Attorneys, judges discuss Lauderdale County Courthouse security issues

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

The Lauderdale County Bar Association of judges and attorneys meets in the Lauderdale County Courthouse to discuss the aging structure's future.

While Chancery Court ruled on an adoption not long ago, the child's grandparents waited in the second-floor lobby of the Lauderdale County Courthouse, hoping to learn that their grandchild would return home with them.

Just across the hall, in the Circuit Court, another judge deliberated on a violent offense with the trial's witness, all affiliated with gangs, waiting in the same courthouse lobby.

"In this lobby, you've got participants of violent crime and grandparents sitting with their grandchildren just across the hallway," Chancery Court Judge Larry Primeaux said, sharing the story with the Lauderdale County Bar Association in the courthouse Friday. "It shouldn't be that way. It's a security issue. People should feel that, when they come to the courthouse, they're safe."

Security issues with the Lauderdale County Courthouse took center stage as the Lauderdale County Bar Association met to discuss the aging courthouse. Built in 1903, the courthouse served a much smaller population in its early years and doubled as the local jail, with inmates housed on the uppermost floors.

"I too have had security issues," County Judge Veldore Young-Graham said, describing a man who was verbally aggressive to his wife in her courtroom. "I finally called the deputies to arrest him, they patted him down and he had a gun with two bullets in it."

Young-Graham said, preferably, courthouse employees would be leaving the building soon, echoing the concerns of current and former judges in Meridian.

"It wasn't designed for such things as air conditioning, telephone or security concerns... I was doing some research, and in the 1930s there was a year when only 38 people were indicted," Larry Roberts, a retired Appeals Court Judge from Meridian, said, noting that many were indicted for possession of whiskey. "As a judge, I've been in courthouses across the state. Some are nicer than others but the real problem is when a public building serves the public for decades. Times change."

Kassie Coleman, the 10th Circuit district attorney, said the courthouse sees more than 1,000 indictments annually today.

Known problem

Since 2015, the bar association has highlighted the building's security problems, crumbling walls and cramped spaces, "to bring the issues to light," according to Will Parker, a local attorney. 

"To make the public aware of what's going on and the problems we have here," Parker said. "It's no secret that it's a very old building."

Attorneys, judges discuss Lauderdale County Courthouse security issues

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

George Culpepper, left, meets with Justice Kenny Griffis, a Meridian native on the state's Supreme Court. Griffis briefly toured the courthouse Friday, including the Chancery Court's vault, whose green shutters tested positive for lead-based paint in a courthouse assessment.

Unlike Justice Kenny Griffis' home courtroom in Jackson, where he sits on the state's Supreme Court, the courthouse has no secure parking lot, secondary entrance or witness rooms. If a Chancery Judge takes away someone's home or a Circuit Court Judge hands down a life sentence, there's no protection for judges from angry defendants.

"Courthouses are really the center of government... (but) the courthouses of today are different from courthouses 20 years ago," Griffis said, describing the lengthy process of building a new federal courthouse in Jackson. "Regardless of what you do, it's going to be expensive. Is it more expensive to do nothing? I don't know the answer to that."

Earlier this month, supervisors announced a plan to purchase the old Village Fair Mall property, something that judges discussed on Friday.

"If they do that, it would be nice if they could keep us all together," Chancery Judge Charlie Smith said. "I think we need to keep in touch."

Smith said that he knew supervisors had concerns about the effect of relocating the courthouse from downtown but said he couldn't predict what that might be.

"We'd like to move one time and all be together," Circuit Clerk Donna Jill Johnson agreed. When asked, a majority of the room raised their hands in agreement. 

Doris Spidle, the tax collector, said she'd like to see the building re-purposed.

Attorneys, judges discuss Lauderdale County Courthouse security issues

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Justice Kenny Griffis, a Meridian native on the state's Supreme Court, talks about the importance of a courthouse to a community and the role it plays.

"For me, if we could all be under one roof it would be awesome," Spidle said. "I do think that this could be used as part of something else. It's a part of history."

All together

Having everyone centrally located would make security, handled by the sheriff's department, more efficient, Young-Graham said. 

"It's important that the sheriff's department knows if they have the manpower to secure one location," Young-Graham said. "Rather than trying to go all over the city... but each of us need security while we're in court. That's just the world we live in."

Lisa Howell, another county judge, said other counties had regretted not keeping their judges and attorneys in the loop during the construction process.

"They all said that when they made mistakes, it was because they didn't talk to those in the courtroom," Howell said. "And that fixing them cost twice as much as it would have if they'd fixed it in the planning stages."

Members of the bar association seemed to agree that the current courthouse couldn't fit the needs of Lauderdale County's justice system.

"But you can never fix the security problem that this courthouse has," Primeaux said. "Maybe it'll take a cold-blooded shooting before something gets done. I hope not."

The potential for security risks worried Roberts as well, who served on Lauderdale County's bench before being appointed to the Appellate Court.

Attorneys, judges discuss Lauderdale County Courthouse security issues

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Retired judge Larry Roberts tells local attorneys that the needs of the courthouse has changed but the 113-year-old building can't keep up.

"The thing that really concerns me... (is that) I hope it doesn't take some calamity to occur to take action on the courthouse," Roberts said.

Though none of the supervisors tasked with deciding the courthouse's future attended, attorneys said they didn't blame supervisors for its state.

"I do want to give (the Board of Supervisors) credit. They have spent a lot of time on this issue," Parker said. "And there's not an excess of money in Lauderdale County."

Next move

During Friday's meeting, Jonathan Wells, the board president, said he was finalizing paperwork on the purchase of the Village Fair Mall. 

"I don't see why they wouldn't be a part of that planning process. I am interested in them being a part of that," Wells said. "I believe our supervisors are leaning toward (the site). It would be a one-time move (and) in meeting with the courthouse committee that was something they said, 'Tell us you're working on something but we only want to move one time.' "

Wells said it would take time to demolish the building and building something new but could potentially save the county money.

"I do think our government is looking at moving to the Village Fair Mall," Wells said. 

Griffis said he wanted Lauderdale County's courthouse to be something that he and other Meridian natives could be proud of and highlight in their community.

"A courthouse is supposed to be an important place. Big things happen here: we take away people's liberty and rights, we get married and pay our taxes," Griffis said. "I think the board of supervisors does have plans (and) wants to do what's best... I hope the next step is a public hearing or a work session for the supervisors."

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