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Legally Speaking

 

Issue: April, 2006
Author: Mary Angell

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Extreme Makeover: Supreme Court Edition

Wyoming’s Supreme Court justices have a unique way to stay warm on cold winter days.

“We soak a cloth in cold water and set it over the thermostat to make the heat come up,” Justice Barton Voigt told the Wyoming Lawyer recently.

This is just one example of the antiquated conditions that exist within the stately 70-year-old building that houses the Wyoming Supreme Court, the law library and the state library. Fortunately, the building is about to undergo a renovation that will make it safer, more modern and more functional—and the overhaul begins not a moment too soon.

“I think everyone—legislators, the governor, the state’s five elected officials—recognized that this is not a pleasant thing to go through, but every 70 or 80 years, you have to do something before the building falls down around your ears,” said Voigt.

Several years ago, the state of Wyoming conducted studies of state buildings and determined the Supreme Court building needed major renovation.

Two cost analyses were completed. For $2 million, the building could be brought up to code for electrical wiring, plumbing and fire safety, but the alterations would be incredibly labor-intensive, according to Voigt, who volunteered to represent the Court during the planning and construction phase of the project. Redoing the electrical wiring, for example, would require chiseling into the thick concrete layers within the walls.

The State instead followed the recommendation of Rande Pouppirt, the Cheyenne architect heading up the renovation, who maintains that gutting the interior to make the necessary improvements will not only be faster and easier but will result in a better product. Funding was approved by the Wyoming Legislature in 2005.

The renovation project, estimated to cost $8 million, is scheduled for completion in June of 2008.

“Once we’re back in this building, the very fact that we are in a much safer building that’s up to fire code and has the built-in capacity for our I.T. people to function as they should and to grow – it will all be worth it,” said Chief Justice William Hill.

In the meantime, the building’s occupants will have to conduct business elsewhere. They are scheduled to pack up in May for a June departure from the building.


Temporary Locations

The Wyoming Supreme Court will move directly across the street into the Hathaway Building. After the administrative offices for the Wyoming Department of Health have moved to the fourth floor of the building, the justices and staff will occupy the south end of the ground level.

“What people may find hilarious is we’re going to have the Capital Construction Management Division build us a little courtroom in the lobby of the Hathaway,” Voigt said.

An area measuring about 25 by 25 feet will be formed by adding curtains to the window and a wall with a door opening out to the lobby. There will be about 11 chairs for an audience and a counsel table, which will probably be shared by both counsel. The justices’ bench may very well be a six-foot conference table, Voigt said.

“We’re just going to have to adjust to change,” Hill said of the temporary location. “Once we get settled down in the space, the work will go on as always.”

Oral argument for smaller cases will be held in the makeshift courtroom, but for larger cases or those that require more privacy, court will be held elsewhere, possibly in the chamber of the Laramie County Board of Commissioners.

The law library will operate in the basement of the Hathaway Building. The library’s hours will necessarily be limited; no weekends and no evening hours.

The state library, which hereafter will no longer be housed with the Wyoming Supreme Court or law library, will move temporarily to the vacant Safeway building on South Greeley Highway. It will move into the Laramie County Public Library building in about three years, once the public library relocates to its new facility on Pioneer and 23rd street, for which ground was broken March 15.


Safety Upgrades Planned

In its current condition, if there were a fire in the Supreme Court building, the only alarm the people working inside will hear is a blast from the kind of air horn more commonly found at football games.

The building has no smoke alarms, no sprinkler system and no fire alarm system—unless you count the horn Court Services Officer Joann Stockdale took upon herself to purchase and stash beneath the front desk of the law library.

“We had to have some way of notifying people of a fire,” she said. “Everybody can hear it. I had the state fire marshal come up and do an evaluation. We had a fire drill, and the fire marshal said we passed.”

In addition to bringing the building up to fire code, the renovation will include the addition of two new egress stairways to address the fire safety and security concerns presented by the building’s single stairway to the second floor.

“If you’re on the second floor, there’s no way out but the one stairway,” said Program Coordinator Ronda Munger. “If there’s a bad guy at the bottom of the stairs or a fire, there’s no way out.”

“We have thought for a long time, members of the judiciary and law enforcement, that if you look at what other courthouses have compared to this one, you figure it is only a matter of time before some tragedy happens,” said Hill. “As long as we’re going to renovate and restore the building, security had better be a component. It just makes sense.”

Usually, security is a concern only during oral arguments. At that time, a highway patrolman with a magnetometer is posted outside the clerk’s office to scan people as they enter the courtroom.

But Voigt tells of one day when he observed a young man enter the library with an enormous backpack. Curious, Voigt followed him and watched as the young man stashed the backpack under a study carol and quickly left the building. Although this turned out to be nothing but a law student in search of a quick cup of coffee prior to beginning his studies, the incident made Voigt realize that increased security measures may be in order.

“I always think when your security system is a glass door, you’re not accomplishing much,” he said, referring to the combination locked glass doors to the justices’ chambers.


Modernization of the Building

It may seem odd that the justices’ “conference room” consists of a long table in the middle of the second-floor lobby. This is because the actual conference room is home to the building’s computer technicians, who were relocated from what Voigt called their “inhumanely” tiny office crowded with servers and a jerry-rigged ventilation system. These techs maintain the servers that carry data for all of the state’s courts.

“The entire computer filing system, from filing traffic tickets all the way up, runs through this building and this equipment,” Voigt said. “It requires a huge generator for the server to run. If it goes down, the entire judiciary for the state of Wyoming goes down.”

The renovation will equip the building for the technological needs of the Wyoming Supreme Court and law library by providing adequate space and wiring for computers and servers.

Before moving to its cramped office on the main floor, the technical staff operated out of a small basement office that leaked whenever it rained or snowed. The building renovation plan calls for the pouring of a concrete reinforcement in the basement and an evening out of its superfluous second level.

Finally, an addition to the front of the building will not only facilitate additional security measures but will also make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Clearly, it’s time to bring it up to code and make it the type of building that’s ready for the 21st century,” said Hill. “I really look forward to getting into a building that is prepared to handle the growth of technology that is here already and that is inevitable in the years to come. It’s all about trying to make this building work for another 100 years.”


Mary Angell is a freelance writer from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a frequent contributor to the Wyoming Lawyer.


Copyright © 2006 – Wyoming State Bar

     

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