Modernize the courthouse, but maintain Abingdon’s historic downtown

When I graduated from law school in 1980, my wife and I chose to live and work in Abingdon. We were attracted to the history and charm of the community — particularly to a Main Street that was thriving at a time when many downtowns of other communities were struggling.

I have now practiced law for nearly 40 years, most of it at 200 East Main across the street from the courthouse. In those four decades, a lot has changed, but the courthouse continues to serve as the anchor to the historic downtown.

To me, Abingdon’s courthouse has always represented the ideal set out by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell: “Public buildings often accurately reflect the beliefs, priorities, and aspirations of a people … For much of our history, the courthouse has served not just as a local center of the law and government but as a meeting ground, cultural hub, and social gathering place.”

But the courthouse has also stood for more than 150 years, and, rightly, the Board of Supervisors is now considering how to address space, access, and security issues. Currently the board is weighing three options: building a new courthouse; renovating the courthouse to serve us for 10 years and then building a new one; and buying the old Kmart building and repurposing it.

All of these options end up — whether now or 10 years from now — shuttering the current courthouse, dramatically changing downtown Abingdon with a large, empty historic building and the likely relocation of businesses that have grown on Main Street to be near it.

There are certainly better long-term solutions for the county that can modernize the courthouse and protect our historical integrity as a community.

We can start by reexamining the study forming the basis of the three options. It reduces the problem to simple math: We need to have 88,000 square feet of space to operate the Circuit Court, General District Court, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, all of which currently operate in the 47,000 square feet of the existing courthouse. The study fails to acknowledge three critical points:

First, those three courts existing under one roof is a relatively recent development. When I began my practice, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court was located on the corner of Main Street and Russell Road, and the Commonwealth’s Attorney operated out of the Sheriff’s Office at the foot of courthouse hill.

Second, the study does not take into account the reality that Virginia, like other states and the federal courts, will within the near future require all electronic filing, creating more space as the need for paper files disappears.

Finally, the study does not take into consideration the growing popularity of alternative dispute resolution, which the court system now encourages. Parties often settle litigation using this process, reducing the need for a courtroom.

If we want a modern courthouse for Abingdon, we can and should be building it for a modern court system. We need to make the Washington County, Virginia, courthouse more accessible, comfortable, and safe, but we can do so while keeping our historic building open as an actual, working courthouse at the center of Abingdon.

The four open forums held in the last week have identified a number of options that the board should consider. One is moving some operations currently housed in the courthouse to different locations. Another is adding parking capacity by using the lots behind the building at 190 East Main. A third is closing Court Street from East Main to Valley Street for use as parking and making the Court Street entrance the main entrance, improving accessibility. These and others all deserve study before we decide to close the courthouse.

It has been said that the majestic columns of our nation’s courthouses represent truth and justice. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer once said that “the story a building tells through its design may be as important to the community it serves as is its function.” The Washington County Courthouse stands as a pillar of strength and foundation of our community. I urge our leaders to slow down, consider this decision carefully and ultimately find a way to keep the courthouse where it is.

by John M. Lamie, managing attorney for Browning, Lamie, and Gifford P.C