please also note that no additional staff are allocated if a court splits. Existing resources must be used and identified in the request to the Executive Secretary.”

DeLosh then writes, about 20 minutes after his previous response, “I suspect your county and city attorneys provided you with all likely pertinent Code sections…,” and references Virginia Code 16.1-69.7. This states, “On and after July 1, 1973, in every county and city there shall be one court which shall be called the ‘_______ (Name of County or City) General District Court’ and one court which shall be called the ‘_______ (Name of County or City) Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.’”

This language would seem to indicate that Franklin, by virtue of being an independent city, must maintain separate lower courts from the county. However, the practice of an independent city and county sharing lower courts is not unprecedented in Virginia, according to Emporia City Manager William Johnson III. The newspaper contacted Emporia’s city manager on Monday and learned that there is only one General District Court and one J&DR Court — both of which serve the city of Emporia and Greensville County — housed in the Greensville County Courthouse.

County Administrator Johnson explained that currently, there is one clerk and staff for Southampton County’s Combined District Court and another clerk and staff for Franklin’s Combined District Court. Each of these combined courts, he said, would first split into separate General District Courts and J&DR Courts. Each locality’s General District Court would then share space in a new Southampton County Courthouse and become the Franklin/Southampton County General District Court. The same sharing arrangement would occur for each locality’s J&DR Courts.

As for clerk’s office personnel, the Franklin clerk and staff would be reassigned to one of the new shared Franklin/Southampton lower courts, with Southampton’s clerk and staff assigned to the other shared lower court, he said.

This, Johnson said, would help satisfy a concern Chief Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason Jr. brought to Southampton County’s attention in a letter dated June 23, 2017, in which Eason and the other two Circuit Court judges rejected a proposed $7.58 million “reduced scope” renovation of the existing Southampton County Courthouse. In that letter, which Johnson provided to the newspaper, Eason writes, “The proposal also does not provide for the potential division of the operations of the General District Court and the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court, and their Clerks. While that may not need to be considered right now, it is certainly an issue that will need to be addressed at some point in the near future.”

When asked what was meant by “courts” in “the courts must seek approval,” Johnson deferred to DeLosh, saying he was uncertain if such a request to split would come from the chief judge of the Circuit Court, the chief judges of the respective district courts or all three. When asked if Franklin’s or Southampton’s lower courts had already made such a request in writing to the Office of the Executive Secretary, Johnson again deferred to DeLosh, stating he was not aware of any such submitted request. The Tidewater News reached out to DeLosh via email and phone on Monday, but as of press time on Tuesday, had not received answers to its questions.

Asked if this meant it was for Franklin’s lower courts themselves to decide, rather than the Board of Supervisors or City Council, as to whether to remain in Franklin versus move to a new shared space in Courtland, Johnson said, “The district court system is subordinate to the Supreme Court of Virginia and subject to the administrative supervision of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — not the local governing bodies.”

The county administrator added that this is spelled out in Virginia Code 16.1-69.30, but acknowledged that per his communication with DeLosh, it was his understanding that the Code of Virginia also provides that there shall be one General District Court and one J&DR Court in every city and county.

According to retired judge Robert Brewbaker Jr., who served as the chief judge for the fifth judicial district — which includes both Franklin’s and Southampton’s J&DR Courts as well as Suffolk’s and Isle of Wight County’s in 2016 — Virginia Code 16.1-69.35 subsection 5 may also play a role in the court’s ultimate decision on whether to remain in Franklin. The Tidewater News called Brewbaker last Wednesday after obtaining his contact information via its FOIA request to the city, which included copies of emails between the retired judge and former city manager R. Randy Martin.

Brewbaker informed the newspaper that while the aforementioned section of code does not provide for any judge to decide that Franklin’s courts should permanently move elsewhere, it does give judges the authority to determine if and when a court facility should be closed.

Subsection 5 states, “The chief judge or presiding judge of any district court may authorize the clerk’s office to close on any date when the chief judge or presiding judge determines that operation of the clerk’s office, under prevailing conditions, would constitute a threat to the health or safety of the clerk’s office personnel or the general public.”

This code, Brewbaker said, speaking to the newspaper on June 5, is what gives judges the authority to close courts ahead of an impending snowstorm. It was also the legal basis he used for closing Southampton’s J&DR Court at one time during his tenure as chief judge when visible mold was reported inside the Southampton County Courthouse.

But when asked if this section of code only applied to temporary threats such as inclement weather, or whether it could be used to close court facilities indefinitely if they were found to be unsafe, he described the law as “ambiguous.”

“The code section is fairly explicit as to what should happen if a court is closed because of a threat to the general public, but in my view, it is silent as to what should be done about court if it’s closed because of a threat to the health of the employees,” Brewbaker clarified on Tuesday.

Subsection 5 states that when determining to close because of a threat to the health or safety of the general public, the chief judge or the presiding judge of the district court is to (1) coordinate with the chief or presiding judge of the circuit court so that both take the same action; (2) determine the times court shall be held for civil, criminal or traffic cases; (3) determine, in the case of district courts in counties, whether court shall be held at any place in addition to the county seat; (4) determine the office hours and arrange a vacation schedule of the judges within the district to ensure the availability of a judge or judges to the public at normal times of business; and (5) file a schedule of times and places at which court will be held with the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court and post said list at the courthouse and any other place where court may be held.