The fourth floor of the McLennan County Courthouse is about to get another makeover as county officials search for space in the cramped 119-year-old building for two new courtrooms created this year by the Texas Legislature.
County commissioners earlier this month approved a $193,816 budget to turn the former grand jury chambers, complete with its marble columns from Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, and colorful stained-glass skylights, into a temporary courtroom for another county court-at-law.
The new court, which will be presided over by county appointee Ryan Luna, will be McLennan County’s third county court-at-law. It is set to come online Sept. 1, which puts the county in the position of being awarded new courts with no firm plans or designated places to put them.
County Court-at-Law Judge Brad Cates said he, Luna and County Court-at-Law Judge Vik Deivanayagam will confer to see which of the three judges will sit in the fourth-floor courtroom. Staffing for the county courts is on the second floor, where Cates’ and Deivanayagam’s courtrooms are located.
The county courts-at-law handle misdemeanor cases, civil cases with claims up to $250,000 and contested probate matters.
The Legislature also created a new state district courtroom for McLennan County, the county’s fifth state district court, but it is not effective until Oct. 1, 2022. That gives the county a bit more time to decide where that courtroom will go. Commissioners are considering long-range plans that likely will include moving up to four of the county’s state district courts into the recently gutted former downtown jail on Columbus Avenue. That plan could carry a $10 million price tag, County Judge Scott Felton said.
Luna toured the old grand jury chambers Wednesday with his fellow county judges and two judges from the 10th Court of Appeals — Chief Justice Tom Gray and Justice Matt Johnson. Luna said he is eager to get to work in whatever courtroom he and other county officials decide should be his.
The 10th Court of Appeals is operating a justice short since the May retirement of Justice John Neill, of Burleson. Gov. Greg Abbott will name his replacement. The intermediate appellate court, which has clamored for years for more space, has operated on the fourth floor of the McLennan County Courthouse since its creation in 1923. When the courthouse was built in 1902, it was designed to eventually house an appeals court on the fourth floor.
Commissioners took over the law library on the fourth floor almost two years ago for the county’s mental health court and have wrangled about all the space they can from the old courthouse.
Cates said there is no certainty the former grand jury space will be remodeled for use as a county court-at-law before Sept. 1, when Luna starts work.
“Anything like that is going to generate some logistical issues, but from a practical standpoint, there just isn’t that much space in the courthouse right now and so you have to make due with what you’ve got,” Cates said. “I think Judge Felton is trying to do his best to come up with something short-term, and I think they are working on a long-term plan. But how they intend to ultimately get it done is still up in the air.”
Gray and Johnson are not pleased with the plan. They said they received limited to no information from Felton’s office before learning almost accidentally of the plans to remodel the grand jury chambers. The justices fired off a three-page letter to Felton on Wednesday afternoon outlining their thoughts on the changes and forwarded it to Waco Mayor Dillon Meek, State Sen. Brian Birdwell, State Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal and the commissioners court.
The city of Waco by statute is responsible for providing space for the 10th Court, which has remained in the courthouse through an interlocal agreement between the city and county. But as the court, which could be in line to add a fourth justice, and county government have grown over the decades, there have been conversations about the 10th Court leaving the courthouse, despite the historical ramifications that presents.
Gray and Johnson reminded Felton in the letter that the 10th Court already surrendered office space to the county when the mental health court was built. Also, the justices noted that the appellate court, funded by the state, paid $27,150 to the county six years ago as part of an interlocal agreement to put a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning unit in an area behind the old grand jury room and to allow the court to use other space in the chambers for storage and supplies in an effort to replace the offices the court surrendered in the old law library.
“That agreement included moving the HVAC unit (the air handler) into the attic so that we could make full use of the additional floor space in the storage area because it would be climate controlled,” the letter to Felton states. “Although that project has never been completed, notwithstanding that the funds were paid and the project was started years ago (permits for the work were issued in 2017), we have now learned, somewhat accidentally, that all that space, is going to be used for the new county court at law and that the anticipated project completion date is September 1, 2021, a mere 45 days from now. … This obviously means that we will never receive the benefits of the interlocal agreement.”
Johnson, a noted courthouse historian who joined the appellate court in January after serving as 54th State District judge, said Wednesday that the 10th Court has been “blindsided by Judge Scott Felton’s actions.” He said they are contrary to the prior agreement between the court of appeals and the county.
“I have seen the plans for the new courtroom that includes a jury box but has no jury deliberation room,” Johnson said. “On day one, the new space will not work well for jury selection or jury trials. It is unfortunate that the county is embracing a site plan as dysfunctional as the old Hillcrest Hospital. It really is a shame that our historical courthouse is being chopped up and not preserved. The entire approach is penny wise and pound foolish.”
Gray, whose office is 20 feet from where the construction is set to begin, said he is concerned the 10th Court will never get back the space it has surrendered, despite the county labeling the renovation as “temporary.”
“We have given up space in the past that the county had allocated to us and this will cause us a disruption, both in the temporary process of the construction, the ongoing operation of two trial courts on the floor that was not designed to accommodate that and then our growth planning for the future. The options have been severely limited,” Gray said Wednesday.
According to plans approved by commissioners, the project includes demolition of the existing walls, the construction of two new offices plus two new restrooms, the installation of new flooring, complete painting of the space, lighting and electrical upgrades, a technology package and new furniture.