More than a year and a half after renovations began, the Charlottesville Circuit Courthouse has reopened, though its use is limited by the coronavirus pandemic.
In January 2019 the circuit courthouse began significant renovations for the first time since the 1960s. The courthouse was relocated to Levy Opera House while renovations were underway.
Part of the $5.3 million project turned about half of the records room into a second courtroom that is aimed at allowing the court to better work through its backlog of cases.
Though the reconfigured building reopened in late August, its use has been hampered by guidelines designed to curb the virus. Thanks in part to its size, the second courtroom, which sits on the ground floor below the main courtroom, has not seen much use, said Charlottesville Clerk of Court Llezelle Dugger.
“We designed this courtroom to help catch up on our civil jury trial backlog so that we could bring in a substitute judge [and] run two courtrooms, criminal and civil,” she said. “Criminal trials will bump civil trials because of the [Sixth Amendment] speedy trial requirements, and that paired with the small space downstairs means we’re still figuring out how to handle civil trials.”
Unlike the other courtrooms in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, the jury box is positioned to the side of the judge’s dais — a more conventional setup than the Thomas Jefferson-derived model used in the upstairs courtroom.
According to Charlottesville Sheriff James Brown, prior to the renovations, a small conference room was sometimes used to conduct civil hearings, a setup which posed a number of security risks.
“We told the judge that, security-wise, we can’t … pull someone off of you easily,” he said. “So it was important to be able to have a second courtroom with more space so we could not only be safer but also because our court docket state backed up so badly.”
However, though larger than the temporary courtroom at Levy Opera House, the downstairs courtroom poses problems not just with social distancing but also with the logistical arrangements that make it difficult for the jury to see both counsel and the judge. Because of this, Dugger and Brown said, construction is ongoing.
The renovations also allowed for an elevator to be installed, which helps the building meet Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
The records room also has been modernized and the clerk’s office undertook the arduous task of digitizing all of its records to save space and improve public access. According to Dugger, all land records from 1888 to now have been digitized and the office is in the process of digitizing all criminal records.
With the renovations of the Charlottesville Circuit Court now complete, the county and city are expected to begin a new project to build a joint general district courthouse downtown.
Last month, Albemarle County hired a Washington, D.C.-based architectural firm to design and facilitate construction of its $45.2 million courts renovation project.
The county plans to demolish an existing three-story office addition and replace it with a new addition to the existing Levy Opera House, which is jointly owned by the city and county. Additionally, the county Commonwealth’s Attorney Office will relocate to the Levy Building, which is at the corner of Park and East High streets.
A multi-story addition with an underground level for parking will be constructed and connected to the Levy Building. This building will accommodate four sets of courts: one for the city, two county general district courts and a shell space for future courts operations. This addition will also house the offices for both the county and city clerks of court.
Construction is expected to start in spring 2022 and finish by fall 2024.
The city is expected to contribute $6.9 million to the total project.
As part of the deal, the city also is planning to construct a 300-space parking garage with 12,000 square feet of retail on the ground level on Market Street. The preliminary cost estimates for construction is $8.5 million.