2008 STORY: New Federal Courthouse for Peninsula

Daily Press

A new federal courthouse will open its doors in downtown Newport News this month -- promising to make life easier for local lawyers, witnesses, federal agents, jurors and defendants.

But no judges have yet been assigned to the courthouse, and it remains to be seen whether cases will be held there from start to finish.

It was five years ago that almost all operations of the old Newport News federal courthouse -- designated to handle cases from the Peninsula and Middle Peninsula - was consolidated with the federal courthouse in Norfolk.

The Newport News division's only permanent judge, Magistrate Judge James E. Bradberry, a Peninsula resident, was sent to Norfolk, as were five of the division's seven clerks.

That shift, made in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, came after federal officials said the Newport News court location - on the second floor of a 1908 Post Office building - had "grave" security issues. Some Peninsula attorneys also speculated that judges were weary of coming to Newport News.

But the move hasn't been easy for Peninsula residents, Newport News Mayor Joe Frank said.

"You have to go to Norfolk just to file a motion to (postpone) a case," Frank said. "For local witnesses, parties and attorneys, the new courthouse will cut the time delays and expense of doing business with the federal courts."

The new four-story, 35,000-square-foot courthouse - at West Avenue and 23rd Street - has a modern feel.

It sports two modern courtrooms, large windows and four elevators - one for prisoners, two for the public and one for judges. It has at least seven holding cells, and added accommodations for prosecutors, defense attorneys, federal marshals and jurors. It also has blast-proof windows and reinforced steel beams to guard against bomb blasts.

Workers from Nebraska-based Kiewet Construction were busy last week making the last-minute touches - installing jury seats, adding acoustic panels in the courtrooms, painting walls and ceilings, and hooking up wires. The government won't own the building, but will rent it from Indiana-based Scannell Properties.

By contrast, the old courthouse, at 25th Street and West Avenue, has only one elevator - shared by witnesses, prisoners and judges. The heating and cooling systems don't always work. It lacks adequate accommodations for people with disabilities. And there's only one holding cell.

"It isn't adequate to handle large trials with lots of witnesses and lots of prisoners," said Howard Zlotnick, the managing Assistant U.S. Attorney in Newport News.

Zlotnick said the new courthouse "will be far more convenient and will certainly save us substantial time." During busy traffic hours, he said, he has to give himself 90 minutes to get to Norfolk from his Oyster Point office - but less than half that for the Newport News courthouse.

It remains to be seen whether Peninsula cases will be held entirely at the new facility.

Early last month, Frank wrote to James R. Spencer, the Richmond-based chief judge overseeing the Eastern District of Virginia, asking him how judges will staff the courthouse. Frank said he "didn't just want to see a new building," but one that would make justice closer and quicker.

"Newport News and the Peninsula have long suffered under the disadvantage of accessible and convenient access to the federal court system," Frank wrote.

Frank said Spencer called him, telling the mayor that though there are no plans to send a permanent judge to Newport News, Peninsula-based federal cases would be adjudicated at the Newport News courthouse in their entirety - from early hearings, to motions to trials, Frank said.

"There's not going to yet be a judge that's full time here, but every Newport News case will be assigned to a judge, who will be here for the hearings," Frank said he was told. "So this business of having to go back and forth will no longer be required."

Fernando Galindo, the clerk of the court for the Eastern District of Virginia, has a different understanding. He said judges would have discretion on whether to hold the case here or in Norfolk. "A judge can decide," he said. "That's how it is now, and that's how it will be in the new facility."

The old Newport News courthouse has remained opened - albeit with far less traffic - in recent years.

Grand juries still meet there. Judges rotate in from Norfolk to hear bankruptcy cases a few times a month. They also come in to hear traffic violations and petty misdemeanor cases from Langley Air Force Base, Fort Eustis, and other federal properties. You can also still file cases there, and look up electronic documents. Those functions will shift to the new building on Jan. 22.

Before the 2002 court consolidation in Norfolk, Bradberry would hear early rounds of felony criminal and civil cases at the Newport News courthouse, with later hearings taking place either in Norfolk or Newport News. Since then, however, cases have almost all been held in Norfolk, with a few exceptions.

Even if it's up to the judges to decide to hold cases here, the building appears far more enticing than the old one. Aside from the better lockups and modern amenities, the two judge's chambers are on corner offices overlooking the James River.


The U.S. Attorney's Office, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Public Defender will get new meeting spaces at the new U.S. District Court in Newport News, at West Avenue and 23rd Street. The new courthouse, set to open Jan. 22, is across from the shipyard's Virginia Advanced Shipbuilding and Carrier Integration Center.

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