Shared courts illegal?

Published 6:57 pm Tuesday, July 23, 2019

City manager says law prevents Franklin, Southampton courts from merging


A state law from the 1970s appears to “put a complete halt to any discussion of combining the City of Franklin Courthouse with Southampton County,” in the words of Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

Jarratt informed Franklin’s City Council on Monday that Virginia Code 16.1-69.7 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.’”

As reported in the Wednesday, June 12 edition of The Tidewater News, this language would seem to indicate that Franklin, by virtue of being an independent city, must maintain separate lower courts from the county. However, Emporia — according to that city’s manager, William Johnson III — shares its General District Court and J&DR Court with Greensville County in the Greensville County Courthouse. Jarratt explained to the Council on Monday that the Virginia General Assembly had granted exceptions to the 1970s law for only two cities in Virginia, the first being Emporia and the other being Williamsburg.

Also reported on June 12 was the fact that Paul DeLosh, director of judicial services for the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia, had informed Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson of this code section in an email conversation between the two on June 10, 2016, after Johnson had inquired in May of that year about the process for combining Franklin’s and Southampton’s lower courts.

Jarratt then stated that in a follow-up email to County Administrator Johnson, DeLosh had advised that both localities seek a legal opinion on this section of code, and one other, 15.2-1638, which also indicates that each city and county must have its own lower courts.

“I am unclear on how this never came up for discussion previously,” Jarratt said. “I have called Mike Johnson and asked him if a legal interpretation was given for this code section … he indicated he had not sought one.”

She then confirmed to the council members that the information she had shared that evening had been forwarded to former city manager R. Randy Martin, as well as to City Attorney H. Taylor Williams IV, on June 30, 2016, but added that she was not aware of it ever having been shared with City Council until last week.

Williams, responding to Councilman Greg McLemore’s question as to why the city attorney never informed the Council of this code section, said he did not remember receiving the emails.

The attorney, however, refuted McLemore’s claim that if Franklin were to merge its courts with Southampton County, it would have to give up its city charter and go back to being a town within the county.

“That’s a leap,” Williams said. “In my opinion, before we can give up the charter to the city, the city would have to go back to court.”

He then explained that the city’s 1961 charter owes its origins to a court order signed by then-representatives of the city and county.

“Nobody can affect the charter until such time as they [city representatives] go back to the Circuit Court and ask for an amendment to that order,” Williams said.

County Administrator Johnson confirmed to the newspaper on Monday that Moseley Architects — the firm the county has contracted for its courthouse project — never provided the county with cost estimates for a new Southampton County Courthouse or a renovation of the existing one that did not include space for combined Franklin-Southampton General District and J&DR courts.

“The scope of work in Moseley’s contract was based on the RFP (request for proposals) issued July 1, 2016,” the county administrator said. “At that point in time, the Board of Supervisors had already accepted the Courthouse Planning Committee’s recommendation to move forward in planning future facilities to accommodate the Circuit Court and the General District and J&DR Courts of both the City of Franklin and Southampton County under one roof.”

The only new construction or renovation plans and estimates based on space needs for just Southampton’s courts that the county ever received, County Administrator Johnson said, had come from the county’s first courthouse project architect — PMA Architecture — in the original space needs evaluation PMA had completed for the county in February 2016. That evaluation, as previously reported, had estimated the county’s space needs to be 30,815 square feet based on the firm’s collaboration with Courtworks Inc., which is the organization that publishes the Supreme Court of Virginia’s courthouse guidelines.

PMA’s evaluation had then recommended either expanding the existing 23,000-square-foot courthouse to 38,000 square feet at an estimated cost of about $16.5 million, or building a new 31,657-square-foot courthouse for an estimated cost of about $14 million, with another $2-3.5 million needed to repurpose the existing courthouse. Moseley’s space needs evaluation had recommended a 44,000-square-foot courthouse, the cost of which was most recently estimated to be between $23-28 million.