Taxpayers dishing out $1.4 million a year for little-used courthouse

Taxpayers are dishing out $1.41 million a year to rent a new state-of-the-art federal courthouse in downtown Newport News that has no resident judges and sits nearly empty almost two-thirds of the time.

And the new courthouse -- which the government rents for $117,700 a month -- leaks. Rainwater sometimes has to be caught by buckets in a courtroom.

Despite earlier promises to the contrary, the local slate of federal district and magistrate judges -- all nine of whom sit in downtown Norfolk -- don't often trek to Newport News to hear Peninsula cases, according to a Daily Press review of cases filed over a three-month stretch.

Instead, the judges typically stay put at the Norfolk courthouse and everyone else -- attorneys, witnesses, defendants and family members -- goes to them. Meantime, the more modern courthouse in Newport News, which opened in early 2008 with all the latest features, goes mostly to waste.

Peninsula attorneys practicing in federal court complain that they often have to set aside entire mornings or afternoons to trek to Norfolk for 20-minute hearings.

Visitors to the Newport News courthouse, at West Avenue and 23rd Street, are greeted at the metal detectors by two to four armed federal security officers. But most days, the guards stand watch over two empty courtrooms, two unoccupied judges' chambers, and two modestly used clerk's offices.

Out of about 21 business days in a standard month, the courtrooms are guaranteed to be used only seven days.

Five days a month are set aside for misdemeanor hearings from incidents on military bases and federal property -- such as drunken driving, moving violations, and minor theft and assault cases. Probation violation hearings are also heard those days.

There also are two days a month of bankruptcy dockets. And a grand jury meets on three of the misdemeanor days to consider indictments.

But on top of those seven days, the courthouse is used only sparingly. Last week, for example, one of the courtrooms was busy Monday for a Fort Eustis misdemeanor docket. Then both courtrooms sat unused the rest of the week -- even as Peninsula cases were heard in Norfolk.

Federal court system officials, either locally or in Washington, D.C., say they don't keep tabs on how many cases are heard at the new courthouse.

The Daily Press has examined the dockets of the first 61 criminal felony cases of 2010 filed in the Newport News judicial division, which incorporates all of the Peninsula, as well as Gloucester and Mathews counties.

In those 61 felony cases, filed between Jan. 1 and March 31, there have been 213 hearings, ranging from initial appearances and bond hearings to plea agreements and sentencings.

Only eight of those hearings -- six sentencings, a plea hearing and a three-day trial -- took place in Newport News. The other 205 hearings -- 96 percent -- were in Norfolk. In terms of civil cases, there were only a handful of Newport News hearings during that stretch.

U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who fought for the new courthouse after the old one closed over security concerns following 9/11, said it's clearly not working out as it should.

"No, it's not (living up to its promise)," Scott said. "It's broken, and it's obviously something we need to work on."

Scott said at least two judges -- a magistrate and district judge -- should be based in Newport News. "I had assumed that judges would be based here," he said. "It's quite an ordeal to have to travel to Norfolk. If you have a 15-minute hearing, you have to black out the entire morning."

Hampton Mayor Molly Joseph Ward, an attorney, said some local lawyers have told her they prefer to file their federal cases in Richmond because there's less hassle getting there than Norfolk. "My concern is for my constituents," Ward said. "Whether you're a defendant, a plaintiff, or a family member (watching a case) … we should have a more convenient venue."

Local attorney James Ellenson said that one of his clients, a woman from West Point in King William, was scheduled to plead guilty to identity fraud one midafternoon in early July. But though she planned to get to the Norfolk courthouse an hour early, she hit severe traffic and arrived 20 minutes late.

"She called from the road and told me she didn't think it was going to take her three hours to get to Norfolk," Ellenson said.

Ellenson noted that the prosecutor was Robert E. Bradenham III, from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newport News. The judge was U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas Miller, who lives in Hampton. And Ellenson works in Newport News.

"I said, 'Isn't this kind of silly that we're all way over here?'" he said.

According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. General Services Administration, or GSA, pays $1.41 million annually -- or $117,700 a month -- to lease the four-story, 35,000-square-foot courthouse from Scannell Properties, of Indiana.

That equates to a $21 million hit to federal taxpayers over the 15-year term. Earlier this year, the city assessed the property at $7.2 million. The lease is a "fully-serviced" contract, so the $21 million includes operating costs, which generally include taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance.

Fernando Galindo, the clerk of courts for the Eastern District of Virginia, said water leaks are a prime reason the courthouse's usage is low. He cited a trial in 2009 in which rain water fell "directly over the judge's bench and the jury box."

