Northwest News

Judges seek council support for bringing county courthouse to downtown Olympia

Two judges say that relocating the Thurston County Courthouse to downtown Olympia could change the dynamic of the court system as well as the city’s economy.

Thurston County District Court Presiding Judge Brett Buckley and Thurston County Superior Court Presiding Judge Carol Murphy made their pitch Tuesday evening to the Olympia City Council during a study session.

The two judges said they were speaking on their own behalf in advocating for a new courthouse — one with adequate room for jurors, better security and parking for at least 500, among other things.

The current courthouse opened in 1978 in west Olympia on a bluff overlooking Capitol Lake. However, the judges say the six-building campus no longer meets the county’s needs, and renovations won’t help.

One pressing issue is the lack of security with inmates routinely coming into close quarters with judges as well as the public. Another concern is the potential for mistrials when jurors routintely crowd the hallways due to the lack of a jury assembly room.

A feasibility study is underway, and the county commissioners are expected to review the results by the end of the summer. The study will cost about $125,000, according to the county, and will examine everything from potential locations, financing and various remodeling scenarios.

This isn’t the first attempt to build a new courthouse. In 2004, voters rejected a proposed $103 million bond that would have funded a new criminal justice center with a jail and court facilities.

“What we can’t have at the end of this study is what we currently have, because that doesn’t work for any of us,” Murphy said Tuesday. “Our building is completely obsolete.”

The judges said downtown businesses would benefit from the courthouse’s 220-plus paid employees alongside a steady stream of attorneys and people attending legal proceedings. The court already sees nearly 6,000 jurors a year, said Buckley, noting the potential to “diversify the mix of people you see downtown.”

This is critical in changing the perception of safety, he said, referring to complaints about nuisance crimes and related problems in the area. A new courthouse could also encourage more development from investors who see the financial opportunities from having a large government employer downtown.

“Just the presence of a courthouse down there may change behaviors in the area,” Buckley said Tuesday. “There are all kinds of positives that can come out of this.”

Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said a downtown courthouse could provide an economic push for restaurants and shops.

“I think it would be a wonderful addition to downtown,” she said, echoing some of her colleagues’ sentiments by noting that the present facility is “in sorry shape.”