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Keeping Court

A historic city agreement is being disputed, bringing uncertainty to Manchester.

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Wilkinson looks at it from experience. He spent 14 of his 30 years on the bench presiding over the Circuit Court here. So when he says he's trying to save it, it's clear he's not talking about the building itself but what it represents, what's inside.

A movement is under way to shut down Manchester's Circuit Court, the trial court for serious criminal cases and appeals. And this has everyone from judges to city administrators to South Side residents arguing over the validity and application of a promise made generations ago.

As proposed, the Manchester Courthouse would be expanded to include two additional general-district courts, a 150-bed underground city lockup, a magistrate's office and the General District Court clerk's office. The Manchester Circuit Court would be pulled from the site and its operations added to the city's other Circuit Court north of the River. If the plan is approved, the Manchester court could halt proceedings as early as October.

But people in South Side say they want continued access to a circuit court. They worry that additional general district courts and an underground city lockup with their mighty influx of people could bring more crime to the area. And they question whether new facilities will encroach on newly minted and fragile public housing.

The crux of the matter is this: Richmond's courts have long been pressed for resources, for space and for renovations. And something must be done soon to fix the mess.

Last September, eight circuit-court judges jointly filed a lawsuit — Commonwealth of Virginia vs. the City of Richmond — in Richmond Circuit Court against City Council for what they claim are unworkable conditions in some courts. The case is still pending. Also, magistrates complained about potential health risks at their offices in the basement of the city's Public Safety Building.

The magistrates have since moved into space designated for jurors in the John Marshall Courts building and — despite the city's promise of $100,000 to clean up their old space — they refuse to go back.

Add to this the confusion of trying to administer eight general district courts and three circuit courts from four different locations throughout the city, not to mention the recent retirement of two Manchester judges and the continuously crammed court dockets, and it's easy to see how the problem has mutated into a multitentacled one.

Caught in all this is Manchester Courthouse. And those concerned with its future, on both sides of the issue, are invoking a well-preserved edict to prove their point.

For nearly a century the Manchester Courthouse at 10th and Hull streets has housed both the Richmond General District Court Manchester Division and the Richmond Circuit Court Manchester Division. When the city of Manchester merged with the city of Richmond, an agreement was struck in 1910 to ensure that, along with other things like a footbridge over the river, both Manchester courts would exist in perpetuity.

Because of the Manchester courts' location away from the court hub downtown and its current limited capacity, the question of what to do with them has been persistent.

"The Manchester Courthouse is kind of a thorn in everybody's side," Wilkinson says. "Fifteen years ago I said, Let's close the place down."

Clearly, Wilkinson feels differently today. Once he spent some time in the courts, he says, "I could see the great need."

It's a need shared by an 85,000-member community, he points out: "If you take the Circuit Court out of South Side you take a service away from the people. People over here feel pretty strongly that crimes in South Richmond should be tried in South Richmond."

Recently, residents of Manchester learned of the city's plans for the courthouse. Many of them are prepared to fight to keep the courthouse the way it is.

"Our number-one priority is to preserve the Circuit Court," says Bill Thomas, vice president of the Manchester Civic Association. "The city is taking the easy way out by moving the Circuit Court across the river. [City officials] just didn't manage their resources."

The city has known about the court crisis for some time. Years ago Philip Morris offered to donate a 330,000-square-foot building on Stockton Street to the city. City officials proposed turning the warehouse into a comprehensive court complex. But at the time, the $10 million it would have cost made the plan obsolete.

Now the price tag to build a single complex to house all the city's general district and circuit courts has grown to $45 million to $50 million, says Patrick Roberts, project manager for the Office of the City Manager. "It's totally beyond our capital," Roberts says. "We can't wait for the ideal."

So the city has devised alternative plans. Essentially, the city has two options, Roberts says: Expand the Manchester Courthouse or expand the John Marshall Courts building.

The plan to expand the Manchester site — and in the process pull the Circuit Court out of Manchester — was deemed more favorable for myriad reasons such as the site's potential for additional space and parking.

The idea to move the Circuit Court out of Manchester in the process was that of circuit court judges north of the river, Roberts says: "The whole reason we are seeking to expand the Circuit Court [in the John Marshall Courts] is because circuit-court judges communicated through their attorneys that this is what they want. … It was not a city initiative."

Roberts says City Council was apprised of ongoing difficulties at the courts — parking, security, space — last September. He maintains that the city has done its best to address them.

Chief Circuit Judge Margaret P. Spencer says the decision to move the Circuit Court to the John Marshall Courts building is a necessary one, particularly due to city and state budget constraints. She says this alternative is favored because it will impact the fewest number of people. Of the 1,600 circuit-court cases tried each year in Manchester, 80 percent are settled without witnesses having to testify. She also points to data collected by the Virginia Supreme Court that supports the plan. Spencer says the Circuit Court is mindful of the emotional tie some may have to the courthouse.

Those opposed to the plan maintain the judges' rationale for moving the Circuit Court to the John Marshall Courts building is prompted largely by operating concerns and by the lack of available circuit-court judges. "Administratively, consolidating the Circuit Court makes it easier," Roberts says. And it appears the city would like to appease its judges. "From the city manager on down we'd like to pursue this option," Roberts adds.

It's why those in favor of keeping the Manchester Circuit Court where it is are swiftly dusting off the old agreement between the cities of Manchester and Richmond to prove that it is against the law to move it.

"In the city's take as landlord, we've been operating all along because of that agreement," Roberts says.

But this thinking has changed. "The city attorney and the Circuit Court are of the opinion that state law supersedes [the agreement]," Roberts says — meaning that because the state pays the judges, it's ultimately up to the commonwealth to decide where to put them.

Judge Wilkinson and a growing number of South Side residents disagree.

Says Manchester civic-association member Thomas: "We dispute the legal opinion of the city attorney. … The city attorney cannot erase that provision."

But, at least for now, the city is operating under that assumption.

City Council still has some say in the matter. "If it becomes an expense to build or move then it is the city's decision whether or not pay for it," Roberts says. So far, $13 million from the city's capital-improvement coffer has been flagged to pay for the Manchester expansion.

Meantime, Roberts says the city is trying to be mindful of public concern.

It has taken Wilkinson 15 years of working at the Manchester Courthouse to understand this. It's why he's back on his well-worn turf soliciting support, shaking hands.

"That courthouse is an emblem of justice for the people over here," he says. "If Hull Street has any chance of coming back, that courthouse is the only anchor to get it there." S

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