"We look forward to using it again once the water problems get fixed," Galindo said. He said the GSA is addressing the issue with Scannell Properties, "and we're glad they are."

U.S. District Judge James Spencer, the chief judge overseeing the Eastern District of Virginia, did not return phone calls. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, the chief federal judge in Hampton Roads, referred calls to Galindo.

In December 2007, before the courthouse was opened, then-Mayor Joe S. Frank voiced concern about the building's staffing.

"Newport News and the Peninsula have long suffered under the disadvantage of accessible and convenient access to the federal court system," Frank wrote to Spencer, who is based in Richmond. "What arrangements have been made to have a full-time resident judge or judges located at this facility?"

Spencer called Frank, assuring him that judges would come to the new courthouse to hear cases. Frank's understanding from the conversation, he said in 2008, was that Peninsula cases would be heard in Newport News "from start to finish."

When the building opened on February 2008, Judge Smith gave the keynote address. She called the event "a grand day" for the Peninsula, saying the "beautiful building" would allow justice to be determined with "reason, discipline, compassion and grace."

After the event, Smith acknowledged "there will not be a judge stationed here." But, she said, "the court will be fully operating, and the judges will be here holding their dockets."

But that's clearly been the exception, not the rule.

A review of the felony criminal docket shows that early hearings -- initial appearances, bond hearings and arraignments -- are virtually always held in Norfolk, with jury trials initially set in Newport News. But the defendants typically plead guilty, avoiding trial. Then the plea hearings and sentencings both happen in Norfolk.

Among the biggest Peninsula federal cases arising since the courthouse opening was the trial for the hired hit man and another defendant in the slaying of Navy officer Cory Voss in Newport News.

But a Norfolk-based lawyer for the hit man asked to hold the trial in Norfolk -- citing the larger setting and "convenience of the surrounding area to out-of-state witnesses." The U.S. Attorney's Office in Newport News filed an 11-page opposition, saying in part that there's a "substantial interest" in holding a trial where the crime took place.

In the end, Smith moved the trial to Norfolk. And it was Southside jurors, not those from the Peninsula, who recommended a death sentence for the man convicted of killing Voss off Jefferson Avenue in Oyster Point.

Among the 61 cases the Daily Press reviewed, U.S. District Judge Mark S. Davis stands out among the Norfolk-based judges in coming to Newport News, accounting for seven of the eight hearings here. The other was a three-day trial in a bank fraud case before U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Friedman.

Federal prosecutors in Newport News are among the most frequent travelers to Norfolk, with the travel time presumably taking time from other cases. Several prosecutors declined to comment.

But their boss, Alexandria-based U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride, said judges are "always willing" to come to Newport News, though logistics and other factors don't always allow it.

Many Peninsula lawyers, afraid of angering the judges, are reluctant to speak publicly about the courthouse issue. But four local attorneys -- Leonard C. Heath Jr., Timothy Clancy, Ellenson, and Newport News Bar Association President Robert W. Lawrence -- backed Scott's call to base judges in Newport News.

Clancy said he doesn't think the long-term answer is to expect the Norfolk-based judges to cross the water. He pointed out that all their staffs and libraries are in Norfolk.

"We have a courthouse, so we're halfway there," Clancy said. "But unless and until we have a full time magistrate judge and a full-time district judge based in Newport News, I don't expect the numbers to change."

The most pressing need, Ellenson said, is for a magistrate judge who can handle many of the more minor hearings. "That would ameliorate a whole lot of the travel issues," he said. Even having the magistrates sitting in Newport News on a rotating monthly basis would go a long way, he said.

It's unclear whether the judges would want to do that. Miller, the magistrate judge from Hampton, said after his appointment last year that he "looked forward" to being stationed in Norfolk "with the other judges."

The magistrate he replaced, Kiln Creek resident James Bradberry, said working out of Norfolk after 2001 -- after many years in Newport News -- "made it easier to balance" the workload among his colleagues. "My move to Norfolk was a good move in terms of the relationship with the other magistrate judges," he said.

Scott, however, said the desire for collaboration should not trump using the new courthouse and better serving Peninsula residents. The lawmaker predicted he would not need to file legislation to force the issue.

"Hopefully this can be worked out for the convenience of the people that use it," Scott said. "I'll be talking to people to see what kind of options we have. You're dealing with reasonable people."

If that's not successful in getting the courthouse used more, Lawrence said, "They could rent it to me, and I'll open up a dance hall."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad